A large crowd gathered for the holiday and ribbon-cutting ceremony at Liberty Island with federal officials and New York's mayor. Lines stretched blocks long for the boat, which left from Battery Park in Manhattan.
Rodney and Judy Long, of Charlotte, N.C., were the first people in line for the boat called Lady Liberty. They couldn't get tickets to climb to the top of the statue, but they were just glad to be there for the big reopening, they said.
"It's perfect timing for it to reopen. It's really a symbol for what the country is all about," Rodney Long said.
Heather and Chris Leykam traveled to Liberty Island from Brooklyn with their three kids: Avril, 7, Delilah, whose 6th birthday is Thursday, and Finn, 1. The family thought it would be fitting to celebrate Delilah's birthday at the Statue of Liberty.
"This to us, Liberty Island, is really about a rebirth," said Heather Leykam, whose mother's home in Breezy Point was destroyed during Sandy. "It is a sense of renewal for the city and the country."
Some repairs to brick walkways and docks are ongoing but much of work has been completed since Sandy swamped most of the 12 acres of the national landmark.
The statue was spared in the fall storm, but Lady Liberty's island took a serious beating. Railings broke, docks and paving stones were torn up and buildings were flooded. The storm destroyed electrical systems, sewage pumps and boilers. Hundreds of National Park Service workers from as far away as California and Alaska spent weeks cleaning mud and debris.
The tiny island was decorated with star-spangled bunting Thursday, but some parts remain blocked off, and the main ferry dock was boarded up.
Parks workers greeted visitors with: "We are so glad to see you!"
The visitors said they were impressed.
"It's stunning, it's beautiful," said Elizabeth Bertero, of California's Sonoma County. "They did a great job rebuilding. You don't really notice that anything happened."
Visitors went through security on lower Manhattan after city officials criticized an earlier plan to screen them at neighboring Ellis Island, which endured far worse damage to its infrastructure and won't be open to the public anytime soon. The damage to both islands was $59 million.
In Arizona, sober tributes were planned for 19 firefighters who died this week battling a blaze near Yarnell. Boston prepared to host its first large gathering since the marathon bombing that killed three and injured hundreds, and Philadelphia, Washington and New Orleans planned large holiday concerts.
In Washington, thousands of Americans plan to gather on the National Mall to watch a 17-minute fireworks display and listen to performances by Barry Manilow, Neil Diamond and John Williams conducting music from the movie "Lincoln." New Orleans was hosting the Essence Music Festival stringing stages along the French Quarter. And Philadelphia was hosting what was billed as the "largest free concert in America," with John Mayer, Neo and Hunter Hayes, who was filling in last-minute for a sick Demi Lovato.
Not everyone was welcoming the masses — Hermosa Beach, Calif., was ramping up police patrols and making room in jails for revelers who in recent years have made the city an annual destination for celebrating independence with drunkenness and raucous behavior.
Associated Press writer Christopher Weber in Hermosa Beach, Calif., contributed to this report.