Today I’m honored to share a post from one of the most savvy (and nicest) travel writers around. Kara Williams, who can also be found sharing wonderful stories and tips at The Vacation Gals and The Spa Gals or dishing up friendliness and advice in her Twitter stream, gives us the inside scoop on visiting two American icons in New York City. This post reminds me that it’s been a while since my family has visited the Big Apple together. I’m thinking I may need to try and find a way to fit that into this spring’s travel calendar. Thanks Kara!
While my family’s trip to New York City last November was all about meeting (and snuggling) my three-month-old nephew in Brooklyn, we did carve out some time for a couple of sightseeing trips in the Big Apple. At 9 and 11, my kids were ideally aged to visit iconic, historic landmarks including the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.
In researching our excursion before we left home, I learned that access to the 125-year-old Statue of Liberty is compromised until autumn 2012 for a $27.25 million renovation. That meant, alas, no grueling walk up multiple staircases to the viewing platform in her crown (which bummed me out more than the kids), nor could we enter the pedestal museum. Still, determined to get a close up look at Lady Liberty I went ahead and reserved ferry tickets online for our visit.
We made the trip on a blustery late-fall day. It was overcast and drizzly at times, but the bleak weather added to the allure and romance of visiting the historic sites. In my eyes, anyway; my children would likely disagree!
Consider these firsthand tips for your own visit:
Purchase tickets online – or wait. Entrance to the National Monuments (operated by the U.S. National Park Service) is free, but you do need to pay for the ferry from Manhattan’s Battery Park to get to both Liberty Island and Ellis Island ($13 for adults, $5 for children). As I mentioned, we pre-booked mid-morning ferry departure tickets online well before our trip to New York City, namely so I’d have it “on the books” and we’d make this sightseeing trip happen. In hindsight, I might have waited until we arrived in New York and scheduled our excursion on a day with a nicer forecast. That said, during peak travel periods – say, spring break or mid-July – it would be disheartening to plan on a visit to the islands and encounter sold-out ferry departures at your desired time.
The multiple Statue Cruises ferries operate on a loop schedule, departing approximately every 25 to 30 minutes from Battery Park, Liberty Island, and Ellis Island. That is, you can come and go as you please from either attraction – spending as much time as you’d like walking the grounds around the Statue of Liberty or perusing the fascinating exhibits at Ellis Island. This is great for families if, say, someone has a meltdown (parent or child!) or the weather turns foul and you need to cut the day short.
Prepare for safety screenings. Since 9/11, security around the Statue of Liberty has been tight. You’ll pass through a metal detector and run your belongings through an X-ray before setting foot on the boat. Leave pocket knives at home. They’ll be confiscated, as my husband learned.
If the weather’s decent, head upstairs. Despite chilly weather, we made our way to the open-air seating on the top of the ferry for unrestricted views of Lower Manhattan as we pulled away from the Battery Park dock. Best views of the Statue of Liberty on approach are on the right side of the ferry; people flock to the railings – elbows flared – to take photos. But don’t worry; you’ll have plenty of time for photos of the statue once you’re on the island. And in my opinion you’ll get better pictures close up.
Bypass the food on board. There’s a small concession stand on the ferry, which sells overpriced hot dogs, chips, drinks, and candy bars. I recommend holding out for lunch at Ellis Island (the second stop on the loop) if you can. Pack snacks in case tummies start grumbling.
Statue of Liberty
Stop by the Visitor Information Center. The park rangers inside the Visitor Information Center are incredibly friendly and helpful, as I’ve found at most U.S. National Parks and National Monuments. Here, they’ll answer any questions you have about the statue, and you can watch a short video and view a wall exhibit about the history of the statue and the island.
Check out the Junior Ranger program. My daughter has collected patches from more than a dozen National Parks after completing Junior Ranger activity booklets, and the Statue of Liberty site was no exception. Delightfully, this was a relatively easy book to fill out, with answers found right in the small Visitor Information Center. Children learn why France wanted to give the U.S. a statue and what she symbolizes (trigging a nice conversation with my kids about the meanings of words like “liberty” and “oppression”), as well as why the statue is green. Kids who complete the book get a plastic pin; we also purchased a sew-on patch at the onsite gift shop.
No need to spend a ton of time here. With the pedestal and crown closed, visitors are limited to learning about the statue at the Visitor Information Center and walking around Liberty Island to admire the massive structure (at 305 feet from the ground to the tip of the torch’s flame, she is impressive). There is a self-guided audio tour (for a fee) and scheduled ranger-guided walking tours (free), though we did neither. I don’t think we spent more than 90 minutes on the island, though we did have to wait a while – more than 30 minutes – to get on the next ferry, as the line was quite long and we just missed boarding one before it filled up.
Ellis Island Immigration Museum
Plan to spend a ton of time here. The Ellis Island Immigration Museum is utterly fascinating, especially for American history buffs like me. The exhibits are housed in the actual building that once served as the country’s busiest immigration processing center. Twelve million men, women, and children passed through its doors, fleeing poverty and persecution in their home countries in search of a more prosperous life in the United States, mainly between 1892 and 1910.
The museum’s photos, artifacts, movies and plaques do an excellent job detailing why Ellis Island saw an influx of action at the turn of the century, what the newcomers encountered as they crossed the ocean, and how they were treated when they arrived on the island. The Park Service recommends spending three hours at Ellis Island, and I agree.
Fuel up before you start exploring the main building. The Dining Café serves hearty burgers, sandwiches, salads and hot entrees like fish and chips, pizza, and chicken tenders. Kids’ meals are reasonably priced under $6. Seating is at long communal tables; similar to what immigrants experienced there more than 100 years ago.
Prepare your tween for a tough Junior Ranger experience. Unlike the booklet at the Statue of Liberty, the activities and questions to earn a Junior Ranger badge at Ellis Island are lengthy and difficult. My daughter completed it – with her dad’s assistance – but it was time consuming. While it’s an educational experience I recommend, I wonder if my daughter might have gotten more out of the exhibits if she hadn’t been so intent on answering specific questions (but the girl likes her patches).
Consider the movie and the self-guided audio tour. A 30-minute film “Island of Hope, Island of Tears” offers an overall introduction to Ellis Island (we didn’t watch it) and an audio tour enhances the information given at the various exhibits on three floors of the main building (we didn’t buy it). I learned plenty simply walking through the different exhibit areas rooms, reading the detailed information.
Did I mention you’ll want to spend a lot of time here? While my son and I breezed through “The Peopling of America,” which chronicles the history of immigration in the United States, we spent more time in “Through America’s Gate,” which details the step-by-step process immigrants went through as soon as they got off the boat, including a mental-health and medical inspection. I also liked “Treasures from Home,” which displays artifacts that people brought from their home countries: beloved teddy bears, Bibles and native clothing. Countless black-and-white photographs, original passenger manifests and passports are shown in “Peak Immigration Years.”
On the top floor, a cramped dormitory room has been restored to show what sleeping quarters were like for those who had been detained, such as parents whose child was sick and had to recover in the neighboring hospital ward before being released into the city. Parents were restricted to visiting hospitalized children only once weekly – what a heartbreaking waiting game!
Do research at the American Family Immigration History Center. For $5 you can sit at a computer screen, with staff on hand to help you, and search the passenger manifests and Ellis Island immigration records for your ancestors. This same database is found online at EllisIsland.org – so you can research from the comfort of your own home, where access is absolutely free. But if you think you’d need assistance from on-site staff, build some time into your sightseeing day to reserve a half hour on the Ellis Island computers.
I’m glad we didn’t take our kids to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island on our first family trip to New York City in 2008 (though on that trip we did enjoy the Staten Island ferry ride for a glimpse of Lady Liberty from afar). The tween and teen years are probably best for introducing kids to the rich history of these important American sights. This New York City sightseeing adventure will be made even better when the restoration of the Statue of Liberty is complete at the end of 2012!
Freelance writer Kara Williams co-owns The Vacation Gals, where she covers destinations ideal for family travel, as well as girlfriend getaways and romantic escapes. She makes her home in the Colorado Rockies with her husband and two school-aged children.