Nebraska cities brace for big crowds ahead of total solar eclipse

BEATRICE, Neb. — With no rooms at hotels, a few pilots plan to sleep under the wings of their airplanes at the airport.

Restaurants typically closed Sundays will open to feed the masses.

And merchants are seeing brisk sales of special cardboard glasses with protective lenses used for viewing the sun as the moon passes between it and Earth.

It’s five months until a total solar eclipse crosses the state on Aug. 21, but buzz is building in Beatrice and many of the more than 200 other Nebraska communities from Alliance to Falls City that lie in the path of the shadow.

“The word is out,” said Lisa Wiegand, Gage County tourism director. “Enthusiasm is growing.”

Nebraska is touted as one the top viewing locations in the United States for the eclipse. Untold tens of thousands of visitors are expected to spread across the state to experience the rare celestial event. Nebraska Tourism Commission officials expect 4,000 to 10,000 people at key viewing locations across the state.

A 74 percent probability of favorable viewing conditions, combined with big, open skies and Western culture and hospitality make Nebraska attractive to eclipse chasers, tourism officials say.

Highways that fall almost perfectly under the path of the moon shadow, silently crossing the state at supersonic speed, will permit people to hustle somewhere with a clear sky if clouds threaten to block their view of the first total solar eclipse to sweep across the nation in 99 years. Interstate 80 from mile marker 152 between Paxton and Sutherland will be the path of totality all the way to Lincoln, a distance of 251 miles.

Beatrice and nearby Homestead National Monument of America are touting one of the state’s longest times of totality: 2 minutes and 35 seconds. Forty-four miles north, in Lincoln, totality will be 1 minute, 24 seconds.

Beatrice is bracing for a big crush of visitors to southeast Nebraska, said Lora Young, executive director of the Beatrice Chamber of Commerce and Tourism. The city is 96 miles southwest of Omaha.

“I’m afraid to put out a number because it could scare people off,” she said. “I’ve heard that a lot of people from Omaha will drive in for the day. Tour buses are coming from Iowa. I know of people coming from Scotland. We had people from Kansas come up to buy eclipse glasses for guests they have coming from Japan. Our hotels are 100 percent sold out for Sunday night,” the eclipse eve.

Demand for hotel rooms, bed and breakfasts, and recreational vehicle and tent sites during the eclipse weekend is high in communities in and near the zone of totality, tourism officials say. The eclipse will cross Nebraska at midday on a Monday. The timing creates the potential for a three-day weekend of travel, eclipse workshops and seminars, and community celebrations. Universities from across the nation are sending scientists to set up observation stations. Amateur astronomers are planning star parties.

Veteran eclipse chasers have told planners in Alliance — a city of 8,500 in the Nebraska Panhandle — to expect 10,000 visitors for its 2 minutes and 28 seconds of totality, said Kevin Howard, director of the Alliance Visitors Bureau.

“No community along the path really knows how many people will show up for the party, but we’re inviting them all,” Howard said. “It’ll be somewhere between zero and 20,000.”

Alliance hotels and RV parks have been booked since August. Plans are in the works to add 800 to 1,000 primitive camping sites. More portable toilets are on order. Restaurants and grocery stores are making plans to stock up. Banks plan to have extra cash on hand. Law enforcement agencies are coordinating how to handle the flow of traffic.

“We want to make sure everyone has a good time while they’re here,” Howard said. “It’s important to show them Nebraska hospitality and our ‘Good Life.’ ”

In nearby Scottsbluff, which will experience 1 minute and 42 seconds of totality, the 81-room Hampton Inn & Suites is about 90 percent booked at a premium rate of roughly $300 a night, said Clarence Gealy, managing member.

“Some of the first people to book were from Europe,” he said. “We’ve talked about having a steak fry or something like that for our eclipse guests to help make it an enjoyable adventure for them.”

North Platte in west-central Nebraska is billing itself as a base camp — meaning it has a lot of hotel rooms — for prime eclipse viewing because of its proximity to two Sand Hills communities, Stapleton and Tryon, where the umbral shadow will make almost a direct hit.

Stapleton will experience 2 minutes and 34 seconds of totality. North Platte will be in the dark for a minute and 40 seconds. Stapleton’s Eclipse on the Range party planners note that the central line of totality will cross directly over the No. 4 tee box at the nine-hole Augusta Winds Golf Course south of town, where a viewing party is planned. (Parking, viewing glasses and a water bottle are $39.95 until May 1, then $49.95. A similar event at the Logan County Fairgrounds, including an After the Eclipse bash, is $10; kids 5 and younger, free.)

The GreatAmericanEclipse.com website listed the Sand Hills No. 4 in its list of top 10 locations in America to experience the eclipse.

Alliance, Beatrice, North Platte and Scottsbluff are among 10 Nebraska communities that formed the Nebraska Eclipse Coalition to promote the state as a top travel destination for the event. Others are Gering, Kearney, Hastings, Grand Island, Lincoln and Omaha. Nine of the 10 will have some of the longest views of the eclipse.

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