So you’ve spent a good amount of time and energy at the Statue of Liberty (because I told you to) and now you have nothing left to give Ellis Island. I feel you there! After all, two of my best friends have birthdays between Christmas and New Years, so, ya know. This is exactly the reason I had managed to visit the Statue of Liberty so many times and not see Ellis Island.
However, that wasn’t for lack of desire. I had wanted to spend a day visiting Ellis Island ever since high school Social Studies class… wait, nope, that’s not it. Ever since middle school when we watched that episode of School House Rock about the “Great American Melting Pot”! Wait, no, that’s not it either. Okay, fine, I’ve wanted to visit Ellis Island ever since I saw the movie Hitch. There, I said it. I like romantic comedies starring Will Smith and I don’t care who knows it!
Visiting Ellis Island
Between the years of 1892 and 1954, over 12 million immigrants passed through Ellis Island on the way to a better life here in America—the land where the buffaloes roam, the deer and the antelope play, and people drink sodas out of cups the size of oil drums. Visiting Ellis Island is a lesson in where these people came from, who they were, to where they spread out, and how our country changed because of them.
What we know today as “Ellis Island” is really the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration. Together with the Statue of Liberty it makes up the Statue of Liberty National Monument, part of the National Park Service. Inside the museum you can visit exhibits on the history of people in America, migration patterns of different ethnic groups, the immigration process, and more; you can visit the main halls and rooms immigrants passed through while at Ellis Island; you can check out the Wall of Honor where people have memorialized their ancestors who may or may not have entered the U.S. through Ellis Island; and take a variety of tours. All in all this can be done in about… oh… an entire day.
However, it’s also possible to spend a day visiting Ellis Island when you’re in a hurry. The information and stories presented here are some of the most significant in American history and a stop here shouldn’t be skipped because you took too long perfecting your Statue of Liberty Instagram pose. You know who you are, lady holding up her hairbrush like a torch. Read on for some ways your visit to Ellis Island can be done on a time-budget.
Combine it with a visit to the Statue of Liberty
So, I don’t think I need to tell you this but I’m going to anyway—Ellis Island… is an island. If that’s news to you, just go have another soda. Because of this, it’s not all that easy to get to. You can’t just “pop on over” after grabbing a bite to eat at Shake Shack. There is literally only one way on and one way off Ellis Island for tourists and that is via the Liberty/Ellis Island ferry.
When you purchase your tickets to visit the Statue of Liberty, visiting Ellis Island is included, and vice-versa. One way they like to word it is: admission to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island is free, you just have to pay for the ferry to get you there. However you want to look at it, it’s a two-for-one deal. Like how you can sometimes get two whoppers for just five bucks. It’s called the American Dream.
If you’re already going to visit the Statue of Liberty, visiting Ellis Island on the same trip is the best and easiest way to save time. Don’t be like me who visited the Statue of Liberty on two separate occasions, didn’t save time for Ellis Island, and then had to make this trip all over again just to visit Ellis Island. I do dumb things so you don’t have to.
Because of the Statue of Liberty + Ellis Island’s status as a National Park and National Historical Monument, and the facts that they’re located in the largest city in America and that it’s 2019, the process of getting there is not a quick one. You’ll have to: pre-book tickets, wait in line to pick them up, wait in another line, go through airport-like security, ride a ferry about thirty minutes, disembark, wait in another line, and go through another airport-like security station before you are free. Having to spend just one day doing this instead of two is ideal. Especially if there’s a strip-search involved, which I wouldn’t rule out.
There are many types of tickets available for the Statue of Liberty (and I discuss them all in this post) and every single one of them includes visiting Ellis Island. However, if you’re not at all interested in visiting the Statue of Liberty and just want to visit Ellis Island, you’ll want to purchase the “Reserve” ticket.
However, what I personally recommend is picking up a New York CityPASS. The New York CityPASS includes admission to the most popular attractions in the city and, since you’re buying them in a bundle, saves you almost half what you would pay otherwise. I use these any time I visit a participating city. The ticket you need to get to the Statue of Liberty + Ellis Island is included in the New York CityPASS!
Book your tickets in advance
If your main goal here is visiting the Statue of Liberty, go here to read about specific ticket purchasing rules. If Ellis Island is your priority, you’ve got nothing (specific) to worry about. You should still get that mole checked though.
The Statue of Liberty + Ellis Island is understandably one of the most popular tourist attractions in New York City. Because of this, tickets sell out faster than cronuts and reality competition contestants. Let’s just say, walking up and getting a same-day ticket to Ellis Island is about as improbable as hearing back from that Nigerian Prince you sent all that money to.
As soon as you know you’ll be in New York City, go ahead and purchase your Ellis Island/Statue of Liberty ticket. There are three different tickets you can buy, each determining what kind of access to the Statue of Liberty you’ll be privy to. However, all tickets will give you the same admission to Ellis Island, regardless of which one you choose. That said, if visiting Ellis Island is your priority here, just choose the Reserve ticket—which happens to be the cheapest one.
Booking your tickets in advance will save you so much time waiting in lines being harassed by a grown-ass man poorly dressed as the Statue of Liberty photobombing your selfies. You’ll thank me later. When you pre-book your Ellis Island tickets, they will be waiting for you at Will Call (window #6) inside Castle Clinton.
Now, there is only ONE legit ticket vendor for Statue of Liberty + Ellis Island tickets and that is statuecruises.com. They are the only officially authorized provider of tickets for these two attractions. I tell you this because, when you arrive downtown to board your boat, you’ll be MOBBED by people trying to sell you tickets, telling you that tickets are sold out and they are your only hope, and maybe even straight-up calling you a “bitch” if you’re as blessed as I am. Despite what our beloved rom-coms would have you believe, New York City is not full of random people who want to help you out of the goodness of their hearts; it is full of people trying to fuel their drug habits though.
Though statuecruises.com is the official ticket vendor for these sites, they have authorized their tickets’ inclusion in the New York CityPASS as well. So, should you decide to purchase some New York CityPASSes, you can rest assured your hard-earned money is still being put towards the operation and upkeep of these important historical sites and not towards the further running down of a crack house.
Be prepared for airport-like security
Because this place is more chaotic than a grocery store before a snowstorm, they need to take extra security precautions because this is 2019 and we can’t have nice things. Between checking in and boarding the ferry you’ll be subjected to the first of two airport-like security screenings.
You know the drill—please, God, tell me you know the drill—so prepare accordingly to save yourself and the other millions of people as much precious time as possible. That means: no large bags or backpacks or, for whatever reason, suitcases; minimal jewelry; and be prepared to remove your shoes, your coats, your belts, and the cloak of denial we all wear that has us believing everything in the world is peachy keen. There will be wands and metal detectors and bins and people shouting instructions at you and that one asshole who wants to argue about the whole thing.
Skip the audio guide
Huzzah! You’re finally visiting Ellis Island! Your boat ride lasted just 30 minutes, that’s about a week less than it took European immigrants at the turn of the 20th century. Congratulations, you probably didn’t contract tuberculosis today!
Once at Ellis Island, you may be tempted to take advantage of the audio guide that’s included free in your admission to the museum. And, if you had plenty of time to spend visiting Ellis Island, that would be a great way to learn about the island’s history. However, in our case, you should know that the Ellis Island audio guide contains over 120 hours of content. Do you have an entire month to dedicate to visiting Ellis Island? If so, what you doin’ on my website!? Also, you heard me say “no suitcases” right?
While I’m sure the provided audio guide is just great, one thing it is not is a brief summary. Instead…
Opt for a ranger guided tour
Like the included audio guide, the Ranger-Guided Tours at Ellis Island are also free! They are led by official National Park Service Rangers and last about 40 minutes total. They don’t require tickets or reservations and are led throughout the day on a first come, first served basis.
Through these tours you will learn all about Ellis Island during the years of 1892—1924 (its busiest time). They will cover what the 7 to 10-day trip overseas was like and the inspection process upon arriving at Ellis Island as an immigrant; they’ll take you through the baggage room and the Great Hall and more. I imagine they will also provide ice packs if you’ve just been kicked in the face on a jet-ski if requested. That’s just a guess though.
The ranger guided tours of Ellis Island leave on the hour and to join one you just need to head to the information desk on the first floor.
Don’t waste your time searching for ancestors on the wall
While the Wall of Honor at Ellis Island is “the only place in the United States where an individual can honor his or her family heritage at a National Monument” it is not a list of immigrants that came through Ellis Island. Do they tell you that up front? No. Will you spend an unnecessary amount of time searching for the names of your family’s ancestors and the ancestors of everyone you know? Yes.
The Wall of Honor, upon first inspection, looks like a memorial to the more than 12 million people who came through Ellis Island on their way to a new life in America. However, that’s not what it is. Instead, it’s a wall where anyone can pay $150 to display their own name or the name of a family member.
While many of the names are of people who came through Ellis Island, it also contains the names of people who immigrated during all years throughout history (even present day), who came through all points of entry around the U.S. and via all modes of transportation, and even of those who have recently become citizens. Cool? Yes. A cool way to find out if you had ancestors come through Ellis Island? No.
Minimize your time in the museum
The first-floor museum at Ellis Island is understandably thorough. However, if you’ve ever taken U.S. history, were brought up as a youth in the American school system, or seen the movie Hitch, you already know what Ellis Island is all about. And probably how to pick up women.
The museum part of the Ellis Island National Immigration Museum is made up of illustrations, photos, informational placards, etc. and tends to be a bit repetitive and museum-y. Don’t get me wrong, it explains a lot and it does it well, but I’d advise focusing your time on the second and third floors of the building.
The second and third floors of the Ellis Island museum consist of the Great Hall, the registry room, the screening rooms, the court, and so many others. They are real rooms, where real people spent their first days in America, full of real historical artifacts. Therefore, you can get a better feel for what new immigrants actually went through and what their experiences were like.
The museums, known as Journeys: The Peopling of America 1550-1890 and Journeys: New Eras of Immigration, 1945-Present, are more about the study of immigration and less about Ellis Island. Because of this, much of it can be skipped for your purpose of visiting Ellis Island in a hurry.
Instead, since you shouldn’t skip the topic altogether, do some before-trip research. What you will learn in the Ellis Island museums you can easily learn beforehand through books and movies and episodes of School House Rock—that way you can spend the majority of what little time you have seeing the real artifacts and trying to locate your husband in the maze of actual Ellis Island rooms.
Suggested Reading List:
- American Immigration: A Very Short Introduction by David A. Gerber | I think the title says it all. Great job on the succinctness Mr. Gerber.
- American Passage: The History of Ellis Island by Vincent J. Cannato | Rated as the best book about Ellis Island by multiple sources.
- City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York by Tyler Anbinder | What sounds like the opposite of the first one, but still probably pretty good.
- Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life by Roger Daniels | Probably not about Eddie Murphy.
Suggested Watch List:
- Hitch, obviously. A New York City-based romantic comedy starring the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Ryan Gosling’s wife
- Ellis Island, a History Channel documentary starring Inigo Montoya
- Brooklyn, a romantic drama about an Irish immigrant
- “The Great American Melting Pot“ by School House Rock, for children visiting Ellis Island and/or nostalgic adults.
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