The Rock with Kids: Making the Most of a Family Trip to Alcatraz

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alcatraz, san francisco

From appearances on “Mythbusters” to a cameo in the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater video game, the spooky cells and windswept vistas of Alcatraz Island are enjoying a renewed moment in the pop-culture spotlight. If you’re considering taking your family to The Rock, these tips will help you get the most out of your trip.

Try the night tour for smaller crowds. While planning our Alcatraz trip, I asked a park ranger — the island is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area — how he would recommend seeing the park. (One of the great things about being a travel writer is having an excuse to ask questions like this.) His advice: On a given day, 5,000 visitors or more might stream through the corridors of the prison, but the night tour is limited to about 600, enabling rangers to offer talks and programs not available during the day. Not only are the crowds easier to manage with kids, but the smaller numbers make for a more intimate experience: At one point, my husband, son and I found ourselves all alone in a spooky, lantern-lit room of the hospital ward. We could truly feel the isolation of The Rock, which made for some spine-tingling memories.

 

alcatraz hospital, alcatraz tour, alcatraz medical wing

Plan ahead for food and drink. If you’re one of those parents who won’t venture forth without snacks for the smalls (and who isn’t?), it’s worth noting that there’s no food in the park: Not only are there no concessions, but food and drinks other than bottled water are not allowed beyond the landing dock. Counting the ferry ride to and from the island, you’ll be touring for several hours, so one solution is to snack on the ferry. The ferry concession sells hot dogs, sandwiches, snacks and drinks, but lines can get long once the captain makes the “no food on the island” announcement, so if you go this route, line up soon after getting on the boat. A great alternative is to pack food from one of the many vendors along the Embarcadero. Don’t miss the local shops in the Ferry Building, where you’ll find everything from fresh-baked bread and handmade chocolate to artisanal meats and cheeses.

Book your tour early. Only one company, Alcatraz Cruises, offers transportation to the park, and tours can book up weeks in advance. You can print passes at home or visit the will call window, but don’t wait until you arrive in San Francisco to book your tour, or you might wind up with some disappointed kiddos.

Don’t count kids out of the audio tour. I wasn’t sure the audio tour that comes with the ferry ticket would hold our 10-year-old’s interest: He’s usually intent on exploring at his own pace and not being shackled to a guided tour. But the newly redone audio tour’s mp3-player interface and engaging content, from cellblock life to escape plots to some of The Rock’s famous inmates kept him – and all of the kids we saw — riveted. The best part: Instead of a dry, academic-sounding narration, the tour is voiced by the officers and inmates who lived here.

alcatraz audio tour
The cell blocks come alive with the voices of inmates and officers on the Alcatraz audio tour. Photo by Jeremey Clark.

On the night tour, you can complete the 45-minute audio tour and still have time to wander the prison and the grounds and hear ranger presentations about the island. Don’t miss the talk about escapes from The Rock, which details how inmate managed to escape and swim all the way to San Francisco, only to be scooped up and delivered right back to Alcatraz. The kids in the audience were agape.

Dress in layers. This goes for San Francisco in general, but it’s doubly true at Alcatraz, where chilly winds can send you scurrying for the shelter of gift shop when you’d rather be snapping family photos on the stunning grounds of the island. Even on a sunny day, a hoodie or windbreaker is a must, not just on the island but also on the top deck of the ferry, where you’ll get the best views and photo opps.

 

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