Monday, June 29, 2009

A hot day at the Falls


Saturday was an unexpectedly busy day on the American side of the Falls. I say unexpected because the morning tour was fairly smooth. Minimal lines at the attractions allow guides to pack more stuff into the tour. Temperatures in the low 70's greeted our 9 AM group, which is just about perfect.
Stephanie, a young lady on our tour is a dead ringer for the young gifted actress Miranda Cosgrove, who starred on Drake and Josh and I, Carly. What do you think?She traveled with her mom and grandmother. For some reason her brother stayed back at the hotel with Grandpa, something about not liking to go on a boat ride. Stephanie thought the tour was "...pretty awesome."

Afternoon Tour

Temperatures went from the 70's to the mid 80's for the afternoon tour, which is not surprising for this time of year. The number of tourists at the Falls, however, was unexpected. The first surprise was a 50 minute wait for the Cave of the Winds attraction. The staff at the Caves tries to make the best of it. They use barricades to lead people to areas that are in the shade, which makes the wait more pleasant.
Our group was eclectic to say the least. We had a Connecticut couple that was celebrating their honeymoon as well as two sisters and a brother who were visiting from Jakarta. One gentleman's home was Poland and another family originated in Romania.
Here's a snap of them on the Observation tower after a refreshing ride on the Maid of the Mist. The two little ones in the foreground are the children of Romanian parents. The kids have been thoroughly 'Americanized' and were much fun to interact with.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

"Stay-Cations" and Niagara Falls


For a variety of reasons, it appears that fewer people are crossing the US-Canadian border to vacation at Niagara Falls. The biggest losses are experienced by Canadian attractions that rely on vacationers from the States. Americans used to provide 70% of the visitors to The Ripley's Believe it or not museum in Niagara Falls, Ontario. Now U.S. citizens account for about 33% of the business.

"Back in 1999 and 2000, we had a wonderful rubber-tire market, wonderful U.S. visitation," said Tim Parker, general manager of Niagara Falls attractions for Jim Pattison Group, which owns Ripley's.
In fact, the Canadian government recently released figures that say since 2001, day trips by Americans across the border have declined nearly 70%. Ontario's Tourism Minister Monique Smith has recognized the trend and embraced the so-called 'stay-cation'. At a recent luncheon Ms. Smith said the provincial government is seeking new solutions to the new problems facing tourism.
Today, the tourism industry is facing challenges beyond its control," said Smith. "This means we as a government are being challenged to bring forth solutions."
Smith told the audience that the government is spending $11 million to help promote 224 festivals and events taking place in Ontario this year. The Niagara Region will see approximately $1 million of those promotional loonies. On the U.S. side, a similar story. 13% fewer Canadians crossed the border in April when compared to last year. Some are blaming it on the sluggish economy, others say the new passport policy of the U.S. is the cause.

There is some bright news on the horizon. Web travel portal has just published its top destination for Canadian travelers. Niagara Falls came in at number 7, beating out Chicago and Boston.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Breaking the language barrier-Japanese Tourists in Niagara Falls


I barely speak one language so I am greatly impressed when I see somebody who can command two, three or more languages. Such was the case this weekend when I hosted a small group visiting from Tokoyo, Japan.
Because I do not speak Japanese, all communication was coordinated through the one group member who spoke both languages.

As I tried to proceed with my regular tour, I could tell it was difficult on the interpreter. After awhile I learned to shorten my sentences and to speak in a measured cadence. I jettisoned specific dates and exact figures for more relative terms like "...around the turn of the century."

I discovered that the use of hand gestures, especially exaggerated gestures, helped the narrative. If there was one thing that I learned from this group it is that the Japanese are a very courteous people (at least the ones on my tour). They were very concerned with the welfare of the group and were always prepared so that they were on time.

I hope they enjoyed the tour as much as I did.

Friday, June 19, 2009

No Doubt we had fun


Life as a tour guide is a box of chocolates. You never know what you're going to get. One day it's an Amish Family visiting from Pennsylvania, the next day it's a group from Mumbai, India. And then the next day you're hosting a super cool rock band.

I had the pleasure of escorting members of the group No Doubt around Niagara Falls yesterday. The weather was overcast and drizzly, but the group's spirits were high.

We did all the typical things, Maid of the Mist, Cave of the WInds, etc. as well as a brief tour of Buffalo. What can I tell you after my brush with celebrity? This group was comprised of the most down to earth people. They were polite, generous and tolerated my jokes.

Ken, their manager, is a calm man with an excellent sense of humor. Although there was not much time to chat with everybody, I did have some other individual conversations. Adrian seems like a really involved dad! He was intrigued about some of the history of the Falls, especially the contributions of Nikoli Tesla. Stephen is flat out funny. He is very quick witted and charming.
I also met some of the band members from one of the other groups touring with No Doubt. Band members and crew of the group Paramore are young and having a great time while touring. It's amazing how much they've accomplished and most of them aren't even 25 years old.

So if you're a fan of No Doubt and wondered what they are like off stage, I can tell you they totally rock!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

50 Fifth Graders at the Falls


Excellent weather greeted my group today, 50 Fifth graders from St. Christopher's School. The group had limited amount of time and needed to fit in all the essentials--the Maid of the Mist and lunch.
School groups are excellent tours because frequently children ask questions that you've never heard before. After discussing some of the daring funambulists, a child asked why anyone would want to walk across Niagara Falls on a rope? It's an extremely reasonable question when you think about it.

Onward we pushed on to the Maid of the Mist. The sun was hot and the mist was cool and invigorating. Some of the intrepid students decided to ride bareback--sans blue rain poncho. It is an experience the drenched kids will likely remember but not repeat. You can really get soaked riding on the top deck of the Maid.
We pushed on to Goat Island where the parents/chaperons went to work cooking hot dogs, pouring drinks and cutting watermelon. We were camped right across from the Three Sisters Islands which is an ideal spot to picnic. There's plenty of shade, park benches, grills and bathrooms are nearby.
We toured the Three Sisters Islands which gave the kids a chance to get closer to the rushing water of Niagara. If you visit these small, beautiful islands make certain to stay on the paved paths. The water is seductively welcoming on a hot day, and many people have found themselves in trouble by venturing into cool waters.
Soon enough it was time to pack-up and head home. I hope the kids had as much fun as I did on this beautiful day to be at the Falls.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Kids say Falls Snow Park is Cool!


Sneak Peek of Snow Park

Mrs. Tour Guide (TG) and our four TGs in training accompanied me to a special sneak peek of the new Snow Park in Niagara Falls, NY. It’s a tremendous concept—an outdoor winter park that can be used all year round.

Snow Park Niagara Falls features a 12 lane tubing hill, a NHL regulation size skating rink and a snow play area. The attraction uses new technology to create surfaces and artificial snow that are just like the real thing. The snow has a granular rather than a flaky feel to it—but you can slide on it and make snow forts just like that natural white stuff that falls from the sky.

The crown jewel of the park is the 50 foot high tubing hill. You are given a tube (1 or 2 man) at the bottom of the hill. You are propelled uphill by an innovative moving sidewalk that takes all the exhaustion out of gravity. The downhill ride is thrilling. As a native of Buffalo, NY I’ve done a fair share of sledding down snowy hills. This ride is much faster, even a little scary. Hold on tight and raise your butt off the tube’s bottom when you head downhill!

The skating rink has everything you’d expect from a rink, minus the snow. Skate rental is part of the admission charge, although you can bring your own hockey skates if you wish. The surface is a synthetic material that is permeated with oils. These oils constantly lubricate the surface and make for a realistic skating experience.

You might think that you’d tear the surface material or cut into it—but you don’t. In fact the m
ore it is used, the better the surface becomes. One advantage to regular ice is that this surface is a lot easier on you should you fall. The rink received a positive endorsement from my 12 year old daughter who is an avid hockey player and full time cynic.

The younger TGs were entertained by the snow play area. This is exactly what it sounds like, a play space covered in snow with toys for the kids to use. Attendants are constantly refreshing the snow with a large pipe that blasts out the man made snow (think bazooka + snow cone machine).

The kids were able to build a large snow castle with the sun out and the temperature at about 70 degrees. A fun and refreshing way to spend the day.
Overall this attraction looks like a real winner, especially for international guest who’ve never experienced snow. The staff is extremely helpful and polite. You can tell they are happy to work at the Snow Park and it shows.

Our visit occurred when the park was not open to the public, so I cannot comment on the
experience you’ll find when the place is crowded. I can say that the park is well staffed to respond to a higher volume.

If you are coming to visit Niagara Falls and are looking for an unusual experience, the Snow Park is a must-do. The activities are appealing to kids and adults. More information including business hours and rates is available by clicking here. I believe the park will open to the public later this month (June 2009).

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Old Scow


"Have you ever heard the story of the old scow?" I asked my group. "When did you meet my ex-wife?" says an anonymous voice from the back of the bus.

re were a few laughs and as I looked back I saw one tour member whispering a translation of the joke to her husband, who then laughed as well. We pulled to the side of the parkway near the Toronto Power Station building and exited the vehicle. Ugly and obstinate the old rusting scow sits about 1,000 feet upstream of the horseshoe falls, pretty much in the same spot it has occupied since 1918.

The scow is a barge that was hauling dredge material from the river bottom on August 6th of that year when its tow cable broke and sent the vessel towards the brink. Aboard were two workers, both aged 51. James Harris was a local man who lived in Buffalo. His companion was Gustave Loftberg, a Swedish sailor.

Quickly the men deployed the scow's anchor, but to no avail. The smooth rocky river bottom afforded no obstructions for the anchor to grab. Frantically t
he men opened the the doors on the bottom of the dredge that were used for dumping its load. These slowed the scow while the men opened valves on the airtight compartments of the boat--allowing it to sink. Luckily the trailing anchor managed to grab something on the river bed allowing the airtight compartments to fill with water. The barge was marooned. But so were the two men aboard.

Quickly a crowd gathered on shore, but people did not know what to do. A boat rescue was impossible. Several attempts to launch a rope to the grounded scow fell way short. A crew of Americans from a post at Youngstown, NY arrived at the scene with a cannon that could shoot a rope a great distance. This gun was positioned on the roof of the Power Station with the aim of sending a rope to the men. The aim was true and a rope landed across the scow on the first attempt.

When the rope from the rooftop to the scow was properly secured, a crude lifesaving device was attached via pulleys. It's called a breeches buoy and looks like a pair of pants sewn to a flotation ring; a pulley allows the contraption to be sent from shore to a marooned vessel and back again (see picture). Night was falling and tensions were rising as the crowd grew, for they feared that the scow could give way at any moment and plunge over the Falls killing both of the men who were stranded. Some bad luck led to the tangling of the lines used to propel the breeches buoy. Somebody would need to climb out over the raging waters of the Niagara and attempt to untangle the ropes.

A member of the crowd, Red Hill, stepped forward. He would climb hand over hand along the rope to allowing the buoy to do its job and rescue the two men. Bravely he set out, but came back to shore as night settled in. At first light Hill finished his task, dangling above the rapids that would easily take his life should he show a moment of weakness or make a minor mistake. Hill safely climbed to shore.

Thanks to the heroics of Red Hill, both men were pulled to safety. News reports say that James Harris shortly left his job working on the river, while Gustave Loftberg exploited his brush with death by giving lectures and appearances in which he retold the harrowing tale. It is rumored that Loftberg eventually lost his life at sea, aboard a merchant marine ship torpedoed in World War II.

And now for the rest of the story. Red Hill's bravery that day was compounded by the fact that Hill had recently returned from serving in WW I. At the time of the old scow rescue, he was still recovering from a mustard gas attack he survived while serving on the front lines in France.
If you'd like more images and the exact location of the old scow, click here--you'll find more info plus a link to the old scow's location on Google Earth. The old scow can be viewed from Goat Island on the US side, but is best enjoyed from the Canadian shore near the Toronto Powerhouse.

Friday, June 5, 2009

New Attraction brings Year Round Snow to the Falls


Niagara Falls is usually snow free 6 months out of the year. No longer.

A new attraction called Snow Park Niagara offers outdoor tubing and skating all year round. The tube hill is fifty feet tall and features eight lanes of downhill tubing. The tube hill and the Snow Play area are serviced by snow making machines that are capable of producing snow throughout the summer.

The skating rink is not made of ice, but a synthetic surface that allows users to glide just as if they were skating on real ice. Skate rental is included in your admission fee—you can bring your own hockey skates if you prefer.

I haven’t ridden this attraction yet, it opens on June 15th. I’ll update should I have the chance to sample the Snow Park.

It’s nice to see private development of any kind on this side of the border. Let’s hope the public warms-up to this snowy idea.
Additional information links here and here.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

As a Niagara Falls tour guide I've often wondered why so many there are so many Indian visitors to the Falls. Many days I see that visitors from India out number any other ethnic group at Niagara. I'm not complaining, as we welcome any rupees that may come to the region.
Why so many people from India? I think this entry in a blog by an Indian author may help explain:

"When you visit Niagara Falls in USA, you will be left to wonder if you have traveled to India. The only tourists I saw there, were Indians. It was like the entire country was there, except may be Rajinikanth and Bal Thackeray. If there were no Indians visiting Niagara Falls in USA, the place wouldn’t have any funds to support itself. It looks like all the native tourists just drive down to Canada to watch Niagara from there. It is said that Niagara is much more beautiful from Canada.

Perhaps it is a mark that a touring Indian wants to make, He wants to say that he has spent his time in America, by visiting a very popular place in the country. He cannot go back home and claim he has seen Yosemite or Colorado springs without being given empty stares, not many people know about those places. But if you say you saw Niagara, then they can definitely relate it to something back home. Your purpose of the trip will be complete, You saw the most popular place (popular to Indians) in USA."

It appears that Niagara is an icon in eyes of many Indians, a place that they must visit when they come to America. Which is no different than what everybody does when on vacation. When I went to DC, I saw the Washington Monument. San Francisco, I went to Alcatraz. These sites 'brand recognition' to us and we flock to them based on an impression.

Back to the Falls, I've had the opportunity to take several groups of Indian origin on tours. I find that their English is very good and their knowledge of American history is better than most yanks. They tend to travel in extended family groups and make decisions based upon consensus. Once the decision is made, there are no questions asked. I sense there is a reverence for parents and grandparents in this culture.

If you're visiting the Falls from India, consider taking a guided tour. I know you'll have some great stories to tell about the Falls when you return home. And definitely stop by the Punjabi Hut for an excellent meal.

First Tour of the Season


This was going to be a tough tour, I thought. A group of ladies visiting the Falls in April--no Maid of the Mist in the water, many attractions closed and snow/ice at the Falls. Add another level of difficulty--some of my guests work in the tourism industry!
I think we managed to have a good time however, as the follow-up e-mail from the client showed:

Hiya Joel

just wanted to drop a line and say a BIG THANK YOU VERY MUCH.

We have just returned to work today our first day back (arrived yesterday afternoon) but wanted to drop a note asap to say thanks, we had a discussion at San Francisco airport just before we left our friend Jackie to fly back to New Zealand & the remaining group to the UK regards the highlights of the trip and by far we all said the Niagara trip was the BESTEST, for the girls and myself to see you at the bottom of the stairs with your suit was the surprise start to a really fun day, your sense of humour, knowledge, attention to detail with the food and drink from the local area all combined to make it a memorable day and something we will not forget.

So again thanks, wishing you and your family the best of health, wealth and happiness for the future.

Luv Karen, Jackie, Sandra, Sally & Diane.
Cheers Mate.

I guess it doesn't matter what the season is--Niagara's stories are compelling anytime of the year. It also helps to have a group with a great sense-of-humor who were open trying different things. We went off the beaten track and explored some of the more ordinary aspects of life in this region.