People flocked to Hearst Castle on Monday, but most had no idea they were making history on the launch day for completely revamped tours.
It was the first time in more than 50 years that all the tours had a major makeover at the same time, according to museum Director Hoyt Fields, and visitors seemed enthusiastic.
Fields thinks nice weather, lower gas prices and the reopening of scenic Highway 1 between Cambria and Carmel — which had been closed by landslides for three months — helped boost crowds.
Of the 2,480 possible spots for visitors on the tours, 2,161 were filled — giving the first day a 92 percent turnout.
Guides now accompany tour groups for about 45 minutes (cut back from 75), but then visitors can wander at will through the 8.5 acres of flower-and-art-laced grounds surrounding the former hilltop mansion of the late media magnate William Randolph Hearst. Buses return to the visitors center every 10 minutes through 7 p.m.
Tour-takers wear colored wristbands denoting which tour they’re taking and when. People who want additional tours can purchase tickets on the hilltop, another new feature.
Water and restrooms are available. No food is allowed, but Fields said visitors could go by bus to the visitors center, have a snack or meal and, if space is available that day, ride another bus back up to the Castle.
Chuck Walker has been a Castle guide for 11 years. “The number one request we’ve had,” he said, “is for people to be able to walk around and take pictures on their own.”
Hearst Castle fire Capt. Gary Coles agreed. “People like to roam freely,” he said. “They don’t like to be corralled. It’s human nature.”
The tour revisions were triggered by the state’s budget crisis. Fewer guides are needed for the new schedule, and those still on the schedule are working fewer hours this summer than in previous peak seasons.
According to State Parks records, it took about 42 guides per day last summer to provide tours; this year, the Castle is expected to average 28 guides per day. There were 23 on duty Monday, with 13 daytime security guards posted inside and outside the mansion.
Even so, there are to be more tours each day than on a similar summer day last year, docent June Albert said.
“We’ll have 31 of the ‘Grand Rooms’ tours today, and 18 each of the ‘Upstairs Suites’ and ‘Cottages and Kitchen’ tours,” she said. “And we have eight (disabled)-accessible tours every day, more than before.”
The Castle stands to save about $150,000 in its payroll for guides and potentially take in more money for admission, but it will have to spend about $50,000 in additional security costs, for a net savings of around $100,000 this summer, according to Castle records.
Tours were filling up fast Monday — or at least as fast as the long lines to the ticket counter would allow. Some people had heeded the sales website’s advice to arrive 20 minutes or more ahead of time but found themselves still waiting in line when their tour guide called for them board the bus.
Clerks offered replacement tickets for later in the day to those who missed their buses, but some people said they couldn’t wait that long. Those were among the few first-day glitches, according to Fields.
“We did pretty well, considering how drastic a change this is for everybody,” from ticket sellers, guides and day-security personnel to maintenance and garden staffers who were having to do their chores around the crowds, Fields said.
But some things never change. As her family from Southern California and Indonesia strolled around the iconic outdoor Neptune Pool under warm sunshine, Annie Sulistyowati of Loma Linda said, “It’s so beautiful. But I wish I could go swimming in there.”