Solar Viewing Draws Record Crowd
By Dr. Phil Stokes, Executive Director
It’s official: Penn Dixie’s eclipse viewing event on Monday August 21, 2017 was our most attended program of all time! Our dedicated crew of 26 volunteers and 15 employees welcomed 2,207 guests for an afternoon of educational fun. Our next biggest event — the Transit of Venus in 2012 — drew 631 visitors. The event went on without a major hitch, though we do apologize for the neighborhood traffic delays — another Penn Dixie first!! Here’s how it all unfolded.
Mid 2016, Mark Percy from the Williamsville North Planetarium and Kevin Williams from the Whitworth Ferguson Planetarium contacted us about the possibility of collaborating on a viewing event for the 2017 eclipse. I thought that they were especially excited as astronomers tend to get about these things but went along with the idea. They contacted Brian Enright, formerly of the Buffalo Museum of Science and he — along with Dan Marcus from the Buffalo Astronomical Association — met with us to plan.
We decided to split the work of creating print and web materials for the public, seeking sponsors for eclipse glasses, and collecting educational materials for our respective organizations. Subsequently, Anne Conable from the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library joined our group to coordinate an additional event on August 19. We exchanged countless emails and met several times at the different viewing locations to solidify our plans and train our staff and volunteers. I thank our team for their effort — what a payoff!
Each organization tried to gauge the respective demand for solar viewing glasses based on our relative sizes. We were all wayyy off. Kevin Williams was able to secure a consortium sponsor — Buffalo State College — for the entire group. We initially asked for 500 sets. Thanks to a grant from Ronald McDonald House Charities of Buffalo, Penn Dixie purchased an additional 1,000 sets of glasses through the NASA Museum Alliance. The glasses sat in our office, nearly forgotten, for a very long time.
I’ll admit that I had my reservations. Even though we had a great bulk deal through a NASA supplier, I was concerned that we would have too many glasses and the glasses would sit, boxed and unused, in our office for years. About two weeks before the eclipse — and assuming that we had plenty to spare — we split our supply in two. We kept some for the viewing and began handing out the rest out to our visitors. Initially, only a handful were given away, and I decided to issue a press release about the free glasses.
That did it.
It seemed like every local media outlet picked up the story. Penn Dixie experienced a nonstop stream of visitors asking for glasses. It might have been several hundred each day. The frenzied pace of requests meant that we had to limit the requests to four per family. Most people were happy to receive something for free, but occasionally someone would ask for many more than what we could offer. The glasses are definitely shareable and most of our visitors seemed more than ready to help us spread the love.
At the office, we were inundated with phone calls for the glasses. The phone was either ringing, playing our outgoing message, or recording a message. I estimate that we received close to 10,000 calls about the glasses during the week prior to the eclipse. We couldn’t possibly respond to everyone who left a message. Once we ran out of free glasses, we changed our outgoing message and updated our website and social media to indicate this fact. But, it didn’t matter. The calls kept coming and visitors kept arriving. The national distributor was out of stock, which meant that our consortium partners would also be unable to meet the demand. With no hope for reordering, it was dire.
However, the eclipse gods were smiling. Despite the national shortage, we were able to obtain additional glasses in time for the eclipse. Kevin Williams from Buffalo State College graciously provided an additional 300 sets from his supply. That helped, but our luck continued to improve with an unexpected phone call from a man who operates in the dark — of a planetarium.
That unexpected phone call let me to a Park-N-Ride parking lot just off the Thruway on a rain soaked afternoon. Wearing a hooded rain jacket that shadowed my features, I awaited a special delivery. At last, the driver arrived and parked next to me. The deal went down. Mark Percy from Williamsville North was headed to watch the eclipse in person and gifted us the remainder of his glasses! I thanked Mark and wished him the best in his journey. The extra supply allowed us to give out a total of 2,600 glasses.
Building Up To It
The week leading up to the eclipse was a whirlwind. We — along with all of the viewing locations — were fortunate to receive lots of media attention including spots on all of the local TV stations and on the radio. The local newspapers also featured us several times. Penn Dixie was in the news every day! It was an exhausting time for us, but this was an opportunity that we couldn’t miss.
Our website, bless it’s bandwidth, did not crash during the frenzy. We had our busiest web traffic of all time on Monday along with our busiest day overall. For a (hopefully) complete listing of our appearances, please visit our media page.
The Gates Open
We started the day with a 7:30 am phone call from Ball Toilet & Septic — our portable toilet provider. “You’ve got a line of cars here outside the gate,” the delivery person said. “What do you want me to do?” Since we didn’t officially open until 9 am and no employees were on site, I told him to lock the gate and do his best to escape unharmed.
A short time later, our staff arrived to greet the guests who were in line. The guests were eager to receive solar viewing glasses, they asserted, and wanted to ensure that they could receive a set. This was surprising for us. Occasionally, we’ll have a visitor or two at the gate when staff arrive prior to opening, but never a line of cars. When we opened the gates, visitors began to quickly fill the usual parking area. Fortunately, our grounds keeping crew (i.e., me) had spent several evenings mowing a huge swath of our 54-acre park and we had roughly 7 acres available for parking — more than ample, I thought.
From about 9:30 to 10:30 we were reasonably busy. Our full staff arrived — including the parking lot team — and we checked our guests in while making final preparations for the viewing. I credit our staff for keeping our queue short and our visitors happy. By 11:00, a steady stream of arrivals heralded the events to unfold. By 12:00, over 1,000 guests had arrived and we began to form the queue for solar viewing glasses. Once we determined that some 1,500 guests had arrived, we made the decision at 12:30 to begin handing out glasses to the queue. The line moved quickly and the glasses were gone by 12:50.
Some guests opted to leave with their glasses, and this unfortunately created two-way traffic on our narrow entrance road. In addition, many visitors who had only come for the glasses immediately departed, creating a simultaneous exodus along with the steady flow of arrivals. I ended up directing traffic outside until we found the perfect board member for the job. Inside, our parking lot team expanded from three to five employees to accommodate the late rush of guests. Outside, both sides of the neighborhood streets were filled with parked cars. We thank our guests who respected the private lawns and driveways of our neighbors.
Inside, the scene reminded me of a festival. There was a sense of community and everyone seemed to be enjoying the spirit of the celestial event. We had large groups of fossil collectors, telescope gazers, and folks just relaxing and taking it all in. We had scheduled one or two small crafts activities, but the unusually large crowd made it difficult for us to find enough table space for our needs. Eventually, we decided that we couldn’t do the activities as we didn’t want to inconvenience those who were using our picnic tables. There were just so many guests! As one longtime volunteer exclaimed, “We’ve had more people today than we’ve had in some years.”
Now that I’m recovered from the eclipse, I wanted to make sure to thank those who made this possible. Without your help, we could not have succeeded in running the most successful Penn Dixie program of all time. Special thanks to:
As special thanks to our community of supporters, we’re making our 20th Annual WNY Earth Science Day FREE to the public. We’ll see you on Saturday October 7!
P.S. The next solar eclipse arrives on April 8, 2024 and the path of totality will travel over Buffalo.