Cascades splash into memories Niagara Falls: This is known as a honeymoon destination, but it's also a great spot for families.


November 05, 1995|By Eileen Ogintz | Eileen Ogintz,LOS ANGELES TIMES SYNDICATE

"I don't see why we need these raincoats," 11-year-old Matt groused, donning the yellow slicker only because it was required for admission.

The young attendant at Niagara Falls, N.Y., merely smiled knowingly. A short elevator ride and slippery walk later, Matt was drenched, despite the slicker.

We all were drenched, and shaking from the thrill of walking right under the thundering Bridal Veil Falls, getting splashed and sprayed on the Hurricane Deck and on the wooden ramps that get so much abuse from the elements they must be replaced every year.

The kids excitedly pronounced the Cave of the Winds walk into the gorge below Goat Island "as good as a giant water ride." That's a ringing endorsement from them. At $4.50 for us and $4 for Matt and Reggie (Melanie, who was under 6, was free), the walk seemed a bargain for such a memorable experience. Goat Island itself, part of the Niagara Reservation State Park, is a good place to walk, fly kites or sit by the water's edge (not too close!) -- in warmer weather, of course.

Watching the kids and my husband so thoroughly enjoy themselves one day late last summer, I wondered how I could ever have thought Niagara Falls, with its image as a honeymoon destination, would be a dull spot for families.

But I did.

And I was wrong.

Today, 50,000 blissful couples a year still honeymoon here, but more than 8 million visitors keep Niagara Falls one of the nation's top tourist attractions. They come for the memories.

Family favorite

Two adults I know, in fact, rank childhood visits to Niagara Falls at the top of their favorite family vacation list (accommodations range from small honeymoon motels to large, family-friendly facilities with all the amenities).

Whatever their ages, they come to see the spectacle of the rushing falls. (Stop at Whirlpool State Park to view the swirling rapids of the Niagara River.) And they line up at night to see the falls illuminated. (If you're planning to visit this holiday season, don't miss the display of the tens of thousands of colored lights, not only over the falls but also throughout the city's downtown area. (For more information about the Festival of Lights or the falls themselves, call the Niagara County Tourism Office at [800] 338-7890.)

Here's some trivia about the falls the kids will like: Less than 10 percent of the water flows over the American Falls. The rest rushes down the Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side. My gang was also enthusiastic about the tour aboard the Maid of the Mist boat to the base of Horseshoe Falls. Besides getting sprayed by the force of the 185-foot Horseshoe Falls, all of the kids on board marveled at hearing the story of 7-year-old Roger Woodward, who accidentally went over the falls in 1960 and survived with only a banged-up arm to show for his adventure. Young Roger was in a small boat that capsized. His uncle was killed and sister quickly fished out of the water. Roger wasn't spotted until after he'd tumbled down the falls with nothing but an orange life preserver to cushion him.

In case you're wondering -- as I was -- 17 people have gone over the falls in barrels, kayaks and jet skis, among other things; four died.

Here's something the girls might like to know: The first person to go over the falls was a woman, Annie Edson Taylor, who made her journey in a barrel in 1901. "I would sooner walk up to the mouth of a cannon, knowing it was going to blow me to pieces," she told the local newspaper afterward. But officials advise against such a stunt. Not only is it extremely dangerous but survivors may incur fines in the thousands of dollars. They're so steep because of the risk to rescuers, explained one Niagara Falls official.

The kids had fun exploring nearby Fort Niagara, clamoring up and down the hills. The fort has been restored to the way it looked when French voyageurs, then British and American soldiers were garrisoned here on the south shore of Lake Ontario. The fort boasts original 18th-century buildings.

Youthful re-enactors

In fact, young historical interpreters help re-enact military life, firing the cannon or staffing the store. (Call [716] 745-7611 for more information. During the summer, there are daily musket and cannon firings as well as other demonstrations that offer a glimpse into long-ago military life.)

The kids were happy to pretend they were on the fort's lookout detail when the attack came -- during the Revolutionary War, in fact, the British used Fort Niagara as a base for military raids.

Today, from the parapets on a clear day, you can see Toronto's Oz-like skyline 27 miles across Lake Ontario.

The kids also were impressed by the hydraulic power at the famous falls, as generations of tourists have been.

Besides a history lesson, a visit to Niagara Falls offers the TTC opportunity to visit the Niagara Power Project visitors' center to see how hydro-power is used. (Call [716] 285-3211.)

In 1896, the world was flabbergasted when electricity generated at Niagara Falls was transmitted to Buffalo, 25 miles away. Electricity swiftly became a dependable source of power, and the Niagara plant remains one of the largest hydroelectric power projects in the world.

Of course, there's plenty of tacky souvenirs to be had -- postcards and little globes that snow when shaken. This is a place to give in and enjoy the kitsch. The kids will thank you for it. Just don't forget to button up your yellow rain slicker.

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