One of the highlights of my visit to Pearl Harbor in August 2023 was my Top of the Tower tour at the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum. This exclusive tour is (pretty much) brand new and I highly recommend taking it if you have the chance. And this post is here to explain why!
I’ll also explain what the tour actually is, what to expect, and all the things you need to know about Pearl Harbor’s Top of the Tower tour. So let’s get to it!
What’s the Top of the Tower tour?
Only open since June 2022, the Top of the Tower tour is still pretty new. So it makes sense if you haven’t heard about it. I didn’t even learn about it until I was already in Hawaii plotting out my week on Oahu.
In fact, when I booked my tower tour I still didn’t have a clue what to expect; I just knew I wanted to go up there. (If there’s a tower, I’m climbing it. Church tower, bell tower, skyscraper, mountain viewing platform, it doesn’t matter. I have whatever the opposite of a fear of heights is.)
According to them, the Top of the Tower tour is “a once-in-a-lifetime experience featuring the Pearl Harbor battlefield from the iconic Ford Island Control Tower.” But even that’s a little vague. So, let me try…
The Top of the Tower Tour at the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum is a small-group tour to the viewing deck at the top of the Ford Island Control Tower where an expert guide describes the Pearl Harbor attack from this unique 360° vantage point.
The Ford Island Control Tower is 15 stories (168 feet) tall.
What’s the Ford Island Control Tower?
The Ford Island Control Tower was to be the aircraft control tower at the Ford Island Naval Air Station. Construction on the tower began in 1939, and by the time Pearl Harbor was attacked it was only 80% completed. Still, it was moderately operational.
At 8:05am on December 7, 1941, it broadcast the first radio alert of the attack from the operations center at its base. “AIR RAID ON PEARL HARBOR X THIS IS NO DRILL.” It continued guiding U.S. aircraft in and out of the airfield while being strafed and bombed by Japanese attackers. The tower survived the Pearl Harbor attack and was completed five months later on May 1, 1942.
The Ford Island Control Tower is part of what’s officially known as Operations Building S84. This building also included a garage, administrative offices, barracks, and a water tank. After the war, Building S84 was used in a variety of ways. These included training facilities and offices, a fire station, and even a chapel. And as things go, it’s now a museum and tourist attraction.
You can see the Ford Island Control Tower in popular movies like Pearl Harbor (2001) and Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970). (Except, in Tora! Tora! Tora! the tower is shown as being completed and operational because, when the movie was filmed, it was. Just go with it.)
Top of the Tower tour: What to expect
When you arrive for your Top of the Tower tour, you’ll check in at the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum reception deck then head across the lot to the tower. Once everyone has arrived, the guides will take you up to the top of the tower via a 45-second elevator. (It holds just 3 visitors at a time so it may take a few minutes to get everyone up there).
At the top, you’ll have a some time to walk around on your own, check out the views, and take pictures. Your guide will then describe in depth how the Pearl Harbor attack unfolded.
Afterwards, you’ll have some time to ask questions, chat with the guide, and take more pictures if you want before heading down the elevator and back into the 21st century.
With the exception of the Top of the Tower tour, here’s why you should never book a Pearl Harbor tour! (Please read this. Buyer beware!)
Is the Top of the Tower tour worth it?
The tour is relatively short and the price is relatively high, but I absolutely think the Pearl Harbor Top of the Tower Tour is worth it. You can visit all the Pearl Harbor historic sites and you’d still never get to see it like this, from this vantage point.
I’m about to give you 8 more reasons why I think this tour is amazing, but just know that overall I definitely found this tour worth the cost and effort.
Top of the Tower tour: Need to know
Here are a few important things you need to know before booking Pearl Harbor’s Top of the Tower tour:
When is the Top of the Tower tour offered?
The Aviation Museum’s Top of the Tower tour is offered every day of the week from 9:40am to 4:20pm. Tours take place every 40 minutes (so, at 9:40am, 10:20am, 11:00am, 11:40am, 12:20pm, 1:00pm, 1:40pm, 2:20pm, 3:00pm, 3:40pm, and 4:20pm).
Tours are not offered when the museum is closed: Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.
How long is the Top of the Tower tour?
The Top of the Tower tour is a 30-minute experience from start to finish. (Plan to arrive early just in case since there are no refunds and they won’t take late-comers.)
You must make a reservation
There are only three Pearl Harbor sites that require you to make a reservation and this is one of them. (The other two are the USS Arizona Memorial and the Ford Island Bus Tour.)
Spots on the Top of the Tower tours are super limited so you must make a reservation beforehand. As far as I can tell, you can make your reservation as far in advance as you wish. Right now, I can see at least a year ahead in their reservation calendar. You can reserve your spot(s) here.
The Top of the Tower tour costs extra
The Top of the Tower tour isn’t included in your general admission ticket to the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum. You have to purchase this tour separately.
But the good thing is that you can save some money if you pay for it at the same time as your museum admission. If you book just the Top of the Tower tour (like if you’ve visited the museum before and don’t feel the need to again), the tour will cost you $34.99. But if you book the tour as an add-on to museum admission, the tour costs $19.99 instead. Here’s that info in bullet points:
- Only museum admission: $25.99 adult / $14.99 child (4-12)
- Only Top of the Tower tour: $34.99 adult / child
- Museum admission + Top of the Tower tour: $45.98 adult / $34.98 child
Another great thing is that you don’t have to take the Top of the Tower tour at the same time as your museum visit. (Like if you’re anticipating a long enough day already). On my trip, I visited the Aviation Museum in the morning, left Ford Island and checked out the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center and took the boat the USS Arizona Memorial, then came back and took the Top of the Tower tour in the late afternoon.
You also don’t need to take the tower tour on the same day as your museum visit. As long as you pay for the two together, you can still book the Top of the Tower tour at the add-on price.
Keep in mind that the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum is included in the Oahu GoCity pass. As are the other Pearl Harbor sites that charge admission. (This pass saves you up to 50% on admission to most of the stuff you plan to do on this island!)
Who can’t take the Top of the Tower tour?
Unfortunately, the Top of the Tower tour isn’t for everyone. For instance:
The Top of the Tower tour is not wheelchair accessible. After the elevator ride, visitors must still climb two steep staircases to reach the viewing platform at the top.
Children must be at least 42” tall in order to take the tower tour. Due to the dangers of visiting a tower like (minimal railing, strong winds), “toddlers and infants” are prohibited from taking this tour.
And if you have a serious fear of heights, you should really sit this one out. The tower is pretty small at the top and you’re surrounded by full 360° views. Even inside, it’s all windows. There’s minimal railing on the outer platform and nothing below you since the platform juts out. Plus it’s seriously windy at the top which can make you unsteady on your feet. (Feeling lightheaded yet?)
It’s pretty windy at the top
Along with making you feel unsteady, I’m really saying this again for two major reasons:
- To warn you to hold onto your hats while taking the Top of the Tower tour
- To make sure you don’t wear a dress or skirt on this tour. It will quickly end up being a scarf if you do.
Otherwise, definitely make sure to hold on tightly to things like sunglasses, phones, and, while we’re at it, scarves.
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Where to park for the Top of the Tower tour
Even though the Top of the Tower tour takes place at the Aviation Museum, you still have to park your car at the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center. Because the museum and tower are located on Ford Island, a still-active military base, you need military access to drive there. If you don’t have military access, you must park your car at the Visitor Center and take the shuttle to the museum.
Parking at the Visitor Center is $7/day and the shuttle bus to Ford Island is free. If you do have military access, you can drive yourself there and park right next to the Aviation Museum for free.
Photos are allowed, with exceptions
For the most part, they allow you to take photos on your Top of the Tower tour (as well as throughout the museum). However, because this is still an active military base, there are some areas that are off-limits.
Your tour guide will explain which areas you can and cannot take photos of once you’re at the top. And even though some of it might seem silly to you, loose lips sink ships… s’all I’m saying.
Also check out: All the places to eat near Pearl Harbor that you can walk to
8 reasons to take the Top of the Tower tour
Now, my favorite part: gushing about this tour. Here are what I consider to be the 8 best things about the Aviation Museum’s Top of the Tower tour.
1. This is the best way to get your bearings.
Standing literally over Pearl Harbor is the best way to understand how all the parts fit together in relation to each other. You can see the entire battlefield of the Pearl Harbor attack which really helps put it all into perspective.
2. This is the best way to understand the Pearl Harbor attack.
Now that you know where everything is, the guided Top of the Tower tour is absolutely the best way to learn about and understand how the Pearl Harbor attack unfolded. Your guide will detail the events of the day in such a way that you can actually envision the Japanese planes coming and going.
When we imagine the Pearl Harbor attack in our minds, we picture it as we’ve seen it so many times in archival footage: from the ground up. Down here, it just looks like chaos. Fiery, smoke-filled, loud, disorienting chaos.
But from above, you can better imagine the whole attack. Things like: which Japanese units came from which direction and which direction they flew after they dropped their bombs; and [this] was happening over here while [that] was happening over there.
You can picture the Japanese Zeros whizzing by the tower at top speed and better understand how so much damage could be inflicted in just an hour and 15 minutes. (I saw a Mitsubishi A6M2 Model 21 Zero in action at WWII Weekend and it blew my mind.) Now, you’re seeing Pearl Harbor from the same point of view of the Japanese pilots. It’s surreal.
3. The tour groups are small.
Guided tours anywhere can be hit or miss, a fact that’s quite often determined by group size. Typically, the smaller the group = the better the tour experience. The Top of the Tower tours are capped at 14 people each. (yay!)
Obviously, this is great since the building itself is pretty small and can’t really accommodate any groups bigger than that. But also, this makes it such a more personal experience. You can ask all the questions you want and you won’t miss any of the super interesting information because you’re too far away from the guide.
I got extra lucky on my Top of the Tower tour and actually had the whole place to myself! I booked the second-to-last tour of the day and, apparently, I was the only one to do so! And no one at all had booked the last one after me.
(I’m not saying booking the last tour of the day is a pro-tip but… I’m not not saying it either. When you reserve your tour, the calendar shows how many spots out of 14 are left for each tour. So, if you book last minute, you can get an estimate of how many others are in your time slot.)
4. They tailor the tour to you.
When my tour started, my guide Alex said, “Before we begin, I always like to ask the groups how much they know about the Pearl Harbor attack.” Even though the answer to this may vary among groups, this is so they can try to tailor the tour to you specifically.
Some visitors may be huge history buffs and know a ton about it. Others may know very little and have to ask their friends if Japan won the war. (Yes, I overheard you, girl waiting for the shuttle who was definitely old enough that she should have known.) The guides want to make sure they aren’t wasting your time if you already know the basics, or moving way too fast if you need them to start at the beginning.
I imagine the majority of visitors are somewhere in the middle. (Or at least know that Japan did not win World War II). But, as someone who knows a great deal about the Pearl Harbor attack, I really appreciate the fact that they ask this and use that information to make sure the visitor gets the most out of their half hour.
5. The most amazing views
I think it goes without saying that during the Top of the Tower tour you get the most amazing views. (But I’m going to say it anyway!) You can see all of Pearl Harbor and Ford Island up here, plus Diamond Head and Waikiki, Aloha Stadium, and the gorgeous surrounding mountains and ocean.
You can see all the historic sites—the USS Arizona Memorial, the Battleship Missouri, the USS Bowfin submarine, the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center, and all the planes parked at the Aviation Museum hangars.
As I said earlier, I’m a big fan of hitting up the highest viewpoint possible wherever I am, and this is the only place in the area to get these incredible Pearl Harbor views.
6. There are both inside and outside viewing platforms.
Another reason I love the Top of the Tower tour so much is because there’s actually an outdoor viewing platform. I hate when I go up to some sky-high observatories and have to look out windows to see the views. Smudge-y, fingerprint-covered, fogged up, flash-reflecting windows.
I love that during the Top of the Tower tour they actually allow you to go out onto the exterior platform to see the unobstructed views and feel the God-given cool air. The tour would definitely not be the same if we had to imagine the Pearl Harbor attack from behind glass.
7. This is a brand new experience.
When the Top of the Tower tour opened in June 2022, never before in its 80-year history had civilian tourists like us been allowed to come up here! That is so cool! Even though it’s been open over a year now, I still consider myself one of the first people to get this incredible experience.
Sometimes as tourists we assume everything exists for us. We often get spoiled with the things we’re allowed to see and do. But this tower and this tour exist on an active military base… where we technically shouldn’t be allowed. And yet, they’ve made this experience possible for us so that we can learn about one of America’s most significant historical events in a new and improved way. I’m just so grateful.
8. There’s a small museum too.
Your ticket to the Top of the Tower tour also includes admission to the small museum at its base. In here you can learn about the tower’s postwar life, its role as a firehouse, and about some of the Pearl Harbor fire trucks. It’s small and self-guided, but it’s interesting (and free).
I hope I’ve answered any questions you might have had about the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum’s Top of the Tower tour! As always, if you have additional questions, ask them in the comments below!
Top of the Tower tour essential information
- Hours: Daily from 9:40am – 4:20pm
- Closed: Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day
- Admission: $34.99 on its own / $19.99 as an add-on
- Parking: $7/day at the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center + the free shuttle
- Reservations: Required, book your tour here.
Helpful information for your Hawaii trip
- Hotels: Read reviews and book your room here on Booking.com (Expedia and Hotels.com usually have good deals too.)
- Rental car: Check out the best rental car deals in Honolulu here.
- Sightseeing: Pick up your Oahu GoCity pass here and you can save tons of money.
- Tours & activities: For more awesome Hawaii tours, check out the options at Viator and Get Your Guide. (My go-to tour booking sites.)
- Trip planning: Don’t forget to pick up a Hawaii guidebook for the rest of your trip and this pocket size USA customs and culture guide if you’re coming to us from abroad.
- More Pearl Harbor: Check out all my Pearl Harbor blog posts here.
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