On a June day 53 years ago, cars backed up along Highway 1, waiting for Hearst Castle’s gates to open to the public for the first time. Since then, some 40 million visitors have marveled at the location, the construction, the collections, the history and the stories.
As the years progressed, more areas of the hilltop estate were included in tours, including seasonal evening tours during which volunteer docents attired in ’30s fashion bring the estate to life. Four separate daytime tours were offered that included the three guest houses, La Casa Grande, the gardens and the pools.
Guides were trained to conduct tours in an interactive and informative manner, sharing their knowledge of such things as Flemish tapestries, Persian carpets, Neo-Classical statuary, construction and craftsmanship, as well as plant varieties in the gardens.
Many visitors have returned numerous times, often commenting on the quality of the tour experience. Travel reviews have frequently echoed these sentiments.
It has always been necessary to employ a significant number of guides to provide enough tours to meet the demand, which continues to be as many as 4,500 visitors per day.
A dozen years ago, 120 guides conducted tours for 750,000 annual visitors; today fewer than 60 guides are available to provide tours for nearly as many visitors from around the world.
California’s budget difficulties in recent years have resulted in furloughs, pay reductions and hiring freezes, contributing to attrition in the guide staff.
Most guides work fewer than 1,500 hours per year, and tours are given at all seasons and in all kinds of weather. The job requires guides to be available at the busiest times, including holidays, weekends and during the summer.
State benefits are included, but the pay is less than impressive. The commute to the hilltop is 100 miles or more for many. Despite all this, many guides have loved the place well enough to conduct tours for decades.
With an extended freeze in place that prohibits the hiring and training of new guides, the decision was made this spring to change the way tours are presented to accommodate the anticipated number of visitors, which has risen somewhat over the past year, with the available number of guides.
Guided tours used to be 75 minutes long and traditionally began when the bus arrived and ended with a wave goodbye at the end. They have been replaced with 40-minute tours covering only indoor areas. The new approach is to release all visitors at the end of a tour into the outdoor areas, where they can walk the garden paths and around the pools at their leisure. The four tours previously offered have been reduced to three, with some areas now closed to public view.
It has been emphasized repeatedly in recent years that cutting costs is of paramount importance. The irony is that the castle has traditionally paid its own way, with most day-to-day costs covered by revenues from ticket sales, visitor center income and so forth.
Additional funding is provided by Friends of Hearst Castle, a nonprofit group that has helped fund many projects on the hilltop, including the recent restoration of the 15th century Spanish ceiling in the Billiards Room.
It has been reported that the anticipated savings, based on fewer guide salaries, is $100,000 for the year. As a portion of a multimillion-dollar annual budget, this seems like very little savings, yet results in major changes to the tours.
The Fourth of July weekend was the first real test of the new arrangement, with some 12,000 visitors over the three days. From the first tours released into the gardens at 10 a.m. through closing at 6 p.m., hundreds of people could be seen in every direction around the hilltop, some seeking shade from 90-degree heat. Most enjoyed the experience, with strategically placed guides answering questions and other employees providing assistance and security. Most guests are considerate and heed the repeated cautions not to walk off the paths or touch anything. Some, however, are either careless or heedless, and more plants and statues in the outdoor collections are being touched than ever before. The oil from human hands accumulates over time and degrades things, and is particularly destructive to White Carrara Marble.
What has been replaced is what made Hearst Castle so unique for so long, the tranquil ambience. After a five-mile trip from the bustling visitor center to the hilltop, guide-interpreted tours always allowed for the sound of singing birds and garden views uncluttered by other visitors.
What one encounters today is an ambience similar to most other venues with large numbers of visitors, with bottled water and tickets to additional tours available on the hilltop esplanade. What has been lost is the relative tranquility so long enjoyed on William Randolph Hearst’s “enchanted hill,” La Cuesta Encantada.
Jeffrey Schultz has been an interpretive guide at Hearst Castle since 1998. He teaches communication studies at Cal Poly.