Are you taking a day trip to see the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island? If so, you are in the right place! Featured today on Theresa’s Reviews, I’m sharing my first time traveling with my daughter to explore these historic destinations.
Our Statue of Liberty & Ellis Island Road Trip
On a Saturday morning, we woke up at 5 am. I brewed a highly caffeinated pot of coffee, and I stirred in my peppermint creamer for the holiday season. Our destination was a Christmas convention in New Jersey. I had intended to visit the convention with friends, but last minute my daughter begged me to attend. Eager to travel to a new state, she was willing to wake up earlier than usual and sleep in the car on the way there.
To be prepared for any situation, I added some granola bars, paper towels, and water bottles to a bag. I made sure to bring cash for shopping, which ended up being necessary for the pricey tolls on the New Jersey Turnpike.
We drove away from our small Mid-Atlantic town. The dark morning sky had not yet turned into a vibrant, welcoming orange and yellow sunrise. Our new 2019 Ford Escape kept us warm and comfortable during the drive with its heated seating. Since I was driving on unfamiliar roads, I knew that the safety features of my car would help, such as cross-traffic alert, the lane keeping system, and the light that comes on to tell me when I need to stop to rest or get a cup of coffee.
We traveled with only each other as road trip companions. She had the spontaneity of youth, while I hoped to satisfy the wanderlust that had grown out of the mundane routine of adulthood. It had been around 12 years since I first drove to New York City with my father when I admitted my dream of studying acting. When he walked out of the Barnes and Noble on 5th Avenue in Midtown Manhattan with a book on acting and the encouragement to go for my dream, I was almost brought to tears. Years later, this memory gave me hope that I might give my daughter a magical experience too.
As our shiny black car pulled into the fairly empty parking lot at 9:15 am in Edison, New Jersey, we wore our coziest sweaters to see the celebrities and festive decor at Hallmark’s Christmas Con. While meeting actress Melissa Joan Hart, she asked if we were visiting all the celebrities that day. I explained that we wanted to leave soon to drive to New York, where she had been the day before to visit her sister’s new baby.
Officially, we had not made an itinerary for the day. We had considered visiting the Thomas Edison National Museum or the Princeton University Art Museum, but the idea of seeing the iconic Statue of Liberty manifested itself in us. When we were waiting in line to see her, we had come up with a tentative plan. Lunch would be at 11 am, and then we would drive to see the Statue at a distance from Liberty State Park before returning home.
Harold’s New York Deli in Edison, New Jersey
After leaving the convention center at 11 am, lunch was at the epic Harold’s New York Deli in Edison, New Jersey. Earlier that morning, when I had woken my daughter up, I had told her about the the New Jersey pancakes that were half as big as she was. She didn’t believe me. Not only did she order the pancakes, but she also ordered sweet potato fries much to the waiter’s amusement. As the syrup slowly ran from the middle of the pancake towards the table, she gasped. She panicked over what she should do. We twirled the syrup around with a knife before she took bites from the middle.
When food is this visually impressive, the taste is of secondary importance, but it did not disappoint. Even my hot dog was twice the usual size, and it was incredible. The delicious sauerkraut, spicy mustard, and soft bun made it well worth getting. After, to satisfy my craving for sweetness, I took bites of the delectable chocolate chip pancake that had been baked in the oven because of its giganticness.
Liberty State Park Playground, New Jersey
We were filled with delicious food and holiday spirit. At noon, we decided to drive 30 more minutes. We planned to see the New York City skyline and the Statue of Liberty from a distance at the Liberty State Park in New Jersey. Traffic driving into the park wasn’t as bad as I had imagined. Unsure of where to pull in to get the best view, I rushed nervously because I thought the last ferry left in mere minutes.
I hoped to find the ticket booth for the ferry, but I followed another car that turned into the free parking lot for the playground. With a large rope set, giant turtle, and two big slides all looking out towards the New York City skyline, this was the perfect place for my daughter to climb and stretch. Unfortunately we could only see the back of the Statue of Liberty, which had been her main goal to see.
The cold weather began to chill our bones. I insisted we get back into the car where I could sink into its heated, leather seats before continuing on our journey.
Empty Sky Memorial
We kept driving further into the park until we came to the paid parking for the ferry. After walking from the parking lot to the ticket area, I realized that there was free parking closer, but it has a two hour limit. We paid a little over $5 for our parking.
Outside of the ticket booth, we saw the Empty Sky Memorial, which was made in commemoration of the lives lost during the 9/11 attacks. I’ll always remember sitting in my high school theater class when the announcement of the attacks was made. Since my daughter has read What Were the Twin Towers, she understood the importance of the names inscribed in the memorial and how solemn it was to see these two monuments against the New York City skyline.
Sadly, we saw a lot of people posing with big, touristy grins in front of the memorial. One woman dressed in a fashionable black leather outfit, a stylish black hat, and curly, perfectly-styled hair. She walked down the middle of the memorial, and she waited for another tourist to get out of the way, while her photographer tried to capture the perfect shot of her. It broke my heart to see adults behaving with poor taste and disrespect.
My daughter and I had an earnest talk about how to behave in a photo of a serious place. She was in awe to see this important memorial, and she sincerely wanted to have this moment captured, but with respect shown to all those involved in 9/11.
Liberty Island Ferry
Although I could have bought the ferry tickets online in advance, this spontaneous trip had started as an idea that slowly came into fruition. Luckily, it was simple to buy the tickets upon our arrival. Ferries leave every 25 minutes, so we were in time for the 2:00 pm trip.
Tickets are also available through New York CityPASS, which provides access to more attractions in New York City. Last year, my husband and I had a good experience using CityPASS to see Manhattan. This time, since my daughter and I weren’t heading into Manhattan, the individual tickets for the ferry made more sense.
Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration
When we boarded, good seating with a window view was plentiful. We shopped for souvenirs, but we skipped the snacks since leftover pancakes were waiting in our car. Several minutes later, we arrived at the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration. I had always wanted to show my daughter my grandfather’s name in the records there. As a third generation immigrant, re-discovering the history of my family has always mattered to me. Now I could pass this knowledge on to her. She never met her great-grandfather, but now she could understand her heritage more.
Since we were trying to catch a ferry to the Statue of Liberty one hour later, we didn’t explore Ellis Island as much as we could have. It wasn’t until the end of our trip that we realized we could have waited for another one because they run all day.
While at Ellis Island, we paid for a 30 minute increment of time on a computer. Using the research database, we could locate my family members’ names, ships, and dates they came over to America. After locating my grandfather’s name in the database, my daughter made sure I had the information emailed to myself. She was devastated we couldn’t find my grandmother’s name, but we will make sure to return at some point after doing more research.
In the children’s area of the museum, she picked up tools like the ones used to inspect those who entered the country. We passed the inspection room to get to the early 1900’s immigration area. In this empty room, a large, old photograph showed the room filled with immigrants being inspected before being allowed to enter the country. The image shocked us because we could really imagine it filled with people standing right where we were.
Outside the museum, the American Immigrant Wall of Honor is a wall where family members commemorate the names of their relatives by having names inscribed on a panel. My grandfather’s name is inscribed there, which we had hoped to see. Since we saw our ferry arriving in the distance, unfortunately we had to leave before seeing it.
The Statue of Liberty
Our ferry pulled closer to the Statue of Liberty. The passengers around us exclaimed in excitement and they began photographing their loved ones in front of it. A brunette toddler wearing a fashionable red jacket smiled for her mother. Older couples embraced.
Seeing the statue in the distance reminded me of a moment in my childhood when I had marveled over seeing this view for the first time. Now, my childhood memory engulfed me again, but there was a new moment that had an impact on me. As my child saw it for the first time, I could see from her wide-eyed grin that it was unforgettable to her.
She wondered why the flame of the statue was gold, which we found out the answer to during our visit to the museum. The armature of the flame is on display along with old photos of it and descriptions of how it was built.
I would highly recommend watching the video at the museum. It explained that the statue was a symbol of having freedom within the constructs of law and equality. The kid-friendly explanation made the experience more meaningful.
I liked that the museum had interactive displays, like the life-size face that guests are allowed to touch. At another interactive display, we took a selfie that was then transferred to a wall where all the photos became one giant mural.
View of the Manhattan Skyline
Our ferry started to pull back in to Liberty State Park, but its arrival to the shore of New Jersey was momentarily thwarted by an unknown problem. The captain came on over the intercom to let us know without much detail that the boat was unable to pull up to the dock. We waited for several moments with as my phone’s battery went from 14% to 7%. I imagined what might happen if the boat was stalled for an hour or more. Perhaps it could be a sign that we should stay in Manhattan for the night. I resigned myself to the inevitable possibility that we might have to get a hotel on Times Square and go shopping in the morning.
Suddenly, the ferry lurched forward as the sun was setting above us. At 5 pm, it had been only 12 hours since we had awoken, and we had accomplished a tremendous amount of learning and exploring. Fueled by caffeine from Starbucks for me and a decaf for her, we journeyed home, stopping along the way for more tolls. We arrived to our house by 8 pm with Statue of Liberty pens, NYC snow globes, and Santa hats as souvenirs, and the next morning we enjoyed sharing a delicious leftover pancake with our loving family.
A week later, the payback for taking one sibling to see New York City was that the other insisted on being my exclusive date to see the screening of Frozen 2, which you can read about here.