It was the pterodactyls that did it for Donna Crilley Farrell.

The winged reptiles hovered above a lava pit on a satirical security map that was making the rounds in late July mocking the coming papal visit. Things had gotten out of hand.

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Daunting security and crowd controls that began in June with Mayor Nutter's warning of "be prepared to walk at least a few miles or more," false rumors of an eight-foot security fence, and SEPTA's announcement that it would sharply restrict trains to and from Center City for the weekend that 1.5 million people were expected to see Pope Francis - all were hijacking hopes for a euphoric, historic event.

Central Philadelphia residents were growing antsy. The mayor was getting hammered in the media. Merchants were starting to sweat, too. Would pilgrims sit out the festivities on top of it all?

Then the pterodactyls swooped in.

"It encapsulated everything for us - visually, that said, 'It's gotten too focused on what you can't do' - so we have to go back and pull out all the stops," said Crilley Farrell, executive director of the World Meeting of Families. "Now it's sort of like hitting the reset button."

Last week, as hoteliers grappled with large blocks of unsold rooms and transit agencies were holding thousands of surplus rail passes, organizers of the papal visit launched a rescue marketing campaign.

"I'll be there," they called it, with posters of Pope Francis, smiling like a less aggressive Uncle Sam, his inviting eyes asking people to come to his party.

Even Archbishop Charles J. Chaput chimed in with an opinion column Sunday imploring Philadelphians to attend, noting their journey would be far easier than the one Mary and Joseph made before Jesus' birth.

On Monday, the mayor led a "Francis Festival" street team distributing "OpeninPHL" kits to businesses around Center City as a string-and-brass pep-band played behind them.

The public relations blitz comes less than 30 days before the pope's Sept. 26 and 27 visit to Philadelphia. Organizers are doing everything they can to draw the crowds they had imagined would come but that may have been scared off by security, confusion, and other logistics.

"I think, if we hadn't changed the course of action, we could have had a really gloom-and-doom experience," said Jack Ferguson, president and chief executive of the Convention and Visitors Bureau.

SEPTA initially forecast great demand for Regional Rail passes, and on July 20, the agency's website crashed as the passes went on sale, indicating that the demand was enormous. SEPTA then planned to auction the passes and warned riders of a shortage.

Instead, the agency that started with 350,000 passes to sell has 200,000 left with less than a month to go.

The number of official charter buses expected to bring worshipers from parishes across the region and country also is running below expectations, although officials have been reluctant to reveal exact numbers.

One catalyst behind the marketing push came in mid-August, as word circulated among regional convention and tourism officials that only 51 percent of the rooms set aside by Center City hotels for the papal visit had been reserved.

That meant a large number would have to be put on the market in the hope they could be sold during the final month leading to the big weekend.

At the "I'll be there" campaign launch last week, Nutter issued a clarion call about hotel rooms, saying plenty were still available.

"A year ago, we probably would have thought that we'd be sold out by now," said Ed Grose, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association, who still expected an eventual sellout.

With planning shared by many cooks - City Hall, the Vatican, the Secret Service, the World Meeting of Families - confusion has been blamed for depressing demand, as have competing papal appearances planned for arenas in Washington and New York, though the largest public events are in Philadelphia.

Until just a few weeks ago, the Secret Service was keeping security details close to the vest, even as it was mapping out no-traffic downtown zones and a fenced-in festival area with metal detectors.

This left businesses, residents, and even worshipers flummoxed about how to potentially navigate a 4.7-square-mile box of the central area that would be off limits to inbound cars during the pope's public events on Independence Mall and near the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

It did not help that, given the planned closure of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, New Jersey transit officials distributed maps showing how many hours it would take pilgrims to march many miles from South Jersey into central Philadelphia. (Rail passes on PATCO are available to take riders from South Jersey to the 9th-10th and Locust station - less than a 20-minute train and one-mile walk from the festivities.)

"It was like someone saying, 'We need a gallon of milk,' " said Brian P. Tierney, whose firm, Brian Communications, is helping with public relations for the event. " 'OK, well, we're going to have to get a cow, raise it and milk it and then we can get the milk.'

'Yeah, or you can go to Wawa and pick up a jug.' "

For the hotel industry, reversing misconceptions that the event is inaccessible will be key.

"We need to get the message out there that this is going to be a phenomenal, once-in-a-generation event," Grose said. "You can move around freely. It will have the atmosphere of a block party."

Some hotels have significantly dropped prices.

At the end of July, a Center City room was going for $345 to $1,035 a night for the three-night weekend stay starting Sept. 26 through checkout on Sept. 28.

On Monday, rooms were anywhere from $405 to $599 a night at such major hotels as the Hyatt Bellevue, the DoubleTree by Hilton, and the Sofitel, according to the website www.visitphilly.com.

"The rates for a large convention in town are in some cases more expensive than the rates that you'll see for the papal visit," Grose said.

There are still about 3,200 listings on the home rental site Airbnb for the weekend. That means only about 22 percent of Airbnb units are booked, according to Beyond Pricing, which tracks Airbnb use.

Any thought that out-of-state worshipers would fly into Philadelphia in record-breaking numbers also has proved, at least till now, to be off the mark.

American Airlines' bookings for the week of the pope's visit are about the same as they were for the same week a year ago, said Victoria Lupica, a spokeswoman for the dominant carrier at Philadelphia International Airport.

"The papal visit isn't driving air traffic demand," Lupica said Monday. "That's why there was no need to add additional service."

Delta Air Lines upped its capacity, adding 900 seats to outbound flights from Philadelphia the Monday after the weekend, though tickets to the city are still available.

Hotels closest to the papal venues are under security controls that will restrict their guests' arrivals and departures. The proprietor of Center City's 48-room Alexander Inn - sold out that weekend at $139 a night - has drafted and distributed to confirmed guests a Papal Visit Declarations Acceptance form.

The letter, which must be signed by those booking a room, outlines parking and public transit restrictions, requires that an advance, nonrefundable payment be made by Sept. 11, and explains that housekeeping services may be curbed if workers cannot get to the hotel.

"We regret the need for the these special policies," owner Mel Heifetz wrote, "but with the millions of people coming into the city to see the pope, the governing authorities have made these decisions well out of our control. If the situation improves, we will update you!"

General manager John Cochie described the letter as "not typical." But neither are the logistics surrounding the event.

"With 208 hotels still having rooms available and SEPTA having thousands of tickets available," Cochie said, "my concern is, are they [officials] concerned that they won't be getting the crowds they were expecting?"

Regaining control of the marketing message could not have come at a more crucial time, said Ferguson of the Convention and Visitors Bureau.

He remained hopeful that pilgrims may yet pack Philadelphia.

"None of us could let Philadelphia not shine in its best light," Ferguson said. "We were late to the game. Would we like to have done it earlier? Yes."

This week, the World Meeting of Families plans to unveil a transportation Web page with step-by-step directions on how to get to the event from different parts of the region.

Organizers have also stressed that security magnetometers will be used only in the innermost parts of what they first called the "traffic box" - now known as the Francis Festival grounds.

The Parkway cannot hold one million people - capacity is more like 400,000 - so 40 Jumbotrons, broadcasting nearly everywhere the Pope goes, will be positioned around the city. Visitors can set up camp by many Jumbotrons for the day without having to go through security at all.

On Sunday, Chaput challenged Philadelphians to show up in his column.

"Nowhere in Scripture do we find Mary, Joseph, or Jesus worrying about security, transportation, or logistics," the letter reads. "Somehow, Mary and Joseph managed to make their way to Bethlehem and have a baby in a stable."

Fred Stein, a longtime event czar who is producing the event on Independence Mall and who produced Philadelphia's 300th birthday party in 1986, predicted crowds would be big.

"Look, the doomsday stuff, it's a lot of noise," Stein said. "This is one big celebration in a long history of large events. Everything else is pope fiction."

215-854-5506@juliaterruso