Paynes Prairie is usually only filled with bison, wild horses and white-tailed deer, but Saturday night, clear skies and social media brought in a record-breaking crowd, and its following traffic, to the annual stargazing event.
Stargazing at Paynes Prairie brought in 1,644 visitors, more than doubling last year’s attendance of about 700, said Emory Maxwell, a Paynes Prairie park ranger and UF English senior.
“I believe that it was due in part because of the weather,” Maxwell, 25, said. “We had better weather predicted for the night.”
Even before the sun set Saturday, Gary Cook, a UF environmental design and construction professor and Alachua Astronomy Club member, said he predicted the event would be ideal for stargazing because of its rural location, low humidity and time of year.
The moon, Comet Lovejoy, the Orion Nebula, Venus, Jupiter and the Andromeda Galaxy were all visible during the event, said Andy Howell, Alachua Astronomy Club president.
The increased attendance may also be due to the Friends of Paynes Prairie’s active social media account, Maxwell said. He said the non-profit organization has had a Facebook page for two years, but it has became more active in the past year.
“We were getting a lot of feedback that people found out of the event through social media, mostly Facebook,” he said.
Alex Camacho, an 18-year-old UF accounting freshman, said she found out about the event
through Facebook. She came with friends and said she enjoyed looking through the telescopes, drinking hot cocoa, eating s’mores and listening to music for three hours.
“We got to do all the activities they had without the hassle of lines that we saw as we were leaving,” said Camacho. “Oh yeah, I’m going to go again. Definitely.”
However, her friend Maggie Patterson, 19, said she didn’t find the event as pleasant. She arrived two and a half hours later than Camacho and was only able to stay for 30 minutes because of the crowds and cold weather.
“If you wanted to do anything, you had to wait in line for it,” the UF economics freshman said.
Maxwell said he thought the event ran smoothly, especially considering the double in attendance.
“The fact that we were able to keep hayrides going and that we did not run out of s’mores or hot chocolate — I thought it was a very good thing,” he said. “Aside from a couple of hiccups, like the wait time on Route 234, we considered the event a huge success.”
[A version of this story ran on page 1 on 1/26/2015 under the headline “Attendance doubles at Paynes Prairie stargazing"]
UF materials science associate professor Richard Hennig, 42, watches over an attendee of Stargazing at Paynes Prairie on Saturday. Hennig set his telescope to focus on the Orion Nebula, which a collection of dust and gas lit up by surrounding stars.