Galveston tour guide is so popular, he made the ‘Texas Bucket List’
Theirs is a true Galveston love story. She is a Spanish revival beauty known as the “Queen of the Gulf” and he is a dapper tour guide who has been one of her biggest fans and loyal stewards for more than 26 years.
She is the luxurious 108-year-old Hotel Galvez and he is Bobby Lee Hilton, an 85-year-old Galveston local who first worked at the hotel as a teenage bus boy and later returned in the early 1990s to charm guests in a variety of roles, including waiter, head waiter and head bartender.
But it’s in his current role as guest ambassador and tour guide that he’s earning both five-star reviews and fame. This TripAdvisor review is typical: “Best surprise EVER was the tour of the historical items narrated by Mr. Bobby Lee Hilton, historian extraordinaire! With first-hand experience of the history of the hotel and Galveston over the years, this octogenarian was as delightful as they come!”
His tours have garnered local, state and national media attention. One recent accolade has him scratching his head.
“Can you believe I made the ‘Texas Bucket List’! I can’t believe people are saying they should come talk with me before they die.”
The “Texas Bucket List” is a syndicated television program and website featuring interviews, reviews and information about must-see people and places in Texas.
The accolades are no surprise to anyone who has taken one of his tours. Hilton is an entertaining and charming storyteller. From the Victorian bathing beauty pageants to the infamous days of Sam Maceo and the Balinese Room, a gambling hall that operated on a pier 600 feet into the Gulf of Mexico during the 1940s and 1950s.
Hilton helps guests understand they’re staying right where history happened.
After pointing out the original plasterwork in the Hotel Galvez Ballroom, Hilton remembers the time President Eisenhower was a guest of honor at a luncheon in the same room.
“I was still in high school, but as the coffee boy, I had to pour his cup,” Hilton said. “I was so nervous, I was shaking, but he told me I was doing OK, so I felt better.” Hilton poured the coffee without spilling a drop, he said.
It wasn’t unusual for Hilton and his Central High School classmates to work at the hotel over lunchtime and then return to class, he said.
“The school and teachers allowed us to go because they knew we needed the money,” he said.
It was also at Central High School that Hilton fell in love with his wife of 65 years, he said.
“My wife was not too impressed with me when we first met, even though I was a quarterback and captain of the football team,” Hilton said.
Undeterred, Hilton had a plan that six decades later still makes him smile.
“I worked on her mother and won her over until she agreed I could take her daughter to the movies,” he said.
The Hiltons had five children of their own and now have 17 grandchildren and one great-grandchild with another on the way.
Building on his football success at Central High School, Hilton won a full scholarship to Texas Southern University. On graduation, he served as a medic for the U.S. Army and played football for the army team. Post-army, he returned to Galveston where a job at the Falstaff Brewery led to a 30-year career in sales and management in the beer industry for companies including Schlitz and Stroh breweries
“I love being around people and talking with them,” Hilton said. “I’ve made my whole career out of talking with people.”
Hilton loves sharing his knowledge with guests, is proud none of his tours are quite the same and that he gets many repeat customers, he said.
He can’t imagine working anywhere else or retiring anytime soon, he said.
“Here at the Galvez we say the hotel has a history of hospitality and a future of distinction,” he said. “For me, she is a symbol of survival.”