Newest Review: ... covered in a layer of dense mist that makes you feel like you are entering another world. We got our tickets from the island's website... more
Alcatraz Island - Escape From The Rock
Alcatraz Island (USA)
Member Name: dkm1981
Alcatraz Island (USA)
Advantages: Thought provoking, engaging tour, fascinating history
Disadvantages: Steep walk to main exhibit
A Short History
The island was first written about back in the late 1700s when it was named La Isla De Los Alcatraces - Spanish for the island of the pelicans - after the birds that lived there. The birds don't live there anymore, but I think it is a very quaint name for an island that has an otherwise quite sinister past. The island was originally home to only a lighthouse until the Americans made it a military base in the mid 1800s and its location and solitude meant that it soon became a military prison. On the walk up to the buildings, there is a small archway under which there is a trapdoor which leads down to the dungeon that housed the island's very first military prisoners. Even just a glimpse shows you what a sorry place it would have been to be imprisoned.
Obviously it's most famous purpose was as a state penitentiary, a status that it held for a surprisingly short time - only 29 years from 1934 until 1963. It was probably the calibre of prisoners, including Al Capone and The Birdman of Alcatraz, which made it so famous during its short term. After it was closed due to unsustainable operating costs and the requirement for expensive repair work, it temporarily became home to a group of protesting American Indians for nineteen months in 1969. There is still evidence of their occupation daubed in paint across some of the buildings in the harbour area, in fact the standard picture that all visitors to the island take of the 'Welcome To Alcatraz' sign will all feature graffiti left by the protestors in the background. The island is now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and is home to various flora and fauna as well as being one of the most visited landmarks in America.
There are a number of ticket options available depending on whether you want to visit during the day or after dark and whether you want to include a visit to the other island nearby, Angel Island. Both times I have visited I have been during the day. The after dark ticket is a little bit more expensive and fewer people visit then. I'd have liked to have done that particular visit, but my husband had never been before and he wanted to see it during the day, next time maybe then . . . It isn't a bad thing to go during the day anyway, as the island is unbelievably atmospheric whenever you visit, especially considering that it is often covered in a layer of dense mist that makes you feel like you are entering another world.
We got our tickets from the island's website a few weeks before we visited. They strongly recommend purchasing your tickets in advance and I'd definitely agree. We went to the island on the first ferry of the morning at 9am and there were already signs up to say that tickets for that day were sold out. Buying them in advance also makes things a lot easier because you print your tickets online and simply show them at the gate. The tickets do state that you need to show photo ID and produce the card that you paid for them with, but we didn't have to show anybody any of these things. It's worth taking them just in case though because it isn't worth missing out for the sake of sticking your driving license or whatever in your pocket.
The tickets vary in price like I said, but during the day the price is around $29 per adult. This price includes your ferry ride over and the audio tour when you get there and I think it offers exceptionally good value for money especially when you compare it to entry tickets for other attractions in the US and what is included. There are various discounts for children, the elderly and US military personnel as well as group discounts, full details can be found on the website: http://www.alcatrazcruises.com/, which also gives details about what you can expect on your visit. This site it the official one for Alcatraz Island. There are many others out there, but I'd strongly advise against using them because they tend to be 'middlemen' in that you pay them, they go to the official concession and buy the tickets and then you pick them up. I've heard a lot of horror stories about how unreliable they can be, so be warned.
You should allow the entire morning or afternoon (depending on when you go) for your visit and you need to be at the ferry terminal at least fifteen minutes before your departure time. The ferries depart from Pier 33, which is about a ten minute casual walk from Fisherman's Wharf walking in the direction of the financial district. The pier itself is oddly undersigned, however once you get there, you'll see the queues, various snack stalls and the ferries themselves. There is a gift shop here, although the one on the island itself has a much better selection that offers everything from I Escaped Alcatraz souvenirs to literature and popular films that feature the island.
The island is located about a mile and a half off the coast and is a short but pleasant ferry ride away. For me the ferry ride was an important part of the visit as I felt like the suspense was building as we approached. It certainly makes you aware of just how far the island is and how choppy the water is for someone who is contemplating swimming it to freedom. You can also get fabulous views of both the city skyline and the Golden Gate Bridge as you pull away from them, however there is an odd feeling that you are leaving civilisation behind.
Welcome to Alcatraz
When you disembark the ferry, you are given a short talk about the layout of the island and the rules that you must follow whilst there. As it is a National Recreation Area, smoking, eating and drinking anything other than water is not permitted anywhere apart from the harbour area. There are a couple of buildings down here including toilets, a bookshop and an auditorium where an introductory video is shown every half an hour. We skipped all of these things and headed straight up to the hill to the main prison buildings. The walk up the hill is quite steep and there is a little train that is available for those who can't manage it, although seating is limited and places are exclusively for those who have walking difficulties.
There are a number of things to see on the way up including the first prison room that I mentioned earlier. The island morgue is also found up here although you can only look through a glass window into it and there isn't much visible. The pathway up is also lined with gardens, which were maintained by the better behaved prisoners who had earned the privilege.
The tour starts properly in the shower room of the main building where you pick up your audio tour. It was here that I learnt one of the most fascinating facts of the whole trip. Alcatraz was the only prison in the country in which prisoners took warm showers. This was to prevent them from becoming acclimatised to cold water in case they tried to escape. Simple yet ingenious.
The Audio Tour
The audio device that you are given on entering the prison buildings is without a doubt the one thing above all others that makes the visit so utterly engaging, thought provoking and authentic. The tour is narrated by former prisoners and prison officers, so everything you hear is actual first hand experience. The narration is accompanied by various sound effects that manage to make you feel like you are the only person there and that you are having a private tour. The narrators guide you around the prison giving you clear directions and telling stories about life on the island. The prison officers talk about their opinions of the prisoners and it was interesting to hear that they thought Al Capone was a fairly normal guy until he contracted syphilis when 'he seemed to just lose it' and that they thought that Robert Stroud (the Birdman of Alcatraz) was a real annoyance to everybody officers and prisoners alike. Apparently he wasn't allowed to keep birds on the island (it was in a previous institution that he had them) but he was extremely vocal about it and wound anyone and everyone up at every given opportunity.
Another part of the tour that I found fascinating and that no doubts captures the imagination of every visitor is the talk of the famous escape attempts. 36 prisoners attempted escape and all but three were captured or killed in doing so. The other three have never been accounted for but it is widely believed that they perished in the freezing, choppy and sometimes shark infested waters surrounding the island. The bloodiest attempt at escape, since dubbed the Battle of Alcatraz, is described with shocking frankness on the audio tour. Whilst the main narrator explains what happened, pointing out various places in the prison where the events took place, the background noises included shouting, gunfire and stabbings that really send a shiver down your spine. You really get a feel for what exactly happened. You can also still see the tunnel in one of the cells that was dug out by prisoners using spoons in another attempt.
Some of the most poignant points on the tour are those described by former prisoners. There is a part where one of them describes hearing parties from across the bay on New Year's Eve when. He says that it was the one time when they really realised that there was a world out there that they were not a part of. Another part that really got me was when one of the prisoners talks about being locked up in solitary confinement. At this point you can actually walk into one of the dingy solitary cells that are completely unfurnished as you listen to the prisoner describe how he unstitched a button from his jacket and threw it over his shoulder and then searched around the cell to find it the pitch blackness in a bid to occupy his mind whilst he was in there.
Other parts of the prison that are visible on the tour include the officer's houses where they lived with their families. There is narration here from one of the daughter of one of the prison officers who describes what it was like living on the island. You can also go into the Governor's offices and the dinner halls where much of the furniture is as it was.
The Alcatraz Island experience is one that should be experienced by all visitors to San Francisco. The tour is extremely good value for money and is one of, if not the, best guided tour I have ever taken. The way that it has remained unchanged since it was a federal penitentiary makes it one of the most authentic tours there is. This coupled with the excellent and well presented audio tour makes it both chilling and educational in a way that will make you fascinated from the minute you arrive at the island to the minute you get back to 'the real world'. Don't miss it.