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Let’s start out with the elephant in the room. Why is there a crime museum in Pigeon Forge named after the famous San Francisco island prison? We’re not sure either. Their website says the architecture blends together a mixture that represents both Tennessee’s first state prison in Nashville as well as the original Alcatraz. It feels like an odd combination — so odd, in fact, that it made it to our list of out-of-place attractions in the Smokies.
According to Wikipedia, the museum once operated as the National Museum of Crime and Punishment in Washington, DC. But, however it made its way to the Smokies, I’m glad it found a home here. It fits right in with the upside-down building and King Kong climbing the Empire State Building.
Initially, I assumed Alcatraz East would mostly be a dedication to its namesake, with loads of fun Alcatraz facts and some miscellaneous American crime history sprinkled in. Surprisingly, it’s a bit of the inverse. It’s mostly American crime history with a few Alcatraz facts sprinkled in.
You begin the tour with how most criminals start their prison time – with a mugshot. And as you walk through the museum, you walk through various galleries dedicated to the antiheroes of American history. The museum makes a point to humanize the stories of the victims and celebrate law enforcement.
At this museum, you can learn everything you ever wanted to know about all types of crime — anything from pirates, Old West gunslingers and white-collar criminals to modern-day murderers.
One of my favorite exhibits was the Crime Scene Investigation gallery, where you learn about the use of forensic science, DNA, facial reconstruction and fingerprinting — AND see a real body in the middle of the room. (Okay, not real, but it’s a cool feature). Along the walls, you also see morgues. Despite the sign that says they do not open, you can tell almost every guest passing through attempts to open them. I’m personally hoping the museum decides to make these slide out one day as a fun surprise.
The museum also has a dedication to 9/11. It’s very respectfully done, and guests can write notes about where they were when it happened. Some of the notes said they were there when it happened. It’s definitely a solemn part of the tour.
Overall, the museum is interactive. Throughout, you’ll find little challenges such as gunslinging, safe cracking, lie detectors and trivia questions. But it’s also a lot of reading.
The amount of reading is probably my only one real complaint, and it’s a small one. Sure, you can pay a few extra bucks to have an audio-guided tour, but in my opinion, the museum could use a few employees (or even crime-enthusiast volunteers) sprinkled throughout the galleries to talk to guests, answer questions and elaborate on the stories.
In fact, during our visit we bumped into a self-described historian who talked to my family and me and did just that. Alcatraz East, if you’re listening, you should go find that guy and hire him.
Overall though, it’s a very interesting museum and great for crime buffs and crime show enthusiasts alike.
What to know before you go
- Most importantly, take a bathroom break before you start. Alcatraz East doesn’t have a restroom in the lobby area, and you have to go roughly more than halfway through the museum before you reach a dang potty. My tiny bladder and I think that’s a crime in itself.
- There is not a restaurant in the museum — but since it’s right next to the Island, you have some restaurants within walking distance.
- Expect to be there about 2-3 hours, but if you read everything, you could stay there almost all day.
- Parking is free at the back of the museum, and since it’s at the entrance of The Island, you could also take advantage of The Island’s parking on a busy day.
Why it’s good for (older) kids
While I honestly think young kids could stand a chance to get bored here (as I mentioned, lots of reading), it’s full of teachable moments for older kids. The museum is chock-full of history, and there’s a lot of science and puzzle solving that goes hand-in-hand with crime. Alcatraz East can help children understand the roles that contribute to a crime and the judicial system that protects and enforces its consequences.
Temporary exhibits and programs
Along with the general admission ticket, guests can opt for an audio tour guide, narrated by Bill Kurtis, most famously known for his narration of “Cold Case Files.”
A “Top Detective Challenge” guidebook and “Heist” challenge are also available as add-ons. The guidebook provides guests with a chance to find missing artifacts from the museum’s private collection. In the heist challenge, guests can maneuver their way through a laser security system. These activities are welcome to all ages.
The museum is always adding to its collection and has a panel of experts who make up the Advisory Board, including people in law enforcement, collectors, a medical examiner, crime scene investigators and more. Temporary exhibits are often done in partnerships with outside programs and are included with every ticket. The newest exhibit expected to come to Alcatraz East is a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation gallery, scheduled to arrive in May 2020.
Alcatraz East also recently launched a book club, where crime enthusiasts can join forces and talk about juicy crime novels and take part in discussions, polls and more. To find out more, click here.
To learn more:
Guests of all ages are welcome at Alcatraz East. This family attraction is located at the entrance of The Island in Pigeon Forge. General admission tickets are $14.95 for children and $24.95 for adults. The museum is open daily from 10 am to 9 pm, with the last ticket sold 60 minutes before closing. For more information, visit www.alcatrazeast.com.
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