Winchester Mystery House General Manager Walter Magnuson has regularly strolled the grounds of the iconic San Jose landmark since mid-May, when the estate’s Victorian gardens reopened for public viewing.
“The response was very positive, but the No. 1 question I received from visitors is when would they be able to see the house again,” Magnuson said.
The time came, albeit for just one day.
After months of working with local officials, the mansion reopened for self-guided mansion tours on July 13. However, the tours had to be suspended the next day in accordance with the new state health guidelines.
In its place, the Winchester Mystery House is launching a new outdoor evening experience, Walk With Spirits Tour, running from 8 to 11pm Wednesday through Sunday. The new tour allows guests to roam the expansive abode while hearing tales of its former inhabitants and exploring the estate’s supernatural lore.
Days before the initial reopening for self-guided tours, Magnuson said he was thrumming with anticipation. “Oh my gosh, we could not be more excited to welcome back guests inside this incredible mansion,” he said. “I think the Winchester Mystery House in some ways is a time machine, and I think nostalgia can be a great salve in times like now. We have high hopes and I’m so unbelievably excited.”
The buzz of excitement lasted all of a day before operations were shut down again in what could’ve been a demoralizing blow.
However, credit the Winchester mansion for adjusting yet again and coming up with a different experience for patrons to enjoy.
“Once we received word that we would need to temporarily pause our indoor mansion tours, we quickly pivoted to design a new experience for our guests that shares some of the most famous and infamous stories surrounding the mysterious estate,” Magnuson said in a recent statement to reporters.
The travel and tourism sector has been one of the hardest hit industries of the coronavirus pandemic, and Magnuson described the last four months as an “absolutely challenging and unprecedented time for us as a historical cultural attraction.”
Since tours began in 1923, over 13 million people from around the world have walked the rooms of the historic 160-room Winchester Mystery House.
When the California Historic State Landmark reopened, it was quite a different experience from how things were done before the pandemic hit.
Traditionally, a guide led a tour group of up to 25 people through the mansion.
Now, to ensure it has adequate social distancing and all of the safety and health protocols in place to be in compliance with all current county and state guidelines, tour groups have been reduced and restricted to those in a visitor’s immediate household.
“This is the best way to do it,” Magnuson said in a recent interview with San Jose Inside. “We’ll have far fewer people [outside] at one time, and it’ll feel like a VIP experience. I really hope that experience resonates with the guests.”
Indeed, the greatest challenge the management and staff of the Mystery House faced was in regards to making guests feel like they’ve taken a step back in time to another era even though face masks, sanitizers and signs are a new part of the reality.
“So there is stuff that takes you out of the experience, so our challenge was how do we tell this story and give the guest the emotional experience we hope they have and will tell their friends while ensuring their safety and our employees’ safety,” Magnuson said.
Magnuson was effusive in his praise for the Santa Clara County public health czar, Dr. Sara Cody, whom he described as “so innovative in her approach in understanding the pandemic not going away anytime soon.”
“But shelter in place for months or years is not sustainable for human beings and a variety of activities—if done with certain modifications—are low risk,” he adds. “Thankfully, museums and historic homes that can control capacity and meet all the safety and health criteria will be able to continue to tell their stories.”
Note: Guests interested in exploring the Winchester Mystery House from home can take the Immersive 360 Tour ($8.99) or the Video Tour ($13.99 to purchase, $5.99 to rent) available online at winchestermysteryhouse.com/video-tour. Tickets for the Walk With Spirits Tour are also available online, priced from $14.99 to $24.99.