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Visiting San Francisco and thinking about taking a Behind the Scenes of Alcatraz tour? Do you think it’s worth it? You are in the right place. I recently went on tour and had a full indoor scoop.
Alcatraz Behind The Scenes Tour Reddit
The short answer is: Take a tour. Totally worth the extra money. You can see more of the prison than on the usual audio tour. Plus, you get a live guide so you can ask as many questions as you like.
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However, there are some downsides to the tour, such as not being very accessible, that you should be aware of.
Let’s take a closer look at the Alcatraz Behind the Scenes Tour so you can decide if it’s right for you.
Alcatraz Island, also known as “The Rock,” is a rocky island in San Francisco Bay about 1.5 miles offshore.
The island had little vegetation and was home to seabirds when it was explored by Lieutenant Juan Manuel de Ayala in 1775, who named it Isla de los Alcatraces (“Island of the Pelicans”).
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The island originally had sloping sides and was basically a large mound. The army blasted the sides to make solid rocks to make it difficult to break through.
From 1849 to 1933, Alcatraz was used as a military prison by the US Army. In 1934, it was turned over to the Federal Bureau of Prisons and became a maximum security prison for some of the most dangerous criminals in the country.
Among its most famous inmates were Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly and “The Birdman of Alcatraz” Robert Stroud.
Alcatraz closed its doors in 1963 because it was too expensive to operate. Today, it is a National Historic Landmark that attracts more than a million visitors each year. People flock to see the cells, the cafeteria, and even the solitary cells known as “The Hole.”
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There are three options for touring Alcatraz. All tours include a ferry trip to the island.
You will board the ferry at Alcatraz Landing at Pier 33. Get there early so you have time to see the model of the island. Around the display are plaques telling about the old buildings and what they were used for. There are also some old photos showing Alcatraz’s heyday.
While you’re waiting, there aren’t many options other than the restroom. The ferries have snacks and no food is allowed on board.
You can buy a bottle of water from one of the street vendors outside the entrance to Alcatraz Landing. Once you arrive on the island, there are water fountains to refill your water bottles.
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Tip: Sit on the left side of the upper ferry for the best views of Alcatraz.
Let’s take a look at each of the tours. (Note that the tour times listed here are for the summer season. Times vary throughout the year, so be sure to check for current information.)
The day tour is a self-guided audio tour. You take headphones and listen while walking. You can hear stories from former guards and inmates, which really brings the prison to life.
Daily tours last approximately 2.5 hours and run daily from 8:40am to 3:50pm. (Departure times are when the ferry leaves the Alcatraz landing.)
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The day tour covers the main cell house and dining hall. You will also see solitary confinement cells and a visiting area. Often in the cafeteria, docents tell stories about different aspects of the prison.
You will explore parts of the island on your own as you walk up the steep hill to the cell house. Among other buildings, you’ll see the guard’s family home, the remains of the officers’ clubhouse, and the lighthouse beacon.
Be sure to pick up a brochure/map to get the stories behind these buildings as they are not included in the audio tour.
The night tour runs Tuesday-Saturday with departure times of 5:55pm and 6:30pm. Overnight tours include everything on the day tour plus a few extras.
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At 19:30, guards open the hospital. This is a relatively new addition to the tour, so if you haven’t been to Alcatraz in a few years, you might want to go again just to see the hospital.
This was one of my favorite parts of the tour. The prison hospital was not at all what I had imagined. Everything is self-guided with no audio component, but rangers/docents are on hand to answer questions. There is also a board showing what the different rooms are used for.
The clinic is up stairs, but an elevator has been added to make it easier.
The night tour also includes some special programs. You can hear stories about what Alcatraz was like and get a real insider’s feel for the place. They cover topics such as jailbreak attempts, island life, and more. Programs change frequently.
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I didn’t stay for the specials when I visited, so I can’t speak to the quality. I’d say given how great the rest of the tour is, I’d be surprised if the night programs weren’t great.
If you stay late enough, you can see and hear all the cell doors close. I think they do it at 8:30pm. I didn’t stay that long, but I think it was very creepy to hear that all the doors were closed. No, you cannot be inside the cells when they are closed. If something breaks, you’ll be there for days.
The behind-the-scenes tour includes everything from day and night tours. Plus, of course, more. Just be warned that it makes for a pretty long day. No food is sold on the island, so you may want to bring snacks. There is a picnic area next to the ferry port.
The behind-the-scenes tour lasts 4-5 hours and runs from Tuesday to Saturday. Departure times are 16:20 and 16:50. Groups are limited to 20 people. Children under 12 are not allowed.
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Loved the behind the scenes tour. “This is the best tour ever,” I’ve said at least ten times. There’s nothing like walking past a “Do Not Enter” sign.
Groups for the behind-the-scenes tour should not exceed 20 people so you don’t end up in a big crowd. It also makes it easier to hang back to get photos without any people around.
Tour stops may vary depending on conditions. While I may have been off track at some of the stops, this is an overview of the tour I took.
The tour begins with some history of the island and its years as an Army prison. I did not know that the island had such an interesting history. We entered the guard rooms and learned how the castle is protected.
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We then walked up the hill past the old Officers’ Club, now a burnt-out ruin, to the New Industrial Building. This is the first super cool stop. One of the places where prisoners work.
We went through a tunnel to enter the building. Fun fact: the tunnel had collapsed and the producers of The Rock paid to clear it for the movie. Another interesting fact: the scene in the tunnel was actually cut from the film.
Anyway, we got to explore the building, which I love. In case you were wondering, it doesn’t look like the carpenter’s room in Escape from Alcatraz. But it was still fun to visit.
Then we went to the cell house and stopped at the building where the guards’ family lived. We couldn’t go inside the building because it wasn’t secure, but it was fun to hear about the families who lived there. The children took the ferry to San Francisco every day to go to school and then spent their free time running around the island.
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We got to see the old gardens with narrow steps up very steep stairs. You can go the long way to avoid steps if you want. It’s pretty neat to see that there was once a beautiful garden on top of a big depressed piece of rock.
Once at the top, you get amazing views of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Bay Bridge. That is, if it’s not too foggy like when I visited.
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Then he moved to the camera house. We went straight to block D and down