What to Do: Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island
And speaking of icons, it is hard to find two more well-known than the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. You can visit them both, with a nice ferry ride and a skyline view thrown in, in one day. The trip is a nice mix of basic tourism (skyline view), history (Ellis), and park-like settings in the clean harbor air after all that taxi and bus fuming in the City.
Both islands are convenient for kids, with flat paved areas, places to eat, decent pacing and plenty of toilets. You can engage the places as mini-theme parks for a casual visit, or dig in a bit to the history with older kids.
You trip starts in Battery Park at the lower end of Manhattan. The park and the area around it is worth some exploration of its own; read our tips here. The key thing is that you will want to either learn to enjoy waiting in long lines in the hot sun or buy your tickets in advance. We stupidly did not shop ahead and waited over an hour just for tickets. Instead, you can book ahead online or probably through your hotel.
With the tickets, you then wait to board the ferry. All passengers also have to undergo an airline-like security screening, complete with X-rays and metal detectors, so plan on shuffling through a snaky line so some guy can paw through your diaper bag.
The ferry ride out to the Statue of Liberty is quite pleasant, though the boat does rock a bit in the waves. For those prone to seasickness, sit inside on the lower levels. For those prone to wanting the best views, sit up top near the back of the boat. The ride is short enough, maybe 15 minutes, and then you hop off on Liberty Island. You pay for the ferry ride but admission to Liberty and Ellis Islands is free; both are national parks.
Right as you exit the ship you'll pass a restaurant, which is also your closest access to toilets. If you pass on food and the toilets, wander around the perimeter to see the Statue in all her glory. While you can get up pretty high on the base if you have a timed ticket (they run out fast), the interior of the statue is closed, another victim of anti-terrorism measures. There are usually some food carts with hot dogs and pretzels around the walkway, a cheaper alternative to the food court area. The NYC side of the Statue offers some nice shady, grassy areas that are perfect for picnics and snapshots.
Careful in the souvenir shop. It suffers from terminal tackiness and overpricing; buy much of the same junk cheaper in Chinatown.
When it is time to leave, be prepared to stand in line for the boat. The line does not move at all for awhile, and then when your ship comes in everybody boards at once for the five minute hop to Ellis Island.
Some huge percentage of all of us reading this in America can trace our presence in the country to immigrant relatives, many of whom passed through Ellis Island. Between 1892 and 1954, approximately 12 million steerage and third class steamship passengers, who entered the United States through the port of New York, were legally and medically inspected at Ellis Island. The whole place has been turned into a museum recognizing the significant role immigration played in the history of the U.S., with you as a participant in the exhibit.
What I mean by all this is that there are several things going on at once at Ellis Island. The most obvious is that portions of the facility have been turned into an excellent traditional museum. Older kids will enjoy the free 30 minute introductory film, and some may opt for the for-fee live theatre performances also offered (we skipped it for time). There are showy exhibits such as the piles of trunks and suitcases left behind by immigrants (why?) and more intellectual stuff with lots of charts and numbers. All good stuff well-presented.
Ellis – The Great Hall
The most interesting thing about Ellis Island if the presentation of the Great Hall, the area where masses of immigrants lined up to be interviewed and inspected. As you can see from the photos, the Hall has been restored to pretty back how it looked back in the day, complete with four neat inspection desks lined up at one end. After noticing the nice flags and admiring the sunny feeling the large windows create, you begin to notice the noise you and your fellow tourists make in the echo-y hall. As people gather in clumps for photos, or larger groups when a Ranger appears to lecture a bit, the place starts to crowd up. We had been resting with our backs against a pillar when the Ranger asked us to move a bit so she could gather a group. Without realizing it, you become part of the Ellis Island recreation, experiencing the Hall the way your great grandparents might have. I can't say whether this was creative thinking on the part of the National Park Service or just excellent serendipity, but it is brilliant.
Ellis – For Research
Another cool thing going on at Ellis is its use as a research center for genealogists, amateur and otherwise. You can search their database of immigration records for free at numerous public terminals. You will quickly see if a record exists on say Grandma. Then, if you want to pursue it further, you head over to the records center and for a small fee you can search the records in more detail. The end result is that you will be looking at the handwritten manifest showing your relative's name as she arrived on the island; you can also see a photo of the ship that carried her. If you want, you can then pay a more sizable fee for a very nice reproduction/printout of the manifest and ship photo, truly suitable for framing.
You can also do a lot of the searching online.
Ellis – Honoring Immigrants and a Skyline View to Die For
Lastly, have a look out back and use the computer to see if any familiar names appear on the wall honoring immigrants. The names appear only if you or someone sent a US$100 donation to the museum a few years back, but even if you are not represented on the wall the area is a nice spot for a stroll. The greenspace nearby is usually empty, a real shame as it offers one of the best skyline views of Manhattan you can get at any price. In your case, the price is free. Enjoy.