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We took our three school-aged children to Niagara Falls and the Falls area. We tried to pack in as much as we could in those three days, because we are not planning to go back (so many other places to see!).
We started early on the Maid of the Mist to get on one of the first boats at 9:45 am. Lots of people were there already, but lines moved quickly and we spent very little time waiting. It was fun and and exciting for the kids, because everyone dons a blue rain poncho and the walk from the ticket booth down to the dock is steep and scenic. We thought the best part of the ride was when the boat turns in front of the Horseshoe Falls; you get close to the base of the Falls, and you get wet. We have friends who skipped the Maid of the Mist because they thought it might be too scary for their kids. Our experience was that it wasn't scary at all (it's not even thrilling, it's just scenic and wet).
We walked from the Maid of the Mist to the White Water Walk...it was a long walk for our kids (3 km?), mostly uphill. The White Water Walk was beautiful and peaceful. There are sturdily constructed walkways along the river, under leafy shade trees. There are nice places to sit and enjoy the views of the river.
We cabbed back to our hotel, across the street from the Casino. We went into the Casino for the first time to have lunch at the food court. The casino is very pretty, and has some very spiffy shops and restaurants. We ate at the food court, which includes a Johnny Rockets 50's-style diner and a Tim Horton's coffee and donut shop.
After lunch, we went to the IMAX movie about the Falls. The production quality of the movie is a bit dated, but I would rate the movie a "MUST SEE" for families to get a (brief) overview of the discovery of the Falls and its history as a tourist attraction. The movie includes a vignette about the first person to deliberately go over the Falls as a publicity stunt. It also describes a true, amazing story of the members of a family that went over the Falls unintentionally not too long ago (1970s?).
THE DAREDEVIL GALLERY. The Imax Theatre building also houses The Daredevil Gallery, a small, one room museum containing many of the structures that were used, successfully and unsuccessfully, to go over the Falls. The exhibits also described the people who braved the Falls (and why they did). It was fun to stand by the barrels and boats and imagine what it might have felt like to climb in and take the plunge!
After the movie, we drove to the Oh Canada, Eh Dinner Theater for the 6:15 pm show. We had made reservations in advance, and we went to the Friday show because there was a promotion, not available for the Saturday show, that offered one free child ticket with each paying adult.
We thought the show was GREAT! We really loved it! It's perfect for kids. Lots of silly costumes (there's a French fur trader, a Monty, a hockey player, Ann of Green Gables, etc. etc. etc.!), funny songs, and slapstick humor. Some very child-pleasing audience participation. Wow. We don't do a lot of theater, and our children had never been to dinner theater before, so we maybe our standards are not too high, but we had such a memorable time!
One thing I would mention is that the seating is done based on when you make your reservation, so the sooner the better. We had some of the best seats in the house because we made our reservations 6 weeks ahead. It was really fun for the kids to be sitting right in front.
The food is served slowly. They space it out over the 3 hours of the show, so I think by 7 pm we had only had a drink or maybe, a small cup of pea soup. We are used to eating dinner earlier, so we should have had a snack before the show.
FIREWORKS. The show ended at 9:15 pm, and we went back to the Falls for the Friday night fireworks show at 10 pm. Way past the kids' bedtimes, but we were already up late... The show was short, but entertaining. One thing that made a big impression on me was how incredibly many people were there (it must have been thousands) from all over the world. The atmosphere was great. It felt like THE place to be on a summer night!
The next morning, we had breakfast at the food court at the casino. There is a large, clean outdoor patio area outside the food court from which you have another beautiful view of the Falls. We didn't get tired of views of the Falls...they look slightly different at different times of day and in different kinds of light. Anyway, the kids ran around and played a bit while we finished our coffee outside.
Then we drove to the Butterfly Conservatory in the gardens in Queenston Heights. If you haven't taken your children to a Butterfly Conservatory, it's definitely worth it! There are thousands of butterflies of all different colors and markings. Our kids enjoyed taking turns with the digital camera and taking photos of their favorite butterflies. We spent about an hour and a half in with the butterflies (and another 30 minutes or so in the gift shop...)
We were really hoping to go to this unusual and interesting-sounding museum on our way to Niagara on the Lake. There are hands-on printing exhibits that our kids would probably have loved. We planned to spend at least an hour there, but the museum was closed for the weekend due to an unexpected electrical problems.
Next, we continued heading North to Niagara on the Lake. We had read that it is considered "Canada's prettiest town." It could be...it's adorable! The drive was incredibly scenic, the parkway runs alongside a wooded biking and hiking trail that runs alongside the river. The drive is not long, less than 30 minutes. We parked on the perimeter of Simcoe Park, with a view of stunning Lake Ontario.
Niagara on the Lake is better for adults because enjoying the quaint architecture, browsing the charming shops, and sampling light snacks (chocolates, teas, cheese) seem to be the main attractions. We had a light lunch in town and walked around a bit.
After walking around town and having ice cream at Cows (see below), we spent a couple of hours hanging out a Simcoe Park. There is a playground that seemed appropriate for all ages up to about 10 or 11, a large grassy hill (for rolling), and a band shell (for exploring/generally goofing around in). Our kids liked having time to be with other kids, they met boys from different parts of the States and a little girl from England, and they played until we had to leave for the Jet Boat tour.
There are lots of great places to stop for ice cream in Niagara on the Lake, but we chose Cows. In addition to delicious ice cream, the store sells a variety of clever and well designed, cow-themed gifts (t-shirts, mugs, pajamas, books, baby and toddler toys). There are dozens of witty t-shirts based on popular themes (e.g. The Sopranos and Finding Nemo) in which cows (and cow-related terminology) replace the more familiar words and characters. Very cute!
We walked from Simcoe Park to the dock for the Jet Boat Tour. We decided to do the Jet Boats based on tripadvisor reviews, so I just want to add the following things to those descriptions. Both are concerns about bringing young kids on the boat.
1. Crying (oh no!)! Some reviewers said that their six year olds loved the ride. Our six year old didn't! I was surprised, because she is a bit of a thrill seeker, and she loves roller coasters and swimming! Anyway, she really lost her breath one time when we were totally under water and she cried (you really do get pounded with a ton of water), and it was awkward for everyone on the boat because the guides try to make sure everyone is okay and also getting the thrilling ride they paid for...so I felt uncomfortable that maybe the guides scaled down the excitement of everyone's ride because my daughter was crying...
2. Holding On! Also, there are no belts or straps to hold you in the boat, I think they explained that it's because if anything happed, it would be safer not to be strapped in. Also, they told us the only accidents since they began operation in the early 90's has been two children who floated or were kind of thrown out of their seats (both caught or rescued by guides before any true harm was done). Anyway, this means you really need to hold on to your kids! Somehow, the way the seating worked out, we couldn't get both of our smaller children between us, so my husband and I each had one child to hold onto (and our older son was on his own). I was worried the whole trip.
That said, the ride and the boat itself is unbelievable, 1500 hp and designed as a Coast Guard rapids rescue boat. I felt a lot of confidence in the boat. And the ride IS awesome. You go right under the Whirlpool Aerocar. You do get SOAKED, so you'll need dry clothes if you are planning to do anything afterward. We went back to the hotel, took hot showers, and ordered room service for dinner, and went to bed early.
On the morning of our last day, we walked from our hotel to Clifton Hill, which is a commercial entertainment center for families.
We stopped into the Glass Blowing Studio at Souvenier City on our way from the hotel to Clifton Hill. I didn't expect much, but we were all pleasantly surprised! In the studio (which is also a store) there are small risers/bleachers around the working area where visitors are encouraged to stand and watch. We watched the glass blowers turn hot glass into shapes from elegant horses with flowing manes to intricately textured vases, with speed and grace, right before our eyes! The kids loved it, and we spent at least half an hour watching the two men working.
On Clifton Hill, we rode the Cosmic Coaster virtual roller coaster ride. It was definitely fun/cool/interesting for all of us. It was also pretty expensive (even though someone gave us a coupon for a $2 discount per person), maybe $30 for the five of us. And it was brief. We asked how long the ride was, and they told us 7 minutes. I thought it seemed shorter than that and my older son was sure it was, he was wearing a watch and he said it was only 4 minutes.
Enjoyed typical RC lunch experience (in Niagara, not Ontario, CA, but did not find link for Clifton Hill store).
We saw that the only (? or one of two?) Hershey's Store in the world was in Clifton Hill, and we decided to go. It was a bit of a walk from the main area of Clifton Hill (not really far, but streets to cross and so many distractions, it felt like it took forever). The store is cute and fun and full of Hershey's chocolate. We got free samples of the fudge (lots of yummy flavors) and took cute pictures with a walking Hershey's kiss guy (in costume). There's also an "exhibit" showing a Hershey's Kiss walking over the falls on a tightrope, Blondini-style, and you can take a photo of in front of that.
After overdosing on commercialism on Clifton Hill, we headed 45 minutes south of Niagara to take a late afternoon horseback ride with a "cowboy cookout." We loved Horseplay!
The family that owns and works at Horseplay is experienced and helpful. We had wanted to take the 10am - 2 pm "cowboy cookout" (stopping for a campfire with hotdogs and marshmallows), but our youngest was too young for the ride: it included 2-3 hours of riding. So the owners put together a 3 hour trip for our family later in around dinner time (we were back just before the sunset ride) that involved a 45 minute ride out to the water (we rode along the beach), with time to play and enjoy a cookout, followed by a ride back through beautiful wildflowers and tree-lined paths.
We were encouraged to come early to enjoy the mini-golf on the property. We didn't have time to play before the ride, but we really enjoyed the super-casual, kind of homemade holes that they had set up next to the barn AFTER the ride. I think there were nine holes, and the kids played all of them. It was incredibly relaxing. What a great way to end the trip!
We headed home at 6 am the next day.