SANTA CLARA -- Over the last few years, they've thrown down big bucks on their new seats, eagerly monitored every construction milestone and counted down the days to the first kickoff. And on Friday, 49ers fans finally got to see the finished Levi's Stadium for the first time.

"I feel like a kid on Christmas morning," said Saratoga resident Mark Murray, 55, as he sat in his new seats.

His friend, Brad Mandell, 57, was in awe: "It exceeded expectations. It looks fantastic."

Nearly 30,000 giddy grown men and women -- and some kids -- got their first peek at the $1.3 billion Santa Clara stadium during a six-hour open house for season-ticket holders, 2½ years after fans began buying tickets. The 49er faithful, most decked out in crimson-and-gold jerseys, chanted "Let's go Niners!" and high-fived as they walked in to their new home away from home.

They got to sit in the seats they paid $2,000 to $80,000 apiece for, roam the airy concourses (three times the width of Candlestick), scarf down beer and hot dogs, and buy licensed Levi's Stadium shirts, hats and shot glasses from the newly opened team store on site. About 1,500 employees were on hand, guiding fans to their seats, operating metal detectors and taking tickets at the entrance gates for the first time.

"This is the first time the fans really have an opportunity to understand what this structure is going to be like on game days," 49ers Chief Operating Officer Al Guido said as he walked the concourses greeting fans. "Look at the people's faces. It's a good test for the fans, and for us."


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Not everything went well. Fans described traffic as "horrible" and "awful," with officials saying it took some people an hour to get off the main Highway 101 exit to the stadium, a route that normally takes about five minutes. The 49ers, however, did not implement their full traffic plan, and the congestion was compounded by rush-hour work traffic that won't be present on Sundays.

Parking was also an issue, as the team did not have all its lots open and nearby companies that will normally supply spots had to accommodate their employees.

And the Wi-Fi and cell service, while working, were not as astounding as billed, with some fans unable to update their Twitter feeds or connect to a FaceTime chat to show off to fans on the outside.

But those who sweated out the blistering heat didn't seem to care much as they ticked off the improvements they noticed over Candlestick Park.

"The concessions are three-to-four times as nice," said Michael Higgins, 38, of Livermore, as he slid a beer into the new cup-holders in the back of the seats. "I'm going to save $100 a year in kicked-over beers," he joked.

Fans raved about the red seats over the hard, cramped orange seats at the Stick. They praised the views, as even those in higher-up areas thought the stacked-seating -- with the suites in a tower instead of separating the upper and lower decks -- provided better angles.

"It feels a lot closer to the action," said Rory Garshol, 35, of Livermore, who had a similar seat at Candlestick that felt further away.

Among the other features that got foam-finger thumbs-up: the airy open plazas that provided much-needed breeze, especially Friday when the thermometer hit 94 degrees in Santa Clara; the two HD video boards that are the fifth-biggest in the NFL; and the outer "superhighway" walkway that provided fast routes around the congested main concourses.

Fans also carefully looked for their messages inscribed in the 12,000-brick Fanwalk outside the main entrance, which cost them $195 to $545 depending on the size and placement of the brick. And if you've checked your Facebook, Twitter or Instagram accounts, you've probably seen all the photos the faithful posted -- just about everybody had their cellphone out documenting their first visits.

The event continues the 49ers' baby-steps approach to opening the new stadium, which has hosted several small events since a ribbon cutting last week. About 40,000 are expected for the first sporting event, a San Jose Earthquakes game on Aug. 2, and then the full capacity of 70,000 screaming Niner faithful will come to Santa Clara for the first preseason game on Aug. 17.

"It's starting to sink in now that you see this," Vin Birak, 30, of Daly City, said as he sat in his new seats with his family. "Now it's just game time."

Contact Mike Rosenberg at 408-920-5705. Follow him at Twitter.com/rosenbergmerc.