Airbnb Hosts an Ellis Island Sleepover

Jo Piazza
·Managing Editor

Close to 40% of all current U.S. citizens can trace at least one of their ancestors to Ellis Island. (Photo: Airbnb)

There is something truly spectacular about being in a museum after hours. The concept brings to mind the classic children’s book, “From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler,” or for a younger generation, the Ben Stiller movie, “Night at the Museum.”

The experience can be all at once magnificent and spooky, as one lucky contest winner discovered when she won the chance to explore the historic Ellis Island museum long after its doors were closed to the general public.

There truly are few better places to kick of Fourth of July week than at the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island in New York City. That made the timing of Courtney Messer’s visit to Ellis all that more special. On the Tuesday morning before Independence Day Messer was able to wake up in the middle of the New York City harbor on a luxury yacht in between the two American landmarks.

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Messer’s visit was part of Airbnb’s overnight at Ellis Island contest. The advertising media planner was handpicked by Airbnb staff after submitting a 500 character essay on what Ellis Island meant to her.

She wrote of her first visit to the island as a child, adding in an amperstamp to save on characters.

One of my happiest childhood memories involves taking the ferry to Ellis Island and rubbing tracing paper over the names of my mother’s parents, Julius Kaplan & Dora Belinsky, inscribed on the Wall of Honor. My brother and I proudly clutched those papers the rest of the day, including to the 107th floor observation deck of the South Tower, overlooking the same city where my grandparents were finally accepted and respected in their new home, a foreign concept to generations of Eastern European Jews.

“I have really strong memories of visiting Ellis Island as a kid and learning about my family history, so I knew this was something that would mean so much to me and my family. I had to enter,” Messer told Yahoo Travel. “I remember hitting submit on the essay  and thinking ‘it doesn’t even matter what I wrote, I’m not going to win.’ I’ve never won anything before!”

Her words impressed Airbnb so much that Messer and her mom Robin Kaplan Messer. were granted exclusive, never before given access to experience the island with no other visitors or members of the public.


Courtney and Robin Messer cruised on over to Ellis Island on a private yacht. (Photo: Airbnb)

“Both of my mom’s parents came through Ellis Island as children, and I was really close to them. To bring my mom, who has such a personal connection to Ellis Island, was a wonderful way to honor them,” Messer explained.

The night began with an intimate dinner with actress Marcia Gay Harden and select VIP guests in Ellis Island Museum’s Grand Hall where immigrants originally filtered through Ellis Island.

Harden, a big fan of Airbnb’s home sharing service, attended the dinner out of a curiosity about her own family’s history.

“We have Irish potato thieves in one side and land thieves on the other,” Harden explained about what she knew of her ancestors. “I’m trying to discover my family history and it is a long process.”


The ladies enjoyed a truly intimate dinner in the Great Hall. (Photo: Airbnb)

“To sit in a room where most of my ancestors walked, frightened of whether they would be allowed into the U.S., was an amazing experience,” Messer said. “Being in the room at all is already meaningful, but being there after the island closed and without the crowds of people made it so much easier to grasp the enormity and importance of the room.”

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The mom and daughter were taken on an exclusive after hours tour of Ellis Island grounds and museum. One of the museum’s genealogists personally walked them through their family’s Ellis Island roots.

They then departed the island for a midnight cruise around Manhattan before retiring to specially designed quarters on a yacht named the Arabella before having brunch next to the Statue of Liberty. 

Happy Birthday America indeed!

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