Hearst Castle Reopens to Visitors After 2-year Closure. ‘It Feels Good to Be Back’

By Kathe Tanner
From The Sacramento Bee

Sacramento, Calif. — With bright 100th anniversary flags flying over new displays in the visitor center, Hearst Castle is now open to the public for the first time since March 16, 2020.

The sense of excitement on the May 11 reopening day was palpable.

Visitors heading for the first tour of the day cheered as they got on the bus at the visitor center and when they exited it on the hilltop. There, tour takers were greeted by more cheers from staffers eager to have the public back at the historic monument in San Simeon.

The former estate of media magnate William Randolph Hearst had been closed to visitors for more than two years due to COVID-19 precautions and a $13.7 million project to repair about half of the storm-damaged access road that connects the visitor center to the hilltop.

“Hearst Castle is a state treasure, and we are thrilled to reopen this wonder to the public to enjoy in a safe and responsible manner,” California State Parks Director Armando Quintero said in March, when the San Simeon monument’s opening date was announced.

On the reopening day, visitors were finally able to take the first in a series of the long-delayed tours focusing on the wonders of the castle — including its resplendent garden, in full spring bloom, and approximately 20,000 artworks and artifacts.

Stephanie Kirkland and Shawn Crawford of Oceanside, who took their tour at 9 a.m., made a special effort to be there for the first bus on opening day.

It was Kirkland’s second visit to the castle, she said, but this time she found herself “paying more attention to the rugs and tapestries,” because of Crawford’s interest in them.

But she and Crawford said the highlight of the tour was the warm greeting they got when they arrived at the castle.

A couple from London said they’d tailored their entire trip to make sure they could participate in Hearst Castle’s reopening.

Others on the tour hailed from the Philippines, Sweden, Brazil and Alberta, Canada, as well as Ohio, Texas, Arizona and Oregon.

Paso Robles resident Joel Pullen, the operations manager for the Photogenics firm that takes pictures of people before they board the bus and sells them, said he’s “very, very excited” about the reopening.

“It feels good to be back with the public, helping getting the guests back up to Hearst Castle,” Pullen said.

He estimated that, on their busiest days, he and his employees will take about 2,000 photos.

Also on Day 1, while visitors waited to board the 52-passenger buses that would take them from the visitor center to the hilltop for tours, they gave a lot of attention to a new three-panel display that had been created by staffers.

Individual sections of the “Unsung Heroes” display honor Hearst, castle architect and designer Julia Morgan, her staffers and the contractors and craftspeople who turned Hearst and Morgan’s artistic dreams into reality.

The “Unsung Heroes” display and a new tour celebrating Morgan were created to honor the 100th anniversary of when construction began on Hearst’s hilltop estate.

Castle staff had planned a yearlong centennial celebration. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, the state shuttered the castle and festivities had to be postponed.

Cara O’Brien, the castle’s museum director, said many aspects of the 100th anniversary celebration were delayed rather than canceled — including the launch of the Morgan tour, the display and the celebratory flags and banners at the visitor center.

Quintero, California State Sen. John Laird and San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Bruce Gibson were among those who got an early look at the new Julia Morgan tour, which focuses on the career achievements and challenging life of the trendsetting architect and designer.

Kara Woodruff, Laird’s senior policy adviser, said via email that the tour “was such fun and quite fascinating.”

“I have a new appreciation for how hard she worked over her lifetime to become an icon for California architecture,” she wrote. “It required great patience and perseverance, and being able to diplomatically manage her relationship with William Randolph Hearst, among others. It’s about time she gets some recognition and credit for that!”

Guides leading castle tours include graduates of training classes held during the pandemic.

“We have guides who’ve never seen the public on the hilltop, and who’ve never yet given tours to those visitors,” Dan Falat, supervisor of the State Parks district that oversees Hearst Castle, said the week before the opening.

Falat said that early on opening day about half the available 2,200 tickets were sold, and others likely would be purchased before the end of the day. That‘s about normal for a non-holiday week, he added.

Guests who’ve taken castle tours before will notice some differences from those offered prepandemic.

Tours will be “bus-to-bus” with a controlled start and finish, meaning that visitors won’t be given time to wander the grounds on their own after each daytime tour. But Falat said recently that the free-roaming walkabouts are expected to return as soon as the state allows.

Admission prices have also changed, increasing from $25 to $30 per person for the three main tours, but officials are quick to point out that there’s been no actual price increase.

The total ticket cost for all daytime tours and the more expensive night tours now includes reservation and other fees that had been add-ons before the castle stopped selling tickets, Falat said.

Tickets for special semi-private tour — which include semi-private Julia Morgan, Art of San Simeon and Hearst & Hollywood tours —cost the same as before, but those prices also incorporate the fees.

Castle officials warn that they expect that some tours will fill up quickly, especially on weekends, holidays and throughout what’s expected to be a busy summer, so planning ahead is advisable.

If you go

For Hearst Castle ticket reservations, call 800-444-4445 or go to www.reservecalifornia.com. Reservations can be made up to 56 days in advance.

COVID-19 precautions are being observed, according to the state guidelines in effect at the time. To be sure what the latest protocol is for your visit, check the website right before it or on that date.

For details about the castle and its history, go to www.hearstcastle.com or search for Hearst Castle on YouTube and Facebook.

©2022 The Sacramento Bee. Visit sacbee.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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