A visit to Alcatraz was at the top of our ‘must-do’ list when in San Francisco, and should be for other families while here. Visiting this former penitentiary is a fascinating journey back in history! 

A quick Google search reveals several sites from which that you can buy tickets, however the official site to book is here at Alcatraz Cruises. Due to Alcatraz’s popularity, advance bookings are a must in my opinion. Tickets are available from 90 days before your preferred visit date, and kids aged 4 and under are free.

You can choose from several different tour options, however I highly recommend the Early Bird Tour. Departing at approx 8:45am, you are the first tour group on the island. This allowed us to cover the Cellhouse before the next groups started arriving, and by the time we left, it was very busy on the island. There is no set time to return to the mainland, so take as long as you like to explore, and then just jump on a return ferry when you’re ready. We spent nearly 3 hours exploring the Rock.

On arrival to the island, you will be given a quick introduction to the island by one of the rangers, and can then go into the first building you see on the dock to watch a short film on the history of the island, which was highly informative. We actually skipped this at the beginning and headed straight up the hill to the Cellhouse to beat the crowds, which I’m glad we did, as by the time we finished in there, it was getting quite crowded. We watched the film at the end of our time on the island, before boarding our return ferry. Did you know that before it was the famous prison it now is, the island was formerly Fort Alcatraz? The U.S. Army built a fortress on the island to protect San Francisco from attack if needed, before becoming a military prison, then a federal penitentiary until its closure in 1963. The film also covered life for the staff and their families on the island, and the American Indian occupation of 1969 to 1971.

The Cellhouse Audio Tour is a fantastic way to learn more about prison life, told by those who lived and worked on the island. Zed (aged 7 at the time) and Kiki (aged 5 & 1/2) were both engrossed in listening to the narration as we wandered the prison blocks. The stories told by both inmates and correctional officers really emphasised the intensiveness of prison time and brought history to life within this former maximum security prison.

Once we finished in our audio tour, we walked around the rest of the island and explored the other buildings. Prior to our visit, I didn’t realise that the families of the correctional staff actually lived on the island as well! Although the weather on the day we visited was cold, foggy and drizzly, I can just imagine the stunning views to be had on a clear, sunny day across the Bay.

We were so eager to learn more about Alcatraz that we bought the book Alcatraz Escape Files from the island’s gift shop. The kids overheard myself and C discussing the movie Escape from Alcatraz, and requested to watch it once we got home to Australia. Sure enough, we watched it (minus the part where old mate deliberately chops his fingers off with the axe, we skipped over that bit!) and the kids loved it, impressing me with their recall of the cells we stood in front of that the prisoners escaped from, the dummy heads used to fool the guards, D block with its solitary confinement cells, the dining hall and showers.

For more information on Alcatraz, visit the U.S. National Park Service website https://www.nps.gov/alca/index.htm

Read more about our time in San Francisco here.

 

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