ST. PETERSBURG — David and Jytte Nielsen thought they were safe by showing up to the Dalí Museum early on Saturday.
But by the time the couple arrived at 9:30 a.m., they discovered plenty of other people had the same idea.
Several hundred already were in a line that stretched from the entrance to the Mahaffey Theater — and the Dalí wasn't going to open for another 30 minutes.
The Nielsens were crushed. Retired and on a fixed income, they knew Arts Alive 2011 Free Museum Day, held Saturday in St. Petersburg, might be their only chance to get inside the new museum, which normally has a $21 admission.
The Nielsens knew they weren't up for an for hours-long wait in the heat though.
She is 83. He is 95.
"The line was too long," Jytte Nielsen said. "We were going to leave."
Before they could go, a museum staff member intervened. David Nielsen and his wife of 62 years were ushered inside.
For several minutes, the couple had the place to themselves.
"I love this view," Jytte Nielsen said, looking at the city's waterfront through the massive glass Enigma, which wraps around the building. "It's amazing."
Later, they slowly navigated their way through the galleries.
"I don't get a lot of it, but I like it, and I appreciate it," said David Nielsen.
The new Dalí museum seemed to be the biggest draw for this year's event, with more than 3,500 people visiting.
More than 1,500 people visited the Florida Holocaust Museum. That was a few hundred less than last year's Free Museum Day, said officials, who speculated that afternoon rain showers may have had something to do with that.
By 3 p.m., nearly 4,800 people had passed through the Museum of Fine Arts, said director Kent Lydecker.
"It's been an amazing day," he said. "Our hope is that they'll come back and become members."
The big museums weren't the only ones that got exposure, though.
A steady stream of people stopped by the Dr. Carter G. Woodson Museum, the city's African-American history museum.
Melrose Elementary School teacher David VanWanzeele and his family spent time along Central Avenue, where they visited the Morean Arts Center and Creative Clay.
VanWanzeele, who teaches third grade, said he'd like to bring his kids to the city's art scenes more often, but he hesitates because of the cost.
"I think this is great," he said. "It's nice to have all these venues available on one day."
Other museums around the area and country were free Saturday in celebration of National Museum Day.
Back at the Dalí, the Nielsens grabbed some coffee and found a spot in the busy cafe.
They sat with their backs to the glass Enigma, although they couldn't help but marvel at its design — and contrast it with the old museum, which they visited several years ago.
"It's really no comparison," David Nielsen said, his gaze sweeping the inside of the cafe.
"The old building was a good start. … Boy, this is fantastic."
Times photographer Melissa Lyttle contributed to this story. Kameel Stanley can be reached at [email protected]