It was April 15, 1912 that the “unsinkable” Titanic submerged into the icy waters of the North Atlantic, about 400 miles south of Newfoundland and about 1,100 nautical miles east of New York City.
It was March 23, 1963 that Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, located on an island in the frigid, but not icy, waters of the Pacific, closed after three prisoners famously escaped the “inescapable” prison and set off a series of acrimonious investigations that revealed major structural issues and expensive operations.
So it makes sense all these years later that tributes to the unsinkable ship and the prison, battle for tourist dollars in Pigeon Forge, hundreds of miles from the nearest drop of salt water.
What do the Titanic Museum and the Alcatraz East museum have in common?
On the surface, the Titanic Museum and Alcatraz East have relatively little in common outside of being attractions along the same main strip in one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations in Pigeon Forge, Tenn.
But, the lingering legacy of Titanic and Alcatraz, that each has the staying power to draw tens of thousands of visitors despite having absolutely no connection to the area, speaks to a deeper, slightly unsettling connection.
That connection is us and our fascination with unnatural death, with horrors we can experience from a distance.
It’s our fascination with unhappy endings that keep such places, if you’ll pardon the phrase, afloat.
Why I love The Titanic Museum
Despite the incongruous nature of the faux-Titanic rising up over the Parkway, I love it.
I’m a history geek and so I’m all in for a chance to see the $1.7 million violin played by RMS Titanic bandleader Wallace Hartley as the ship slipped into the lethally frigid water.
I love to see authentic artifacts from the ship, to read the exhibits explaining why the ship’s systems failed.
I love to marvel at the opulence that was Titanic. To think about what an absolute marvel of engineering the great ship was despite its ultimate fate.
But that’s not why we remember Titanic. We remember it for the lesson in hubris it provides.
We remember it for the disaster of more than a thousand lives lost needlessly.
We remember it because Rose wouldn’t slide over 8 inches and make room for Leo on that gigantic floating door.
What’s inside Alcatraz East?
Ultimately, Alcatraz East scratches a similar itch, but it does it with less pretense of a respectable presentation of history.
There’s no pretending that we’re there to ponder silver cutlery or make hilarious iceberg puns.
When you go to Alcatraz East, you’re going to learn about murder, death and mayhem … But have a good time doing it.
It’s best at this point to own up to my own hypocrisy.
While I’m uncomfortable with exhibits featuring serial killer Ted Bundy’s VW Beetle, and to a lesser degree, the White Ford Bronco from OJ’s chase, I’m all about Jesse James, Bonnie and Clyde and others.
I think the line is essentially my own birth.
I feel a little morally squeamish paying money to gawk at the relics of a man who brutally kidnapped, raped and murdered numerous young women in the 70s.
However, when I went to London, I paid good money for a tour following the footsteps of Jack the Ripper.
So, as I express my own hesitation at return visits to Alcatraz East, it is with the knowledge that my hypocrisy knows no bounds.
Honoring the real-life victims with self reflection
Of course, Alcatraz East goes to great pains to make sure you understand it’s not a place celebrating the lives of the world’s most notorious people.
There are also exhibits celebrating the lives of the men and women who stopped the scourge, who work to solve crimes and keep people safe from the likes of Ted Bundy or John Dillinger.
Still, there’s a reason we can rattle off names like Capone, Dillinger or Pretty Boy Floyd but, with the exception of Elliot Ness, can’t name a single law enforcement officer who brought them to justice.
And so, as I look upon Dillinger’s death mask, Capone’s rosary or Bundy’s trial dental mode, it isn’t without a least some self-reflection.
The Titanic Museum vs. Alcatraz East: Which attraction is better?
Yes, I find these things interesting – not so much the dental mold – and I appreciate their connection to history.
But should I? It’s a moral quandary which I am unequipped to parse whilst on vacation with the family.
So, in a battle for historic museum dollars for things that happened in the ocean hundreds of miles away, I have to give an advantage to Titanic.
Ultimately, I’d much rather see that violin and think about the resolve of the man who believed it was his duty to keep playing in the face of impending doom than see Ted Bundy’s typewriter.
How much the Alcatraz East or Titanic Museum cost?
These two attractions are similarly priced, but Alcatraz East is a little less expensive if you’re comparing vacation dollars.
At the time of this writing, an adult ticket to Alcatraz East will cost you $26.95. A child’s ticket (8-12) will cost $14.95. Children under 7 are free. Sometimes booking through Tripster can save you a couple bucks.
Comparatively, adult tickets at the Titanic Museum cost $28, and $15 for children 5-12. Again, Tripster has an offer that starts around $25 for adults.
The Titanic Museum also currently requires reservations.
Which attraction do you prefer? Let us know in the comments!