For a change of pace this year, we decided to spend July 4th outside the US. Ariel had never been to Niagara Falls and had always wanted to go. Plus Jacob is still little enough that he gets to do a lot of stuff for free. Anything tourism-related in the USA on Independence Day tends to be zoo, and besides none of us were really feeling extra patriotic this year. So we decided to fly up to Toronto and head down to the Falls. This can be a risky proposition since Canada Day is July 1st and can easily flow into the 4th depending on how people take their vacations.
It worked out very well for us. There was definitely (a lot!) of traffic getting out of Toronto, but after being here for a few days, that seems to be a constant issue. Once we hit the highway, it was smooth sailing all the way to the Falls.
After finding parking (something that seems to be a major challenge in Canada!) we walked down to get our first view of the American side of Niagara Falls.
From there we wheeled Jacob’s stroller down to the Hornblower Boat Tour. This is basically the Canadian version of the world-renowned Maid of the Mist. The only difference as far as I could tell was that the ponchos they give you are red, as opposed to blue. Because this is Canada, you see. And maple leaves. Anyway!
The boat ride was great! We were a little nervous because we had read that the noise of the falls can be little frightening for toddlers, but Jacob handled it like a champ. We had bought these ear muff things for him but a) he would never have agreed to wear them anyway and b) we didn’t even think to try to put them on him because he was having such a great time. He kept saying “wowwww” over and over again. It was so cool. In fact the only challenges with him were getting him into the pint-sized poncho (which was of course still too big for him) and chasing him all over the wet floor of the boat. But it was really not too big of a deal, he never even fell over or tripped.
When we got to the Horseshoe Falls, we all went out onto the front of the boat and let the sound and fury of the nature wash over us. Well not really, it’s not like the boat actually goes under the falls, but the mist sure washed over us. It was really fun and we even got a fun little family picture. And we didn’t even get that wet! The ponchos obviously helped, but even the parts of us that weren’t covered weren’t too bad. I’d worried a bit that we’d all be walking around with soggy shoes afterwards (and then dad would get to drive for 2+ hours back to Toronto sitting in wet shoes) but really it was no big deal.
Also – there was no wait! I’d read my blog-friend Rikka’s post about never going to Niagara Falls on the 4th of July only AFTER we’d made these plans, but I don’t think it applied because we were on the Canadian side. And critically, we got there pretty early. We were on line for the boat by 10:45 am. 20 minutes later we were already getting misted. According to our INTEL (read: some guy we met who had been on the American side the day before) apparently the wait for Maid of the Mist were over an hour long. With an 18 month old…….nope! But in Canada, July 4th on a Thursday is just a regular work day. Also most Americans don’t…leave America…on Independence Day. And really, the Canadian side is always the superior Niagara experience since you can see both falls.
Don’t get me wrong, there were a ton of people there. The curse and blessing of Niagara is that it’s supremely easy to get there, which means it’s always crowded. Years ago I’d journeyed to Iguazu Falls in Argentina and that is a totally different experience going to a giant waterfall in the middle of a jungle. But the Niagara crowds really weren’t overwhelming. We were able to get a table for lunch instantly at the Queen Victoria Place restaurant (great views and really tasty white fish sandwich!) right after the boat ride. Just don’t expect to have any solitude to enjoy the falls on your own terms. And I’m sure weekends and Canadian holidays are a total disaster there too.
Oh and it was HOT. It’s pretty rare for this part of the world, but it was in the 90’s with a ton of humidity. So remember, just because it’s Canada doesn’t mean it’s CANADA if you get my drift.
We ended up only being there for a few hours, so I can’t tell you much about the kitschy casinos, observation decks, and other tourist traps that tower over what should be a sacred temple to nature. Although to be fair, if we had more time I would have 100% taken a ride up the Skylon Tower. 800+ feet above the falls seems like it would be a really cool view. The other stuff I wouldn’t touch if you paid me. There were also some trails (including at least one on the American side) that looked interesting (but not realistic with a stroller). Definitely worth a return trip to both sides for at least a full day or two.
On our way back to Toronto, we stopped at the Konzelmann Winery – which has an overlook of Lake Ontario. But by this point Jacob hadn’t had a nap and was staging a full scale rebellion so we just alternated taking sips of the wine flight we shared and chasing him around the confused other customers who didn’t quite understand what an 18 month old was doing there. In retrospect, neither did we. So we just packed it in and headed back to Toronto playing kid songs the whole way to keep him from totally losing it as we sat in traffic for two hours.
Oh and for kosher travelers, we didn’t know until after, but there is a kosher winery called Tzafona (Hebrew for northward) right down the road from where we were in Niagara on the Lake. I can’t tell you if it’s good or bad, but I would have definitely stopped there if for no other reason than getting a unique wine for Shabbat!
All in all, Niagara is really very family friendly, although with a toddler there were some challenges.
Pretty much everywhere we went was accessibly via stroller. Just bear in mind that parking is ALWAYS a problem. You are going to be pushing that thing for a while just to get down the main walkway with the views. And it’s a long walk if you want to go from where the boat leaves to where you can walk right up to where the water goes over the cliff. Forget about driving because then you’re paying $10-$25 at each lot you ditch your car at – and the walk from the lots to the views are almost as long! There were shuttles coming by that could speed things along, but again, with a stroller it was too much of a hassle. And good luck getting your toddler to way 10-15 minutes for the next shuttle.
Also for some reason finding a restaurant with a highchair was tough as well. The places right by the boat did NOT have them, which to me is a crime against capitalism. And the restaurant we DID find that had high chairs, required going up a flight of stairs carrying the stroller. And the boat itself required that you check your stroller before getting on. Thankfully they let you bring it all the way up to the last 20 feet before boarding. Whatever, it was still all worth it to see how happy Jacob was at the falls – AND – cross a major landmark off Ariel’s list.
Verdict: A fun and wet (but really not too wet!) usage of the time you are given. Just maybe wait until you’re done dragging a stroller along!