Amazing Graceland wows fans

The former home of the King of Rock 'n' Roll always leaves visitors All Shook Up. Graceland is still thriving more than 35 years after Elvis' passing.

Fans of Elvis Presley gather outside Graceland, which remains a popular tourist destination more than 35 years after his death. Robert Macpherson / AFP
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The former home of the King of Rock 'n' Roll always leaves visitors All Shook Up.

Graceland is still thriving more than 35 years after Elvis' passing.

When the doors of celebrity homes open to the public, profits and attention are invited in. Graceland is arguably the most successful example of a famous home turned museum in the United States.

When Graceland transformed from home to museum on June 7, 1982, Elvis' ex-wife Priscilla Presley says she was not sure how much interest the public would demonstrate. To her surprise, the museum quickly sold 3,000 tickets on the first day.

More than 30 years later, the house draws an average of 600,000 paying visitors each year, with 20 per cent of travellers coming from outside of United States, according to Elvis Presley Enterprises (EPE), the operator of the late singer's estate.

Today, Graceland ranks as the second most visited once-private home in the US, following the White House, which draws 900,000 visitors on average each year.

"Graceland is one of the more unique historic home tours in America," says Kevin Kern, a spokesman for EPE.

"Very rarely are we invited through the front door of a celebrity's home to take a tour and see how they lived, and Graceland offers that to fans of Elvis and music/pop culture enthusiasts."

Visitor attendance ranges from a few hundred people on a weekday in winter months to 2,000 to 3,500 people per day in the spring and early summer and more than 4,000 per day at the height of the travel season in July. The peak season lasts from Memorial Day through to Labour Day, with June and July marking the busiest times.

The concept behind the museum was, in large part, to help generate income. After Elvis died at Graceland on August 16, 1977, the estate he left had a cash-flow problem, costing more than $500,000 a year in maintenance and taxes. It seemed logical for Priscilla and the executors to open Graceland to the public. In 1981, Priscilla and others hired the investment counsellor Jack Soden to oversee the total operation of Graceland.

The King's Castle, as Graceland is often referred to as, quickly became a huge economic driver for Memphis, Tennessee, where it is sited. Today, the total economic benefit for the city of Memphis from Graceland visitors is estimated at least $150 million per year and "possibly much more", according to EPE.

On a local scale, EPE employs about 350 people part-time and full-time year round, with that number increasing to 450 during the busy season.

Adult ticket prices range from $33 to $70, depending on the type of tour a visitor wishes to take. Tours range from admission to the mansion only to the VIP tour, which includes all exhibit areas along with exclusive extras. Discounts are available to seniors, students and children, and group discounts for parties of 15 or more are offered.

Highlights of the Graceland visitor experience include Elvis' Lisa Marie Jet and Hound Dog II JetStar planes, which Elvis' father had sold in 1978. They were brought back to Graceland and opened for on-board tours in 1984. The Elvis Presley Automobile Museum in Graceland Plaza, which opened in 1989, is another big draw.

Graceland Plaza comprises many shops and attractions, which are owned and operated by EPE.

At first, guides led visitor tours at Graceland. However, in the early 1990s, self-guided audio tours were implemented and replaced tour guides. Audio tours are now held in nine different languages to serve international guests.

"Annual events enhance tours during certain times of the year," says Mr Kern.

"There's Elvis' birthday in January, the Elvis Week celebration in August and, during the holidays, Graceland is decorated just as Elvis had it during the Christmas season."

A key to Graceland's success is the museum's timed-entry system, in which visitors buy a ticket in advance allowing them to enter the mansion at a specific time. Each ticket is used to get on a bus across the street from Graceland, which begins the tour.

"Elvis' global appeal more than 35 years after his passing is unrivalled," says Mr Kern.

"A common question is, why do so many people still come?

"It is a difficult question to answer," he says.

"Elvis is a phenomenon who continues to attract fans and intrigue music fans and pop culture aficionados.

"A visit to Graceland is much like a pilgrimage for some, to learn more about the man behind the music and the roots of rock 'n roll in Memphis."