When you have a nine-year-old living in your house who has read entire books on The Rock and can tell you all the details of the 1962 escape, you know that no trip to San Francisco will be complete until you have made a pilgrimage to Alcatraz Island.
I was essentially just along as a chaperone, having no real interest in crime, convicts, prison escapes or the morbid details of the suffering that goes on in maximum security prisons. Learning the history of Alcatraz from the passionate employees and volunteers of the National Park Service (NPS) exceeded my expectations, however. I can now wholeheartedly recommend that you if you get an opportunity to make the cross-bay trek to Alcatraz, you take it!
Taking the Ferry to Alcatraz Island
The mood is jovial as you stand in the well-organized line on Pier 33 for Alcatraz Cruises, the private contractor that ferries passengers to the NPS site. People wait as patiently in line as they would for a Disney ride, and an Alcatraz employee snaps a photo in front of a backdrop that they will try to sell you after the tour for twenty bucks.
It’s only later, as the boat rolls gently through choppy waves and the island gradually appears through the morning mist, that you might start to imagine the spooky soundtrack to a prison movie.
As we approach the island, we first spy an enormous yellow sign declaring: PERSONS PROCURING OR CONCEALING ESCAPE BY PRISONERS ARE SUBJECT TO PROSECUTION AND IMPRISONMENT.
It’s hard to ignore the jitters now.
Once we disembark, we gather as a crowd on the dock under the main signage. Here the history of Alcatraz starts to reveal itself. Above the UNITED STATES PENITENTIARY sign is spray painted the words, “INDIANS WELCOME,” from the Indian Occupation, which began in 1969. Below the sign is the plaque of the National Park Service.
Exploring Alcatraz Island
A rotund, uniformed gentleman with a handlebar mustache stands under the NPS plaque and booms out, “Welcome to Alcatraz!”
He is passionate about the history of the island, describing how as a child in San Francisco his Italian-American mother used to threaten him at the dinner table with references to the penitentiary. As the crowd jostles, he describes our options for exploring Alcatraz Island. My son wanders over to a nearby stand where you can pick up a pretty map of the island in various languages for $1.
Although some visitors head directly up the switchback hill to the prison, where you can follow along with the award-winning Cellhouse Audio Tour, the rest of us wander around. My son wants to watch the orientation film showing in the nearby theater, adjacent to the ranger station. This winds up being one of my favorite parts of the visit. It’s a beautiful short documentary that outlines the history of Alcatraz, beginning with its time as a military reservation during the Civil War and including the famous federal penitentiary period (with its most famous convict, Al Capone) and the Indian Occupation.
After the film, we slowly walk up the steep hill towards the foreboding prison. The National Park Service has preserved both the history and ecosystem of Alcatraz Island well, and it’s now a haven for birds and flowers. Volunteer gardeners lovingly tend the gardens, and the stark contrast between the spectacular spring flowers and the crumbling buildings with their dark history is jarring.
We pass by the water tower, which still declares in spray paint “PEACE AND FREEDOM WELCOME, HOME OF THE FREE INDIAN,” a reminder that Native American activists occupied the island for 19 months, from 1969 to 1971. The Occupation gave birth to a political movement that included the return of some tribal lands and important changes in the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Around the final bend in the road, there it is: the Federal Penitentiary. You can wait in line for the famed audio tour, which is 45 minutes long, or you can forego the tour (and the line) and explore the prison on your own. We elected to forego the audio tour. I would have liked to hear it,but my son — who had done a lot of prior research about the prison — did not. I suspect there may have been a fear factor at play. He specifically told me, “I will NOT go into D-Block!” but wouldn’t tell me why. (He did eventually enter D-Block with me, although he refused to go in to the open cells.)
The prison is quiet. Although there are crowds here, most people are listening to the tour, which means it is a spookily silent place, with pictures of the most famous convicts’ mugshots peering at you here and there. Some cells have historical items in them, giving you an idea of what a convict may have had in his cell — a paint set, for example. One cell has an eternally blinking light over a large portrait of a prison guard, who was trapped in that cell during an escape attempt.
Alcatraz Rules and Regulations
We exit, of course, through the gift shop. And if there was ever a gift shop where I wanted to buy ALL the things, it is this one.
I purchased a book of Alcatraz regulations…because they are eerily similar to the rules of my house:
Regulation 5: You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter, and medical attention. Everything else is a privilege.
Regulation 18: Threatening, ridiculing, or attempting to intimidate or assault officers, officials, employees, or visitors is a very serious offense.
Regulation 21: You are required to work at whatever you are told to do.
Regulation 29: You are expected to bathe in a reasonable length of time.
Regulation 33: Boisterous conduct will not be tolerated in the dining room.
SEE WHAT I MEAN?!
Tips for Visiting Alcatraz with Kids
- Buy tickets ahead of time from Alcatraz Cruises, the only way to get to Alcatraz and the official NPS contractor. Do not buy tickets from third parties, as it’s unnecessary and you may get bamboozled.
- Most tours sell out so buy tickets way ahead of time if possible. You can show up and wait for a standby ticket, but that looked miserable.
- You’ll have to bring your online proof of purchase (usually an email) to will-call at Pier 33 the day of your tour. Arrive 30 minutes early and be aware that it’s a long walk from most parking and from the touristy Pier 39, so give yourself plenty of time.
- The ferry ride is short, less than 30 minutes and sometimes as short as 10-15 minutes, but it can be rough, so if you have a child prone to seasickness, consider medication.
- Food and drink (besides water) is not allowed on the island except on the dock, so you may pack food for your children but they can only eat right by the ferry dock. There is food for sale on the ferry.
- Be aware that the paths on the island are uneven, steep pavement, not for the faint of heart. You can push a stroller up (people do), but it didn’t look easy. I would favor baby-wearing as there are stairs in the prison.
- They do have a little vehicle that will drive people with disabilities up the hill to the prison, but they were pretty clear about limiting it to people who are wheelchair dependent and/or quite ill.
- They say to give yourself about three hours on the island, and they are right! My son wanted to hurry through because he had other plans for the day, but I honestly could have spent a lot longer on Alcatraz exploring all the buildings there. There is a lot more to see than just the prison.
- The prison is scary. I cannot, unfortunately, attest to how creepy the audio tour actually is. I would make sure that older kids know what they are getting into and I wouldn’t force children that are easily frightened to visit Alcatraz. My son did keep saying, “If you break the law, you go someplace like this,” which made me realize that for most kids this will be their first visit to a prison…for better or for worse!