Making the Most of an Ellis Island Visit

by  Paul Eisenberg | Apr 7, 2010
Ellis Island
Ellis Island / TomasSereda/iStock

Annie Moore was the first immigrant processed on Ellis Island, on Jan 1, 1892, which I think I used to know. My second grader reminded me a few weeks ago. Before I could even offer to take her there she asked, and on Easter Sunday my wife and I made the pilgrimage, joined by my daughter and her two siblings as well as another couple and their two kids.

Fittingly, since it was Ellis Island, we had to stand in a fairly long line with many citizens of the world. Once we bought our ferry tickets at Castle Clinton (if you’re smarter than we were you’ll buy reserved tickets and wait on the shorter line) we waited an hour just to get to the tent with “airport-style” security (exactly like airport security but without the planes). Had it not been Easter, the attendants told me the wait would have been at least 90 minutes. The silver lining was that buskers playing along the line make a point of engaging the kids and helped make the wait seem shorter.

The hard part of this trip wasn’t really the wait on line or the many hours on our feet – both our families had been down that road before. The challenge is that Ellis Island, as moving as it is for us grown-ups, is a hard sell for a second grader, is only slightly more engaging for a fifth grader, and for a preschooler, as you can imagine, is a cool place to run around. Here, briefly, is what else we learned: 

—If you catch a ferry after 2pm, you won’t have time to visit Liberty Island and Ellis Island. But you’ll still get killer views of the statue on your way to Ellis Island. And don’t be surprised if the boat ride there and back ends up being your family’s favorite part of the trip.

—The Ellis Island exhibits are not all that interactive for kids. Phones hanging beside some exhibit cases provide audio explanations for some of the displays but don’t sustain a lot of interest for children who love to touch things. One display all the kids did appreciate was a jar containing 11,747 jelly beans, representing the biggest-ever batch of immigrants processed at the island in one day, on April 19, 1907.

—The perimeter of the outdoor Wall of Honor doubles as a running track. While my wife chased our three year old son, my daughters and I were able to find the panel where my grandfather’s name was inscribed. Once my son was apprehended, we managed to contort him into a photo with the inscription, since he’s named in part after his great-grandfather.

—What ultimately engaged my second-grader was all the evocative B&W photography of the immigrants in their many funky styles of dress. The photos also slowed her down enough to read the displays, especially when we got to the statue of Annie Moore. From that point she grabbed our camera and began shooting her own pictures for an album she’s making to show her teacher.

For more trip-planning information, visit our New York City Travel Guide

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