On 15th February we visited Alcatraz as part of our course on tourism and authenticity.

Upon arriving at the dock, we were ushered through a long line with other tourists. On the way to the boat, all of the tourists had their pictures taken in front of a backdrop of an idyllic picture of Alcatraz (too bad we couldn’t see the real thing since it’s blocked by industrial buildings).

We hopped on the boat, enjoying the broader view of the island as well as the San Francisco skyline. As we arrived on the island, a representative from the prison spoke to us about the logistics of going through the prison, an outline of different things we could do in the prison, and the things we shouldn’t do, such as disturb the space.

We then began the actual audio tour of Alcatraz, “meeting” the narrators for the audio tour. This added to the feeling of authenticity, as the narrators were actual prisoners and prison guards of the past.

The audio tour tried to create an exciting mood while providing a history of the prison, supplying theatrical background noises such as banging, music, yelling, guards’ whistles, sirens, phones ringing, and other ominous noises. We were meant to feel more connected to the actual events that occurred and the violence associated with Alcatraz. They created a vivid retelling of the prison break.

We were strictly guided through the prison, taking a controlled, round-about route through the cells, walkways, and finally getting funneled into the surprisingly large gift shop. There, they sold “authentic” Alcatraz memorabilia, such as jackets, shirts, spoons, cups, soap, eating trays, and keys. These items were manufactured to replicate the items the prisoners and prison guards would actually have had.

We tried taking photos in prison cells. Even though the photos didn’t live up to our expectations because it was too dark and didn’t look that exciting, the experience of actually being in the cell was frightening.

We ended back on the dock, passing by the “Alcatraz Cafe” and the booth where we could buy the picture we took at the beginning in front of the backdrop.

All in all, we found this experience to be fairly authentic, with the few exceptions of contrived activities and theatrical effects on the tour.

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2 Responses to

  1. Tally Buckstaff says:

    Did the gift store influence your experience of the authenticity of the island in a negative way?

    • Kate says:

      Interesting question. I found the gift shop to be more amusing than anything else–that there were so many items that could be associated with Alcatraz’s somewhat dark history and be fun and frivolous at the same time. I guess the shop made me question the authenticity of the experience more than I have in the past. In a sense, having such an extensive array of things for sale marginalizes the actual history of Alcatraz, but being a tourist, I also enjoyed the gift shop at its face value!

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