Postcards & Passports

Perspectives on Alcatraz: Past & Present

This post was most recently updated on November 7th, 2019


Perspectives on Alcatraz

Having lived in the bay area for over five years, I had yet to visit one of the most iconic landmarks in all of San Francisco: Alcatraz Island. So, when a family member’s visit brought us face to face with the option of exploring the infamous Rock, we decided it was about time. With four adults, and four children (ages 1-5) in tow, we ventured to see what Alcatraz Island had to offer! The island’s intriguing history as an inescapable penitentiary, as well as a home base for the Native American protests in the late 60s, and now as a National Park offered so many perspectives on Alcatraz that I had never before heard! So, as the 8 of us embarked on this journey into the past, we each brought our own present perspective to the island, as well.

Meet the Crew

We set out–a family of 8–early one chilly morning in San Francisco, ready to explore Alcatraz! Each person brought with them excitement for the day, as well as their own perspective. Here’s a little description of our crew:

James (my son) : age 2, loves snacks and exploring new places

Wesley (my son): age 5, loves to run and climb! 

Heather (myself): age 28, loves to take photos and video of our travels

Sarah (sister-in-law): age 29, excited to visit family and explore a new city

Matthew (my husband): age 30, avid traveler and professional stroller pusher, especially up large hills

My brother-in-law and his two daughters (ages 1 and 3) also accompanied us on our adventure, but their perspectives on Alcatraz are not included in this post.  The others have graciously shared their thoughts regarding their experience for me to include. 


The Ferry Ride

We met at Pier 33 to collect our tickets from will call and board the ferry. It’s advised that you arrive 30 minutes prior to your scheduled departure, but of course with 4 kids in tow and running a bit late, we barely made it. Once on the ferry, the adventure began! Highlights included wonderful views, plenty of space, and even an onboard snack bar selling a variety of snacks and beverages. Here’s what our crew had to say about it:


The History

Once we arrived at the island, we were led to the dock where the Park Ranger explained the rules and gave us a brief rundown of the attractions available to us. We were happy to hear that there was a short documentary providing a bit of history about the island and its inhabitants. It was during that video that I realized there was so much more to this island than I had once assumed. Alcatraz was not just a penitentiary full of thieves and murderous inmates. It was a home to a peaceful community of families, those who were related to the guards or wardens at Alcatraz. School children lived here. Gardens thrived here! And, even after the jail was closed, this island became a beacon for the Native American movement during 1969-1971.

 


The Island–or should I say, the Rock?!

After the informative video, we set out to explore the island. We loved seeing the beautiful gardens and hearing the wildlife–to our surprise, Alcatraz is home to many species of birds! But, through all the beautiful views, remember that this Island is still just a huge rock in the middle of the bay. It’s gigantic! It’s steep! And, with children in strollers, it’s a workout! To my five year old, he took those hills as a challenge. He loved racing up them! For the adults in the group, we felt a little differently, getting winded along the way. But, as everyone can agree, the views were stunning. And we made it to the cell house eventually.


The Cell house

At the peak of the island stands the cell house. Even today, it looms over the bay as a warning, and I’m certain the inmates being transferred to this jail would have felt the gravity of their situation as they arrived in this infamous place. They would have been taken to the laundry and shower room first, given their uniform and then admitted to their individual cell. For those who obeyed the rules, life wasn’t all that bad. They were allotted recreational time, perhaps even given books to read from the communal library. Other potential activities awarded for good behavior included games, knitting, painting, or even playing instruments. But, for those who disobeyed, life at Alcatraz was an entirely different story! Solitary confinement in pitch black cells, no time outdoors, and other punishments awaited those who acted out.


A Child’s Perspective

As my two sons explored the cell house, I could tell my 5 year old was a bit uncomfortable at times. I think he said it best when he expressed, “I felt scared because I didn’t know if I would get trapped in one of the rooms.” I completely understand his sentiment; the cell house felt gloomy and confining at times, although thanks to chains on all the cell doorways, there was no way to actually get trapped in any of the rooms.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that there was plenty of space to navigate my stroller with 2 year old in tow. We even ventured into a tiny cell to take the classic “jailhouse” shot behind bars. And, James sure liked learning about the recreational activities allotted to inmates. Every time we passed the exhibit on the wall, he exclaimed “Ba-ball!”, which being translated means “Baseball”. What can I say? He loves sports!


The Audio Tour

Perspectives on AlcatrazThe audio tour–which is included in the price of your admission–is a 45-minute narrative compiling many perspectives on Alcatraz from inmates, wardens, and family members who lived on the island.  As you walk around cell house, kitchen, and administration building, you will hear many stories explaining how life would have been for those at Alcatraz. The wonderful part of the tour is that you can go at your own pace, pausing and re-starting when you need. This flexibility was especially helpful with so many children to tend to.

I can’t even begin to express how informative the audio tour was; even my five year old enjoyed parts of it, although the headphones weren’t exactly a perfect fit for his little head. Many of the stories shared discussed how life was in the prison, both for the inmates and those working there. As you stood amidst the cells, listening to the narration, you could almost imagine the people as they spoke and feel the despair of those imprisoned there. I will admit, some of the retellings are a bit violent for young children. Afterward, I asked my son if there was any scary parts of the tour, and I was grateful to hear that he didn’t remember any of the more vivid details.

On the other hand, there were some very inspiring parts of the tour. Some of the previous inmates who had completed their sentences shared their personal journey to becoming a better person, their change of heart, and what life outside Alcatraz looked like. From such a dreary place, they were able to find solace and commit to a better life!


Perspectives on Alcatraz

Final Perspectives

Overall, we spent 3 hours exploring Alcatraz Island, but could have easily spent longer if the children’s attention spans would have allowed it. There was so much to learn there, so much to experience, and so many perspectives of Alcatraz to take in! I loved hearing the perspectives from past inmates and workers who dutifully fulfilled their responsibilities. Even the school age children and families who called Alcatraz home shared their perspectives through exhibits, journal entries, and the spoken word. I would definitely recommend visiting Alcatraz and seeing what perspectives from past and present you can find there!

 

Video Highlights provided by Heather Young

Extra tidbits:

  1. Alcatraz Cruises is the only company allowed by the National Park Service to run ferries to tour Alcatraz Island. Thus, travel agencies and other third parties that sell tickets to Alcatraz will not be able to get you a price discount; in fact, they may charge extra! Booking directly through Alcatraz Cruises will ensure the cheapest price per ticket.
  2. We parked at a nearby lot, Impark: Waterfront Plaza Parking Garage. It cost $25/vehicle for the entire day. From there, we were easily able to walk to the Alcatraz Landing, Pier 39, and Fisherman’s Wharf.
  3. Alcatraz Island is very stroller friendly, as long as you’re willing to do a bit of hard work getting up those hills! There is also an accessibility tram (SEAT transportation) available for those with mobility restrictions–this however does not include children in strollers.
  4. As of October 2019, the cost per ticket (ages 12+) is $39.90, with children 5-11 costing $24.40. Seniors ages 62+ cost $37.65. Toddlers 4 and under are free. For up to date prices, check out the Alcatraz Cruise website.
  5. Give yourself at least 3 hours (if not more!) to explore Alcatraz Island. Enjoy!

 

Thank you so much to Alcatraz Cruises for providing me with this experience. While I was given a complimentary ticket in exchange for this post, the opinions expressed are completely my own!


Written by guest blogger, Heather Young, whose photography is featured on her blog, Heather Hiding Photography. Heather is my daughter, and I am so grateful she too can find joy in traveling and exploring with family!

If you’d like to explore around the San Francisco area, you might also enjoy:

San Francisco: Tips & Tricks

Filoli Mansion & Gardens

Weekend in Los Gatos

Strolling in Santa Cruz

Perspectives on Alcatraz

 

 

4 thoughts on “Perspectives on Alcatraz: Past & Present

  1. Karin Schumacher

    Great article, we went there in August 2019. First time I had ever been there and I grew up in the Bay Area!! One expensive lesson I learned very early on is to get the tickets 6-8 weeks before you intend to go. I had to buy a very expensive co-trip to the Farmer’s Market at the Pier for $$$$ because I tried to buy the tickets 2-3 weeks out. Alcatraz was worth it, but not the expensive side trip we had to buy just to get to the island!!!

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