Travelling Blind: Alcatraz

Updated: Sep 3, 2020

This guidance is based on our own experience at Alcatraz. We cannot guarantee that all staff will act in the same way.

I have been to the fantastic city, that is San Francisco, many times. It was the first place in America I had ever travelled to, and the clam chowder in a sourdough bowl has me hooked. However, I have only ever visited Alcatraz twice. The first time I visited, I was in my very early 20's and didn't care too much for sights and history, and I still had my vision. I returned in 2019, but the experience was completely different: I now have an interest in history, and I have a visual impairment.

Searching for suitable holidays for disabled people can be overwhelming. Not only are you trying to find accessible accommodation, but also hoping that there are accessible tourist attractions. Alcatraz offers a variety of aids depending on your needs, including an audio-described or Braille transcript of the audio tour. It can all be found on their website at

Alcatraz is a former federal prison located on Alcatraz Island. It can be found just offshore from San Francisco and can be reached by a cruise from Pier 33. The prison was home to America's most dangerous criminals, including Prohibition-era gangster, Al Capone. Although 'Scarface' ordered the assassination of seven rivals in the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, he was not in Alcatraz for these gangster-related crimes. Instead, he was imprisoned for 22 counts of tax evasion.

I pre-booked my Alcatraz tour online as I have learnt over the years you can get scammed purchasing from unauthorised sellers. You get emailed a confirmation with a QR code (this is a barcode-like-box symbol that most places now seem to use and scan). Although there were few different tour options, we opted for a self-guided audio tour, the most common one. I found the confirmation email very informative as it recommends times to begin boarding as lines get long.

On the day, we headed down to the pier to exchange our email confirmation for tickets, and we were ridiculously early. Initially, we looked around the pier to see whether or not to wait there or walk somewhere else. There is a small café, some restrooms, and a canopy covering part of the waiting area. But, because the sun was beating down on us, we felt our time would be better invested in purchasing some ice cream instead.

So, after a short walk back along the piers, we found an ice cream vendor, bought the biggest one possible, and head back to get in line. By the time we returned to Pier 33, our ice creams had been devoured (clearly, we didn't get a big enough ice cream) and we were ready to get in line to board the boat.

Having my white cane with me highlighted my disability, and upon seeing us, the staff were quick to come over and offer assistance. We were ushered to a separate area to sit and wait. Anyone who requires any form of extra assistance can advise when picking up their tickets. Once it is time to board, the special assistance area is boarded first. I found this very helpful as I'm cautious of how slow I can be on unfamiliar grounds!! It was also useful as we were guided to seating by the exit doors. We sat inside and downstairs, but some people may wish to experience the bay view from outside on the upper decks.

Once we arrived at "The Rock", we were again given priority to disembark and offered a buggy ride up to the prison. Knowing how steep and winding the hill up to the prison was from the first time I went, I jumped at the chance (on a hot day it was a pleasant little treat). You do not have to be disabled or unable to walk to ride the buggy; however, priority is given to those who need it. It is worth bearing in mind that the carriage goes very slow and we were overtaken by people walking.

Once inside, you are given your headsets and instructed about where to start the audio tour. The equipment itself is a small headset and has a play, pause and volume button. The language is pre-set to English – but they offer a variety of languages when you are given the device. We opted to use the stairs as I had my white cane with me, but the advisors are there to take you to the lifts should you want to use them. The grounds are flat, and the steps have the usual markings.

The audio tour is very descriptive, but doing this without a companion to help would be difficult. The audio tour tells you the route to take throughout the prison and tells you where to stop. There are several plaques you need to stand in front of, and the audio description will explain what you are looking at. However, due to the number of people standing in front of it, the stops can be hard to see. Patience is definitely needed, and as long as you have lots of time, you'll enjoy the experience.

There is also a cinema-style screening showing a short video. This was large enough that I could see the video and there is a gift shop you can go to as you leave. Once we had finished the tour, we walked back around the prison and island to see more of it.

The buggy services back down to the cruise run on a schedule. They would tell you this if you used it on the way up, or it can be found on a board when you first step off of the cruise. There is no need to book a time, you can just join the short line to get the buggy down the hills to board the boat. Again, you are given priority boarding for your journey back the bay.

Would I recommend Alcatraz as a suitable holiday attraction for disabled people?

As a blind person, I felt that Alcatraz was really accommodating and accessible for my disability needs as well as others. I did struggle at points, but the experience for me outweighed the difficulties.

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