NIAGARA'S UP AND DOWN IN TOURISM
As he navigates his coach through the "new
"Here's Marineland," Kennedy says motioning to the 45-year-old kids' theme park. "It will cost you $32 just to walk around the grounds. And I hope you bring your own hot dog because it will cost you $7.50 — and God help you if you need ketchup or mustard."
Use your credit card to get the most for your weaker greenback, he warns the largely American crowd; don't park downtown; be mindful that menus are in two prices — Canadian and American.
"Free is a dirty word in
Kennedy is, in fact, a great ambassador for
"It's been fantastic — just out of this world," says Kennedy of the more than $3 billion in new hotels and attractions that now tower over the falls, including a second casino, the Niagara Fallsview Casino Resort, that opened two years ago.
"I get a lot of locals who take the tour just to learn about their own city. They can't believe how much we've got here now," says Kennedy.
And the list keeps growing.
Just since mid-April, two massive new water parks have added to the wet and wild fun here — the 125,000-square-foot Fallsview Indoor Waterpark near the falls, and the 103,000-square-foot Bear Track Landing at Great Wolf Lodge on the edge of town. (See K12 for details.)
The 53-metre SkyWheel — touted as the biggest Ferris wheel in
Cirque Niagara — a $10 million mix of Cirque du Soleil-like artistry and equestrian theatrics on some of the world's rarest horses — just opened its show, Avaia, under a new, 1,500-seat big top in Rapidsview park, across from Marineland.
And the area's many wineries are being showcased for the first time at the Queenston Heights Restaurant, 11 kilometres north of the falls, where a new 1,200-bottle wine cellar and tasting room is aimed at becoming "the gateway to Niagara's wineries," featuring the best of more than 50 area vintners.
At least six major new hotel projects are planned for the downtown, including a 59-storey addition to the Hilton Hotel. All of that will boost the number of rooms to almost 15,000 — double what was here before the first casino opened in 1996.
A "people mover" — with a track that will loop around the downtown and connect to outlying parking lots — is expected to get final approval soon. And Clifton Hill, once the honky-tonk heart of the "honeymoon capital of the world" continues to undergo a major makeover.
"We tell people if they haven't been here in the last five years, they haven't been to
Tourism officials used to talk about "the magic 100 days."
"We used to have tourism here from May 24 to Labour Day, and then basically in winter we would close up," says former mayor Wayne Thomson, who was defeated after spearheading much of the development. "We always had a dream of year-round tourism and turning
Now 14 million people a year, almost half of them Americans, flock to this city of just 79,000 residents.
Predictions had been that the number of visitors would hit 30 million by 2016. But that was before the triple whammy of outlandish gas prices, the strong Canadian dollar and — most importantly — the Bush government's planned Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative.
That new program, which is still under intense debate in the States, will require all travellers, including
The new program has caused fear here on many levels: No one knows for certain yet what "other accepted document" means, or what it will cost. What is well known is that few U.S. citizens own passports, and that it would be ridiculously expensive for a family to get the documents for a day trip to Clifton Hill (60 per cent of tourists are still day-trippers, although overnight stays are growing.)
But what's got everyone here most worried is that 60 per cent of
"We've had comments that people think they're going to have to leave their kids at the border if they don't have a passport," says Noden.
"We're committed to doing the aquarium, if we understand what the exposure is with the border controls."
Harry Oakes' family owns almost 13 hectares of prime downtown real estate, including the site of the new SkyWheel, and hopes to eventually add more family attractions and a 30-storey hotel. He and his brother Philip say they are committed to improving the offerings for families along Clifton Hill, which is why they spent $10 million on the huge spinning "icon attraction," but are cautious.
"When you look at business, you have to look at market conditions. The passport issue is a wild card right now."
Noden has spent much of the past year selling
But there's a growing sense here — especially among locals — that
Thomson argues that prices here are in line with other major tourist destinations such as Vegas and Orlando. But even local business people, such as Marineland founder John Holer, are concerned that the Lundy's Lane motel area is becoming the only option for families because most can't afford the new high-rise hotels, which can go for $300 to $800 a night.
"It's absolutely ungodly expensive here for everything, especially with the exchange rate," says Texan Heather Daley, after spending $50 for two room-service breakfasts. "I told my husband this morning, I think we've spent more on this trip (per day) than on our honeymoon, and we went to
Masterson acknowledges that affordability is an issue for families and says his water park resort — where rooms average more than $300 a night — is looking at ways to cut costs.
Great Wolf also plans to subsidize American families when the new passport rules take effect, by providing them with all the ID application forms they need, and taking the price off the room rates, he said.
"It's a one-time thing," he says of the unusual move. "We're just one company. It's going to take the actions of everybody here doing something like this.
"There's got to be an end to what gambling can bring to a community. If we ever lose the thing that made Niagara Falls so special — the natural beauty and the families coming down to see it, and all those attractions along the Niagara Gorge and even up Clifton Hill — if we ever lose that as a focus, and don't keep the place affordable, we will lose our competitive advantage.
"And there are a lot of other places where people can go."
Susan Pigg is associate travel editor. email@example.com