Hearst Castle bus company suddenly shuts down — leaving State Parks in a scramble

Hearst Castle forced to use smaller buses after contractor shuts down

The company that runs Hearst Castle’s tour buses, Silverado Stages, shut down over the weekend, leaving California State Parks in a scramble to find a backup contractor to shuttle guests up to the hilltop estate.
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The company that runs Hearst Castle’s tour buses, Silverado Stages, shut down over the weekend, leaving California State Parks in a scramble to find a backup contractor to shuttle guests up to the hilltop estate.

The company that runs Hearst Castle’s tour buses ceased operations suddenly over the weekend, leaving State Parks in a scramble to find a backup transportation contractor to shuttle guests up to the hilltop estate. 

On Wednesday, Dan Falat, superintendent of the State Park district that includes Hearst Castle, learned from longtime bus provider Silverado Stages that “they would be closing up shop here and stopping our service at the Castle,” with the last day of service being Saturday, he told The Tribune on Monday.

That set off a series of hectic negotiations and a 24/7 behind-the-scenes frenzy by State Park staffers in San Simeon and Sacramento to fill the gap in service with as little disruption to visitors as possible.

Silverado Stages filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in Arizona on Oct. 5. The company was once headquartered in San Luis Obispo, but sometime after its merger with Arizona-based Michaelangelo Leasing Inc. in 2016, it relocated operations to Phoenix, Arizona.

“This came at a very challenging time for us,” Falat said about the busy holiday season when festive night tours and people on vacation add to the wintertime load. “Obviously at this time of year, we have a much higher reservation demand. First and foremost, we wanted to make sure we get those people (with reservations) the experience they’d planned for.”

Hearst Castle tour buses operated by Silverado Stages were sidelined suddenly due to the company’s bankruptcy. State Parks found a new contractor to fill the gap temporarily. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

For a time between Wednesday and Sunday, no more advance tickets were being sold. Due to the uncertainties, “we didn’t want to overcommit ourselves,” Falat emphasized.

Since the Silverado notification, Falat, “my staff at the district and my headquarters staff in Sacramento have literally worked around the clock, almost 24 hours a day, to develop a solution to continue providing service to Hearst Castle visitors … working diligently to match our capacities with the reservations we have.”

The tours must go on

The temporary fix solidified Friday night into Saturday morning, he said.

A last-minute, emergency contract with Laz Parking out of Southern California was the patch that kept things going on Sunday and since. Laz specializes in parking garages and arrangements, and also has a subsidiary company that deals with transportation.

But there was lots more work and juggling to be done.

Silverado buses hold 54 people each. The Laz buses hold from 20 to 37 people.

The 10 Laz buses didn’t “arrive on site from Southern California until 5 p.m. Saturday,” Falat said. “What we didn’t want to do was overbook, which could put visitors in a bad situation if we had to turn them away” because there was no transportation to get them from the Visitor Center to the hilltop former estate of William Randolph Hearst.

Hearst Castle’s Silverado Stages buses sit idle on Monday after the contractor shut down operations over the weekend. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Once the new buses arrived, Falat said, “we adjusted our tour availability so the buses are as full as we can get them,” often carrying visitors holding tickets for several different tours (such as the “Upstairs” and “Cottage and Kitchen” tours) that have a smaller maximum capacity than the larger Grand Rooms tours.

It was a juggling act for fully booked Grand Rooms tours, which were predicated on a bus capacity of 54 people.

And still the negotiations continue.

“We’ll potentially have more buses here later on this week,” Falat said, “to help meet the demand” that can peak between Christmas and New Year’s. The Castle is closed on those two holidays.

Reservations come first

First and foremost, Falat and his staff have been firmly committed to honoring preexisting reservations, which they did. Latecomers, either online or walk-ups, “went into the queue.”

As far as he knows, “we didn’t turn away anybody who came or had a reservation.” He said he feels “comfortable” with the plans for this week, “doing the best we can to meet the demands, even for our totally booked tours. We’ll figure out a way to make it work.”

He had no estimate about how many tour slots had been reduced, or by how much, or what that might mean in terms of diminished revenue. With so many other more urgent issues facing them, there simply hasn’t been time yet to assemble those kinds of statistics.

Falat explained that “for the next few days, we’ll still be adjusting the inventories” of ticket availabilities “to ensure that we provide as many visitor opportunities as we can.

“It’s been a huge struggle,” the superintendent said, “but in face of adversity, State Parks continues to be committed to our visitors and the Castle. We’ve got a good temporary solution, and we’ll continue working toward a permanent solution as soon as possible, no matter how many hours it takes. Day to day, hour by hour. We have some positive momentum going forward.”

And they’re determined to make sure it continues.

Castle tickets can be reserved online or purchased at the Visitor Center up to 60 days in advance. Get information about the tours, and click on a link to buy tickets, at http://hearstcastle.org/tour-hearst-castle/daily-tours/.

What about Silverado?

It’s unclear what will happen to the fleet of Silverado buses specially decorated for Hearst Castle.

According to its website, the transit company operates a fleet of more than 300 vehicles throughout the western United States, with terminals in San Luis Obispo, Sacramento, Santa Barbara, Torrance, San Diego, Reno, Las Vegas and Phoenix.

Bankruptcy court documents acquired by The Tribune on Tuesday show the company’s debts were in excess of $60.6 million this year — the majority were for vehicles in the Silverado fleet, including a $13.8 million lien from Volvo and $11.3 million from 1st Source Bank.

The bankruptcy proceedings are ongoing, but in the meantime, the company has ceased its operations at Hearst Castle, where it has provided busing since 2012.

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Kaytlyn Leslie writes about business and development for The Tribune. Hailing from Nipomo, she also covers city governments and happenings in the South County region, including Arroyo Grande, Pismo Beach and Grover Beach. She joined The Tribune in 2013 after graduating from Cal Poly with her journalism degree.