Niagara Falls, one of the natural wonders of the world is on many bucket lists and for good reason. It has been a tourist attraction since the early 19th century and for generations was a popular honeymoon destination. Formed during the last Ice Age, the falls are on the New York/Ontario border and combined have the highest flow rate in the world.
While the falls themselves are truly awesome, without the towns that have grown on either side, there wouldn’t be all that much to do. Of course there is hiking, but that only interests a subset of the population. The cities of Niagara Falls, both in New York and Ontario, have capitalized on the natural feature with a number of related activities and both offer a package deal that provides a discount over purchasing each attraction separately.
We spent a few days visiting Niagara Falls, Ontario in mid-May, before the tourist season truly began. While the area has much more to offer than the falls, the activities surrounding the falls are the main focus of a trip to this town and can be completed in a single day, though it is more enjoyable to spread them over two, or maybe even three days. These attractions are run by the Niagara Parks Commission, a self-financed agency of the Ontario Ministry of Tourism.
Since I was traveling with my adult children and the hotels all seem to charge extra per adult over two, we found it more economical to rent a house for our vacation. (There are a few websites that list rentals; many homes are listed on them all.) This also gave us the added advantage of more square feet per person as well as a full kitchen so we wouldn’t have to eat every meal out. We arrived on a Monday evening, settled in, and went out to the grocery store to pick up something for dinner and breakfast the next morning. However,we quickly realized that, it being a holiday, the stores were already closed. Starting to get hangry, we decided to eat at the closest restaurant, Doc Magilligan’s Restaurant and Irish Pub and were pleased with the choice. Adjacent to the Best Western, it has a charming interior and an intimate, cozy feel that was surprising given its size. The menu promised “authentic Irish fare” and none in our party of five were disappointed with their meal. We planned to return, but other fabulous meals awaited us elsewhere.
We started Tuesday at the Visitor’s Center where we picked up our Adventure Passes (conveniently attached to lanyards) that we had purchased online and selected our days and times for each activity. We had chosen the Classic package, which included a boat ride to the falls, a self-guided tour of caves dug under the falls, a 4D retelling of the history of the falls, a White Water Walk and two-day bus passes. After inquiring into how long each took, we decided to start with Niagara’s Fury, the 4D experience and the Journey Behind the Falls that morning and scheduled the boat ride for after lunch. We decided to postpone the White Water Walk to the next day.
While Niagara’s Fury was informational, the brief film is really designed for a younger audience and none of us would have missed anything by skipping it. We got ample warning that we would get wet, as the 4D portion involves water; the blue rain ponchos we were given upon admittance were useful. The Journey Behind the Falls was a rather ordinary walk through cement arched tunnels with archways open to the falls at the end of two of them, allowing you to see and feel spray from the falls. Though I had read positive
reviews of this attraction, honestly I was not very impressed. Then we went down a longer tunnel that led to a two-story platform right next to the falls. Here is quickly became apparent why we needed those yellow ponchos. I was in awe. (Note: For those who are concerned about plastic waste, there are bins to collect and recycle these ponchos as you exit each attraction, unless of course you choose to keep them.)
From there, we walked along the falls, which was a much longer walk than we had anticipated. The bus passes were good for 48 hours from first use and we had thought we wait until later to extend their usefulness to our last day there. A bit of advice: take the bus to the boat dock. For lunch we stopped at The Secret Garden Restaurant, where we sat outside and enjoyed a water view. (We could see American Falls from our table.)
After lunch, we took the short walk to the Hornblower Cruise and donned our red ponchos. While the boat does offer a covered area, we stayed on the upper level, embracing the water and breeze. As we entered the horseshoe area of the falls, I had to wonder who on earth thought it would be a good idea to steer a boat directly into a waterfall and what would happen if the boat’s engine were to die. My doom and gloom thoughts aside, it was an exhilarating experience being so close to such a powerful force of nature.
Tired and wanting to freshen up, we walked to the nearest bus stop and headed back to our house, where we made dinner (after a stop at the now-open grocery store) then headed back to view the falls at night. We got off the bus at the Table Rock Welcome Center and walked to the falls, stopping briefly at the Canada150 sign which was lit up. The falls too were bathed in light that changed in color every minute or so.
The next day we headed back into town for our 12:30 pm White Water Walk. The bus dropped us off at the entrance and for the first time during our visit, we had to wait. We soon discovered we were waiting for the elevator which took us down to river level. We walked out to the Niagara River onto a platform where the water raged on the other side of the railing. A short walk down a boardwalk along the river’s edge provided more views of the swirling rapids. Placards attached to the railing provided information about the river such as: The water’s speed along the walk is about 48 km/h or 30 mph, which are Class 6 whitewater rapids, generally considered unnavigable. Watching the water go past, I wouldn’t be one to test that. Leaving there, we missed the bus heading back to town and caught the next one heading the other way for a short ride to the end of the line. Since I had wanted to stop at the Floral Clock to try to recreate a picture of my grandmother several decades earlier, we jumped at the driver’s offer to wait for those who wanted to see the clock and take pictures before heading back. (Next time, I will take my time and get good pictures.)
Back in town and hungry, we chose Mama Mia’s Italian Eatery, a small but pleasant place with almost too many delicious sounding options to choose from. Amply nourished, we headed over to the Clifton Hill attractions.
We had purchased Clifton Hill Fun Passes in advance (online purchases get you a bonus ride on the Skywheel) which grant admission to 5 attractions plus five tokens for the arcade. Given the choice of Wizards’ or Dinosaur Gold, we made the decision to go prehistoric and mostly enjoyed our 18 holes of miniature golf (the group behind us could have used some lessons in mini-golf etiquette). We then took an eight-minute ride on the 175-foot high Sky Wheel (we decided to save the second right for later that night). The Skywheel had signs indicating it was climate controlled, but our enclosed gondola was sauna-like, which we didn’t mention to the attendant, though perhaps we should have. After that, we went on the Ghost Blasters Dark Ride and Wild West Coaster in the arcade. (These too were designed for a younger audience, so neither was completely appreciated by our group) before heading to the Movieland Wax Museum which had a few statues worth seeing.
A friend had recommended Kelsey’s Restaurant at the top of Clifton Hill where we welcomed the opportunity to sit down and cool off with a cocktail before selecting from the many appetizing choices. Again we were pleased with our meal.
Though I’m not sure I would repeat a visit to Niagara’s Fury, the Adventure Pass package provides a $25+ discount over paying individually, which is more than the cost of this one activity, plus a number of coupons for other sites, shops and restaurants. An Adventure Pass Nature option is also available, which includes the cruise and bus passes as well as a trip on the Whirlpool Aero Car and visits to a Butterfly Conservatory and Floral Showhouse gardens. The next level, the Plus option gets you all of these plus the Falls Incline access and admission to four Niagara Park Heritage sites. On the American side, the Niagara Falls USA Discovery Pass offers a similar package that includes a boat ride, cavern tour, one day of unlimited trolley rides and other attractions on the New York side.
While the falls can be visited year round, certain attractions are closed during the winter months. The city has many other attractions, including two casinos, an indoor waterpark, many museums, the 520-foot tall Skylon Tower which has an observation deck and restaurants and various sporting activities. There are an almost endless number of hotel options; some offer packages that include tickets to local attractions. The WEGO bus system is efficient and affordable and can take you almost anywhere you might want to go, though if you miss one bus you will have to wait 20 minutes or more until the next one. Three days are enough to take in the highlights of Niagara Falls, though you could certainly extend your trip to see more of the surrounding area, including Niagara on the Lake and Niagara Falls State Park in New York.