10 Insider Tips You Must Know Before Visiting Ellis Island With Kids

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Did you know that January 1 is Ellis Island Day? The immigration center opened on New Year’s Day in 1892, and in 1992, the day was established as such to commemorate both the initial opening as well as its renovation which, up to that point, was the most expensive historic upgrade in the history of the United States. While Ellis Island is still a major tourist attraction, especially during the holiday season, as a NYC resident, you can visit it year round (except on Christmas Day). So why not resolve to go this year with your family. Read on to discover our ten tips for visiting Ellis Island with kids.


1: Beware the Playground
Your goal for the day may be to expose your children to the wonder that is The Great American Melting Pot (thank you, Schoolhouse Rock) and to give them some idea of the hardship 19th Century European immigrants had to endure in order to make it to US shores. Your kiddos, on the other hand, have just spotted a playground. Yes, if you are coming by subway (the 1 stops only a few blocks from where the ferries depart, but make sure to be in the initial six cars, or else you won’t be able to get out), the first thing you see when you come up above ground is a playground. So either factor in the time for a play stop, tell your little one beforehand that there will no slides or swings, or drive, take a cab or a bus and enter from the other end of the street.


2. Castle Clinton – and Cannons, too!
As you stand in line to buy tickets for the ferry that takes you to Ellis Island (if you’re a planner, buy them in advance online), there are cool exhibits all around to district bored kids, including cannons. The best option, if you can swing it, is to tag team with another adult. One stands on-line for tickets, while the other takes the kids into the museum of Castle Clinton, to check out the models of what Battery Park City once looked like, as well as samples of local seal life. This is also a good option when the weather outside is either too hot or too cold for waiting for the ferry.

3. One Ticket, All Access
The ferry ticket that you buy for Ellis Island is also good for Liberty Island, and even, on a first-come/first-served basis, the pedestal of The Statue of Liberty (though reservations are strongly encouraged). If your funds are limited, or if you’re not sure when you might next get down to the bottom of Manhattan, it’s worthwhile to try and see both on the same day. The ferry stops at Liberty Island, first. So you can get off, then get back on again for the trip to Ellis Island.

4. No Shoes, No Booze, No Knives for Service
Before you’re even allowed on the ferry, you will pass through a security screening area. The requirements here are similar to what you’d face at the airport. Absolutely everyone will be required to remove their jackets and shoes, and to walk through a metal detector. So keep that in mind when getting kids dressed, especially in the wintertime. Also no large bottles of liquid, no knives, no scissors, no parcels. There are no lockers or storage areas, so any items that don’t pass muster will be confiscated, and they will not be returned.

5. Hurry Up and Wait
Once out of security, you’re still not on the ferry. In fact, you will be lined up to wait for one and, during peak seasons, that wait can be up to 90 minutes. (At off-peak times, it’s closer to 20-30 minutes.) Be advised that the line is outside, which, once again, means cold and windy in the winter and broiling under the hot sun in the summer. And there’s no entertainment here, so be sure to bring books, toys and snacks.

6. Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat
You’re finally on board the ferry! Enjoy the views of The Statue of Liberty and NYC for the 15-minute trip. Hungry? Food – pretzels, hot dogs and the like – is available. Is your child prone to seasickness? Don’t know? Well, you’re about to find out! If you suspect queasiness might be on the agenda, know that the boat rocks more on the bottom level than it does the higher you go up. Also, the very top level has an outdoor section, where the fresh air can be a big help. Note: The ferry has bathrooms if you need them. Just in case, you may want to bring lollipops as some say it helps with seasickness.


7. Pit Stop at Liberty Island
If you do decide to make a stop at Liberty Island before heading off for the Immigration Center, you’ll face another security check (but here, at least, they have lockers for your belongings). They also have a pretty cool indoor museum complete with scale models of Lady Liberty’s nose, foot, and torch, so your kids can see how they measure up, and get a sense of just how big she is.

8. Don’t Miss the Ferry!
The last ferry from Liberty Island to the mainland departs at 5 p.m. But – and this is critically important – the last ferry from Liberty Island to Ellis Island departs at 3:30 p.m. If you miss it, you will be returned to Manhattan only. This ferry line can also be quite long, so make sure you leave yourself plenty of time to see both places.


9. Halfway There
Though Ellis Island has recently re-opened following the damage it suffered during Hurricane Sandy, it is still operating on a limited basis. There’s no elevator (so consider leaving the stroller at home), no food service (bring your own or buy on the ferry), no access to third floor exhibits like Ellis Island Chronicles, Treasures from Home, Silent Voices, Restoring a Landmark, Dormitory Room, or the balcony, and only partial access to the second floor’s Peak Immigration Years and Through America’s Gate. Plus, no film screenings. And sadly, the Be An Ellis Kid interactive exhibit is temporarily closed. You can choose to see all of this as a negative or a positive. On the one hand, families won’t get a chance to experience everything Ellis Island once had to offer. On the other, it makes the entire experience a lot more accessible. You don’t need to rush from floor to floor (especially with a stroller and no working elevator) in the fear that you’ll miss something and, instead, take your time to really appreciate what’s left.

10. So What Is Left?
Ellis Island may not currently have all the bells and whistles modern tourists have come to expect, but, in its stripped down state, it’s actually better at invoking real emotions. Instead of watching a documentary about how it must have once been and experiencing it all second-hand, your family has the chance to really feel and connect with the hopeful people who once walked those same floors on their way into New York City. Interestingly enough, the areas still open are exactly those areas that real-life immigrants would have encountered (their stay also did not include movie screenings or elevators). You can still see the Baggage Room, the Registry Room in the Great Hall (a huge, cavernous space perfect for running around and letting off some steam after all that waiting) and the Peopling of America Exhibit in what was once the Railroad Ticket Office.

– Alina Adams

Have you visited Ellis Island with your family? What do you wish you had known in advance?

First photo courtesy of Sue Waters via Flickr, all other photos by Alina Adams and the Ellis Island Museum