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Best of the Fireworks

Utah: The dream is over.

With swirling skaters, celebrity singers, aerial acrobats, the child of light, giant buoyant "snowballs," wise-cracking "dinosaurs" and a thundering fireworks spectacular over northeast Salt Lake City the likes of which the Beehive State has never seen before, the XIXth Winter Games concluded Sunday night in Rice-Eccles Olympic Stadium.

And the verdict?

"People of America, Utah and Salt Lake City," said Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, "you have given the world superb Games. You have reassured us that people from all countries can live peacefully together. Thank-you! Thank-you!"

"The lights!" another expert in the stadium, Charles Cousins of Denver, exclaimed after a color-coordinated pyrotechnic barrage of 10,000 shells exploded over the stadium and nearby hillsides. "I've never seen anything like this," said the 84-year-old, who has been to 10 Summer Games and a pair of Winter Games.

These, Cousins said, were the best closing ceremonies he has ever witnessed.

Yes, the fantasy has ended.

The stadium's Olympic flame, in its one-of-a-kind caldron, was extinguished during the two-hour-plus extravaganza ? to the collective, vocal regret of many of the 45,000 spectators at the University of Utah.

And in the midst of the fireworks' spark and clatter, the five huge Olympic rings on Twin Peaks went dark.

Yet, "during these Games of 2002 in Salt Lake City," Mitt Romney, president of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, told the gathered Olympians, "you have shown us what the world can be, and we love it."

The flame can be snuffed out, "but the fire you've lit in each of us will not go out," he said, making reference to the Games' theme, "Light the fire within." "We leave this place as dreamers because now we know that the dream we share can come true."

Although the Games took decades to obtain and seven years to plan, the 17-day event, staged along the Wasatch Front and Wasatch Back, seemed to come and go all too quickly for a city and a state bruised by a bid scandal and filled with trepidation about its ability to throw a party for the planet.

During the dream, all that was just about forgotten. Utahns embraced the Olympics and seemed to not want to let them go.

"Salt Lake is going to be so boring," said Desiree Dana, summing up the feelings of her college-age friends in the stadium's west grandstand.

After these closing ceremonies, anything might seem boring.

The stadium swayed all night with a mix of flash and flair and feel-good American music performed by young singers and antique bands.

Not that flamboyant costumes and outrageous makeup of KISS, the rhythm and blues of Earth, Wind & Fire and the spicy Latin pop of Gloria Estefan didn't get the crowd armed with tiny lights swaying and grooving.

When the legendary rockers KISS pounded out "Rock and Roll All Nite," Olympic champions Kristi Yamaguchi and Katarina Witt twirled on the sheet of ice on the stadium floor. Scott Hamilton made a surprise appearance as a janitor cleaning the ice.

Willie Nelson was one of the evening's surprises, stepping out to sing a peaceful "Bridge Over Troubled Water" after the traditional appeal for world peace from Olympic leaders.

"Does Willie Nelson know that he's dead?" Salt Lake resident Julie Dana wondered about the enduring singer. "He rocked for a dead man."

Also unexpected were the talking, fossilized T. Rex couple that hovered above the northeast end of the stadium making corny jokes about the Olympics.

Ultimately their voices were revealed to be coming from none other than Donny and Marie Osmond, who appeared in the stadium to lead the audience in singing "We are Family."

Scott Givens, SLOC's creative director, said the creatures were actually giant puppets operated by a person inside each head, lifted above the stadium on risers. They were designed by Michael Curry, known for his work on the Broadway version of "The Lion King," as well as the eye-catching buffalo, moose and other puppets in the opening ceremonies.

Givens said the Osmond siblings were chosen to voice the dinosaurs because they represent the state. "We're very proud. They're a part of Utah," Givens said. "Everything's a little tongue-in-cheek in closing."

At one point, dancers lavishly spread brightly colored phosphorescent goo over the ice-covered state in the stadium's center. Then Olympic athletes poured out of their seats onto the ice as hundreds white beach-ball-like "snowballs" bounced down from the top of the bleachers.

Some athletes crowded around the front of the stage on which Jon Bon Jovi, draped in an American flag, sang his group's anthemic hit, "It's My Life."

The performers weren't the night's only celebrities.

Vice President Dick Cheney was introduced, but only waved to the spectators.

And Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson made an official appearance, handing over the five-ringed Olympic flag to the Sergio Chiamparino, the mayor of the next city to host the Winter Games, Torino, Italy.

Torino got a chance to introduce itself to the world with the song "Volare" and a fashion show featuring the latest designs from the Italian runway.

Mary Mishu of Knoxville, Tenn., said the members of her family loved the show ? and their entire Olympic experience.

"It was fantastic," Mishu said of the closing ceremonies.

Her son Michael, 18, a figure skater, said he was thrilled to see some of the world's top Olympic skaters in person. "It's like being in the same party with the athletes," he said.

Romney told reporters afterward that the ceremonies were just that, "exactly what we had in mind ? a party and a celebration."

But every party must end.

Even two-week parties that seem like a dream, which drew to a close with everyone singing "Happy Trails."

"Olympians, volunteers, spectators," Romney had during his moment in the stadium's spotlight. "Thank-you for 17 days we will never forget."

Contributing: Brady Snyder

E-MAIL: lisa@desnews.com ; romboy@desnews.com