“It’s Elvis!” our five-year-old daughter, Bria, squeals, reminiscent of his hordes of screaming fans.
It doesn’t matter that he passed away before her mother was born. Our little girl is a great big Elvis fan. So when our road trip was taking us through Tennessee, one point on our itinerary was abundantly clear. We were headed to Graceland.
In celebration of Elvis Week, here are some tips and tricks we learned from our visit to the home of the King.
When to Go
I strongly recommend going early in the day. The first tour is at 9 a.m. We were on the 10 a.m. mansion tour, and when we returned to visit the other museums, lines were starting to get really crazy. Save yourself some headache, and arrive as early in the day as possible.
Parking at Graceland is $10, but Graceland Crossing is a block away, and was free when we were there. RVs are $15. Another option is to do the Sun Studios tour and utilize their free shuttle. Pickup is at the Memphis Rock and Soul Museum on Beale Street.
You’re going to want to wear that baby. Imagine trying to push your stroller (no matter how compact) up and down the halls of your grandmother’s 1950s Colonial. Now throw about 30 people into the mix and consider your sanity.
(Edited to add: I have learned that strollers aren’t allowed in the actual mansion, but can be used for the rest of the tour. I still wouldn’t recommend it, except maybe on the parking side of the street.)
Cameras are welcome throughout the tour, though they do ask that flashes be kept off to preserve the integrity of the collection. I handed my phone over to Bria and it really did the trick to keep her engaged – she had to explore each and every item in order to get just the right shot of it.
There are several different options for tickets, depending how long you want to spend exploring, and kids six and under are free with any of the packages. We purchased the Platinum plus Airplanes tour, which is the sort of “middle” package, and turned out to be a good fit for us. We skipped only one thing – the “Elvis’ Tupelo” tour, which explores his years growing up in Tupelo, about 90 miles from Memphis – because the little one was tired and hungry, but if we had more available time, we easily could have fed her and come back for that.
I debated whether to add the airplanes, but I was glad we did. Both girls loved that part of the tour, especially exploring the Lisa Marie. It was by far the quietest part of our visit.
It’s not cheap, so be expecting that. Be sure to check prices online ahead of time so you know what you are getting yourself into. Also check for coupons! When we went, there was a coupon on the website for 50% off child/student fares, which saved me $18.
Tickets in hand, we lined up for the shuttle, which takes visitors across the street to the mansion itself. We didn’t wait long, but there was plenty space for the line to get huge.
Once through the infamous sheet music gates and up the driveway, the entrance to Graceland comes into view – four stone steps, flanked by lions. The shuttle drops us out front, where we are encouraged to step inside, and come back at the end of the tour for any outdoor photos.
We explored the foyer, living room, and dining room, then went through the kitchen to the basement, where we saw the billiard room and the TV room. On the way back up, you can check out the aptly named Jungle Room. It’s gaudy, even garish, but isn’t that the point? I mean, it’s Elvis!
(Want to be proud of your child’s ability to make abstract connections to cultural references? Try hearing your five-year-old sing, “Down in the Jungle Room” to the tune of Mark Cohn’s Walking in Memphis as she walks into the actual Jungle Room. Yep, that’s cool stuff.)
The house itself is quite large (originally more than 10,000 square feet, before the additions), but visitors are welcomed into a small piece of it. The upstairs is left sealed off, out of respect for the family. Polite staff members stand at each potential wrong turn to point us in the right direction.
The iPad Tour
Each adult and child over 6 is issued an iPad and headphones (headphones and a splitter for those under 6). As visitors move from room to room, the iPad provides a guided tour, narrated by John Stamos and featuring bits from Elvis himself, along with his daughter Lisa Marie.
I have to say, this was not my favorite thing. You know the way your kids shout when they have headphones on their ears? Yeah, that. Oh, and there is lots of stuff to touch, but they can’t hear you telling them not to.
I get that it saves worrying about languages, and allows the tour to be narrated without employing tour guides, but this iPad system is simply not designed for families. We found them cumbersome at best, and took the headphones off after the first room. I’m sure we missed some nuance, but it made for a much more child-friendly tour. (And so much better than constantly screaming at our children like the unfortunate family just ahead of us.)
I suggest bringing an empty bag of some sort – think reusable shopping bag – to stash the electronics in once your family gets bored with them.
With all that said, if it had been just my husband and I visiting, I probably would have enjoyed the iPad tour. It gives a sort of “Pop-Up Video” aspect, offering interesting tidbits throughout. By the way, in case it applies, the iPads offer the tour in English, German, Italian, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, and French.
I’m not sure I went in realizing how much there would be to see beyond the actual mansion itself. Graceland’s 14-acre grounds are an impressive expanse, including a handful of buildings housing his many collections. The outdoor time also offered a few places for fidgety children to run a bit and get out some of the energy from being well behaved inside.
After the first floor and basement of the mansion, the tour flows through the office of Elvis’ dad, Vernon Presley. Bria loved seeing Lisa Marie’s swing set outside the office, and the horses nearby.
Next were the trophy building and the racquetball building. It is quite the collection, chronicling an amazing career. There were more gold and platinum records than you could imagine, plus costumes, awards, cancelled checks from Elvis’ many, many donations to charities, and lots more. As former Jaycees, it was fun to see what a special place his Outstanding Young Men award held – the display even included the outfits Elvis and Priscilla wore to the banquet where he accepted the honor.
I read quite a few reviews from people feeling rushed, but we really took our time and felt comfortable with that. Everyone was walking through at their own pace, and moving on when they were ready. I imagine part of this was the time of day – see the recommendation on going as early as possible to avoid the largest crowds. In addition, be aware of how vast the collection is. Each ticket notes approximately how long the recommended tour is (ours was 2 1/2 to 3 hours), so don’t plan anything too soon after and rush yourself.
A beautiful feature Elvis had added to his home for meditation and reflection, the Meditation Garden is a serene little piece of paradise at the end of the tour. It is also his final resting place, along with that of his parents and grandmother, and a memorial to his stillborn twin brother. If your children aren’t prepared for the experience of visiting graves, just walk around the opposite side of the fountain (between the Meditation Garden and pool), it will lead you back to the gates just the same.
Once we had finished exploring the grounds, it was back to the shuttle. There were two lines here, one for those who had purchased Graceland only packages to return across the street, and one that took visitors to the Archives.
A new feature added in August 2014, the Archives include rows and rows of library-style drawers filled with items from Elvis’ personal collection, like concert posters, buttons, shopping lists, receipts, and lots more. This post from the Graceland blog tells more about what is included in the collection.
The girls enjoyed exploring the contents of the drawers and checking out the artifacts collected there, then we moved into a large theater for the Graceland Archives Studio Experience, a collection of videos of some of Elvis’ most iconic performances. Bria danced her heart out, then got some downtime while she watched “her star” sing.
Following the show, we loaded back onto the shuttle and crossed the street to the rest of the exhibits, Graceland Plaza and Graceland Crossing.
The airplanes – a 1958 Convair 880 named Lisa Marie and a smaller Lockheed Jet Star – were interesting to check out, especially for the kids.
Elvis spent more than $800,000 remodeling the Lisa Marie, customizing it with a living room, conference room, sitting room, and private bedroom. There are suede and leather-covered tables and chairs, and even 24-karat gold lined sinks in the bathroom and gold-plated seat belts.
The Elvis Presley Automobile Museum was also a hit. The man loved his cars! Set up like a tree-lined street, the collection includes everything from a go-cart and dune buggy to a 1975 Dino Ferrari and a 1973 Stutz Blackhawk. The girls were a little disappointed to see the pink Cadillac was on tour in Europe!
In the center of the Automobile Museum is a sort of drive-in movie theater where you can pull up a bench and see clips of some of Elvis’ driving scenes from his movies. It was fun to pick out movies we knew, and play a sort of trivia game while taking a break from all of the walking.
Our final stop (after a treat of Dippin’ Dots and sodas – it was HOT) was at the Elvis’ Hawaii exhibit. We enjoyed the clips of his concerts and home videos (apparently never-before-seen) of Elvis in one of his favorite places. A highlight for us was learning the story behind his involvement in raising the money needed for the Pearl Harbor Memorial.
If you are wondering if you should bring your little Elvis fan to Graceland, we say yes! Graceland is definitely a hit for curious kids – they even offer an annual Home School Day event. If you’ve been, share your favorite moments with us in the comments below!