It’s hard to deny the importance of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in modern history. After all, if the calm hadn’t been violated on that perfect blue Sunday morning in paradise, it’s hard to stay if America would have entered the Second World War and ultimately helped its European allies defeat the evil overtaking so many corners of the world.
But the importance doesn’t make visiting Pearl Harbor with kids any easier – parenting young children is hard enough without having to strip them of their innocence. Even so, we felt that it was important for our children to see and understand Pearl Harbor, just as we a few months earlier we had taken them to the sites of the D-Day invasion in Normandy, France.
The great news is that there are so many different sites to visit at Pearl Harbor that it’s easy to tailor the experience based on your child’s emotional preparation. Read on for suggestions on how to introduce this challenging time in history and what to do at Pearl Harbor with kids.
Before you go to Pearl Harbor with kids
For a successful and meaningful family visit to Pearl Harbor, it’s important that you do some groundwork in advance.
First, read this complete guide to learn about the different sites available. Don’t expect to fit them all in one day! You could easily spend two full days learning, remembering and honoring at Pearl Harbor… but most visitors don’t have that long, so you’ll want to plan your time wisely.
Second, as your visit approaches it’s helpful to talk to your kids about what happened at Pearl Harbor and even provide some basic context about World War II. We read this book aloud as a family after dinner over the course of three nights and it provided more details than any of us adults knew, but introduced the subject in a way that was approachable at ages 4 and 7. There are several excellent books about Pearl Harbor for kids:
Third, there is a Junior Ranger program at the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument. But it’s up to you parents whether or not you want to do it. We generally love the Junior Ranger booklets as a way to make sites more accessible and engaging for our kids. That said, sometimes the “gamification” can get in the way of kids being present. When you’re out on a hike and your kid is on the hunt for different pine trees, it’s not a big deal; in a solemn place of remembrance, it may be harder to keep kids focused when they’re in a hurry to check off all the boxes to earn a Junior Ranger badge.
We won’t judge you if you opt to get your kids the Junior Ranger books! We would recommend that you keep them off-limits (or don’t even pick them up) until after seeing the documentary and walking quietly around some of the memorials. You can purchase the booklets at the gift shop for $3 each or download and print them in advance for ages 3-6 or ages 7-12.
Things to do at the Pearl Harbor visitors center and Ford Island
USS Arizona Memorial
The USS Arizona memorial, built atop the sunken battleship adjacent to Ford Island, is surely the best known site at the Pearl Harbor memorial. It is only accessible by boat, and unfortunately the dock out at the memorial showed signs of structural instability in mid-2018 and is closed for repair until mid-2019.
But that doesn’t mean you should skip the centerpiece of the memorial! You’ll want to reserve your free ticket online here ($1 processing fee) at least a few days in advance (longer if you’re visiting during school holidays). The ticket includes viewing the extremely well-done 23-minute movie showing actual footage from the attack and newsreels along with recollections from survivors.
After the movie, everyone in the time slot is ushered outside for a narrated cruise around the harbor (normally this would be the time to visit the USS Arizona Memorial). You’ll hear a little more about the attack, but more about the history of the memorial itself (thank you, Elvis!) and stories of the heroes then and now.
How is it with kids? I won’t mince words, there are aspects of the movie that are scary. While there’s nothing graphic in terms of human casualties, it’s a huge screen showing huge explosions and the volume scales accordingly. Our 7yo was fine, but our 4yo was (naturally) scared and preferred to sit in our laps and cover her ears. We had prepared them in advance that it might be upsetting – just a small glimpse of how terrifying it was for those who lived through it. If you have younger and/or very sensitive children, consider bringing sound-blocking earmuffs and letting them face away from the screen. The documentary is 23 minutes long and screened in a fully-darkened movie theater. The harbor cruise is fine for kids of all ages, but we’d recommend a baby carrier for the tiniest visitors; strollers are not permitted on the shuttle boats.
Pearl Harbor exhibit galleries
In the courtyard leading to the theater, there are two exhibit galleries, “Road to War” and “Attack”, that are completely free to enter and require no tickets or advance planning. If you’re a museum buff like me, you can spend hours poring over the fascinating exhibits… or you can visit with kids. But even our 7yo found plenty to be interested in for about 30-45 minutes, and if you go through the exhibits together there’s a lot of great information about life at Pearl Harbor before, during and after the attack.
How is it with kids? The first gallery, “Road to War” has plenty of interesting things to look at that won’t upset anyone. The second gallery, “Attack”, has more graphic information and a video showing part of the attack. Since each gallery is small and has two doors, you’re never far from the exit if someone is upset.
Outside memorials and exhibits
On the walkways along the waterfront, you’ll find interpretive panels with information about the attack, the ships that were damaged and the human toll. There is also a memorial listing those killed in the attack (except those who died on the USS Arizona, whose names are etched there). We recommend allowing at least 15 minutes to walk through this area and compare the images on the panels with the tranquil scenes of today and take in the number of casualties.
How is it with kids? The comparison panels clearly show that you’re looking at the same spot were something of great consequence occurred. Seeing all of the names written out makes it easier for some kids to understand the severity of the attack (especially when reminded that half of the names aren’t displayed because they’re on the USS Arizona memorial).
Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum
For aviation enthusiasts, the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum tells the story of World War II through planes representing each of several vignettes in its main building. There is an introductory film and then you have the option of a guided or independent visit through the museum. As long as parents have done a little homework, we think that the museum’s content is very accessible to kids without a guide – and that gives the option of self-pacing.
The museum’s layout is very innovative and really fulfills its mission to educate visitors about aviation in the War in the Pacific. There are some fascinating stories told through the planes – some of which are unique surviving relics from the war – like the Ni’ihau incident and the Swamp Ghost. If you have souvenir shopping to do, this is the place: the enormous store at the entrance has anything Pearl Harbor you could imagine!
The second building is for the hard-core airplane lovers. It’s an entire hangar overflowing with more recent military aviation specimens from around the world, some of which are undergoing repair. The hangar was already built when the attack occurred, and it’s rather poignant to see the shattered glass still in the windows. Legend has it that the CO insisted on leaving it through the war to remind service members that they were working in a war zone.
The Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum is located on Ford Island, which can only be accessed by the free shuttle bus that departs from the Pearl Harbor visitors center. Once you enter and pick up your ticket, head to the right to board the next bus; the second stop will drop you off in front of the museum. Allow about 1.5 hours for the shuttle and museum visit. Admission is $20 for adults and $10 for children ages 4-12. Get the cheapest tickets through the Entertainment Book and the Go Oahu card – click to read our full Go Oahu card review + itinerary.
How is it with kids? The museum is awesome with kids! Seriously! The basic amount of information provided is easy to digest, but there are more details available if someone in the family wants them. You’ll see both American and Japanese planes and learn about both the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and later stages of the War in the Pacific. If your kids are adrenaline junkies, there’s even a flight simulator near the end of the main exhibit. For those visiting with younger kids, the entire museum is stroller-accessible (and the smaller screen of the introductory film makes it less intense than the main documentary at the USS Arizona memorial, though the material is similar).
USS Bowfin submarine
Have you ever been on a submarine? There are only a few places in the US where you can tour an actual Navy sub, and Pearl Harbor is one of them! The USS Bowfin, nicknamed the “Pearl Harbor Avenger” since it was launched exactly one year after the attack, has functioned as a museum for nearly four decades. It showcases the layout and feel of a typical WWII-era submarine as is still outfitted as it would have been when it was in service.
There’s a lot to love about the tour of the Bowfin. Your admission comes with a free audioguide, which offers both adult and family-friendly narration options (you can choose which one you want to hear at each stop). The most fascinating part of a submarine has to be the actual living conditions and the guide does a great job of illuminating the careful choreography required of crewmen.
There isn’t any history presented on the Bowfin that’s specific to Pearl Harbor, thought the ticket includes admission to the adjacent submarine warfare museum. Allow about an hour to tour the submarine (you can rush through in less if you need to, but where’s the fun in that?). Admission is $15 per adult and $7 for children ages 4-12; children under 4 are not allowed on the submarine. Get the cheapest tickets through the Entertainment Book and the Go Oahu card – click to read our full Go Oahu card review + itinerary.
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How is it with kids? In case you missed it above, children under 4 are not allowed on the submarine. There are steep stairs to go up and down on the sub and climbing through the doorways on the sub can be tricky (especially if you’re wearing a dress, like I was). Otherwise the visit to the USS Bowfin is just neat and memorable; there’s nothing that would scare or upset even the youngest visitors.
The Mighty Mo (USS Battleship Missouri Memorial)
If you’ve never been on a huge ship before, visit the “Mighty Mo” to see what life was like on one of the giant floating cities, similar to the ones that were sunk in 1941 – and then stand in the very spot where the peace treaty was signed ending the war in the Pacific four years later. Unfortunately this was the one spot at Pearl Harbor we didn’t make it to, but we’ve heard from other families that it’s a great place to visit with kids. The USS Missouri was in service from 1944 to 1992 and the interior reflects that span – ranging from original control panels to early desktop computers.
The ship offers several different tour options and you can choose to see everything (which should take around 2 hours) or focus on the elements that most interest you: life at sea, ship operations, the ship’s historical significance or special exhibitions. Even the basic tickets include an optional guided tour of the ship’s highlights.
Though the Battleship Missouri is the size of a small city, most of it is fully accessible to those with limited mobility or families who need to use a stroller! There are elevators to take visitors between decks.
Like the Aviation Museum, the Mighty Mo is located on Ford Island and can only be accessed by the free shuttle bus that departs from the Pearl Harbor visitors center. Once you enter and pick up your ticket, head to the right to board the next bus; the first stop will drop you off in front of the battleship – don’t worry, you can’t miss it. Allow 2-2.5 hours for the shuttle bus and battleship tour. Admission is $29 for adults and $13 for children ages 4-12. Get the cheapest tickets through the Entertainment Book and the Go Oahu card – click to read our full Go Oahu card review + itinerary.
How is it with kids? As I mentioned above in the interest of transparency, we weren’t able to make it to the Mighty Mo. But visitors with kids report that it’s plenty of fun for the family. The most somber part is the Surrender Deck; to get the most out of visiting, we’d recommend checking out some of the other sites (at least the free galleries first) so that your kids have the context to understand the significance of the surrender.
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Practical tips for your Pearl Harbor visit
-There is plenty of free parking on site, but you may have to proceed to the second lot to find a space if the first one is full. Alternatively, if you’re staying in Honolulu or Waikiki you can take TheBus or the trolley.
-You can try to see everything in one extremely packed day or split it in two.
-Make sure to reserve your USS Arizona tickets in advance for just $1 – a few days if you’re visiting off-season, a few weeks in advance if you’re visiting during school holidays.
-If you plan to visit multiple sites at Pearl Harbor in one day, consider the Go Oahu card to get the best value – check out our full review here. Another alternative is to purchase the Entertainment book for discounts.
-You can’t bring much of anything with you, as the area is an active military installation. No purse, no backpack, no diaper bag. How can you manage a full day with kids without a bag? There are a few strategies. You can bring a gallon-size Ziploc bag with your basics (which you can then put in a bag you buy in the gift shop, if you’re really slick) or you can wear clothing with ample pockets. For our visits we only brought our camera, collapsible water bottle and a small tube of sunscreen. If you plan to spend the whole day at Pearl Harbor, consider visiting the sites that aren’t on Ford Island in the morning, returning to your car for a picnic from your cooler, and then hitting the two Ford Island sites in the afternoon.
-Strollers are permitted at the Pearl Harbor visitors center (and you can put your water bottle and sunscreen in the cup holders!) but a comfortable baby carrier like this one may be more practical for navigating crowds, taking the boat, going on the bus and visiting the Mighty Mo.
-Hit the restroom before you line up outside the movie theater.
-If you want to buy food during the day, the most complete options are at the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum. The other sites mostly have snacks.
Thanks to our friends at the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum and Smart Destinations for hosting us; all opinions are my own.
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