niagara falls American side
Photo by Lisa Jefferies – Niagara Falls, USA

By Steven Jeffries

Since my family and I live in the greater Toronto area, Niagara Falls has always beckoned as a place to get away as it is a mere two to three hour drive away for us.  Niagara Falls, Ontario and its New York State counterpart have always been known as busy and popular spring and summer destinations, but there are many good reasons to visit them in the winter.

There is the Winter Festival of Lights, three indoor water parks, and several other family friendly indoor attractions, as well as the famous, all-season Niagara Falls themselves.  Both sides of the US-Canada border, have several family friendly restaurants and hotels, and shopping opportunities.  We have gone every year during the Christmas holiday break to Niagara Falls, Ontario and so I can outline many of these family vacation benefits.

 

Winter Festival of Lights

The Canadian Automobile Association Winter Festival of Lights takes place from November 3rd, 2012 to January 31st, 2013.  It includes a variety of activities, but centres around several huge and beautiful light displays, including a naitivity scene and Hanukkah Menorah, and scenes featuring Disney characters both classic and current.  My own two young children love looking at Mater and Lightening McQueen, along with several princesses, Winnie the Pooh and some of his friends, and Mickey and Minnie Mouse, to name just a few.  This particular display is located in Queen Victoria Park which is accessible from either Murray Street (from the Fallsview hotel district) or Table Rock and the citywide shuttle.  We normally walk from Table Rock.

 

 

horseshoe falls
Photo by Lisa Jefferies – Horseshoe Falls

At the same time, you can see the Horseshoe and American Falls illuminated in beautiful and changing colours.  Also near Table Rock is the Rink at the Brink, an outdoor rink that is adjacent to the Horseshoe Falls.  It used to be covered, but the organizers obviously realized this needed to be corrected, and got rid of the tent like enclosure, allowing both the elements and the view to be a part of the experience of skating.  New Years Eve is the peak of the celebration, and also the hotels’ priciest night of the year by far, with its popular free outdoor concert featuring top Canadian bands and singers.  This year, pop star Nelly Furtado is one of the featured acts.  Of course, there are the traditional fireworks at midnight, but also every Friday evening at 9pm there are fireworks throughout the festival.  Many Fallsview facing hotel rooms offer an excellent and warm vantage point so keep this in mind if booking for a Friday.  For more information on the CAA Festival of Lights and details on other events check out their website at www.wfol.com .

The Indoor Water Parks

There are three main indoor water parks and they are all on the Ontario side.  Fallsview Waterpark which is part of Falls Avenue Resort of hotels and is directly connected to a couple of them is the largest.   We have spent the day there and it was a great deal of fun.  There are areas for young and older alike including a wave pool, waterslides, huge tipping bucket, and splash pad area, and even an outdoor pool.  There are lots of deck chairs and a decent eatery called the Planet Hollywood Beach Club.  The food is reasonably priced and there is a varied selection, including some healthier choices.

The Great Wolf Lodge is also very popular, and it is the only exclusive water park, meaning that only the guests of this resort hotel get to use the park.  We have not yet stayed there but other family and friends have, and they have called it everything from “the best” and great to chaotic and crowded.  It is generally expensive to stay there and quite a few people I have talked to say it is better suited to older children rather than the little ones.  The hotel itself has other attractions as well, including a nightly story time and a kids spa.  It also offers themed rooms with bunk beds to cater further to families.

The smallest and the least expensive of the water parks is called Waves.  It is located at the end of Lundy’s Lane and is part of the Americana Resort.  We have not stayed at the hotel, but we did spend an afternoon at the park when our children were very young.  We chose it because it is smaller and was recommended by friends because they said it had more for young children. This is true, but it has fewer larger water slides.   Our three-and-a-half year olds (at the time) enjoyed it, but my wife and I had one main concern.  We were not entirely happy with the lifeguard supervision, particularly regarding our son on one water slide.  My wife did lodge a complaint and spoke with the manager who said he would look into it, which was appreciated.  The snack bar at Waves is pretty standard.

Other Winter Attractions

Even in winter it is worthwhile to take a walk along the Canadian side or to Goat Island in the US.  The New York side actually offers a close up view of the American Falls and looks great in winter.  A nice option is to walk back and forth across the Rainbow Bridge, providing you have a valid passport.  Keep in mind that popular outdoor attractions such as The Maid of the Mist boat ride do not operate during the winter.

Three great indoor attractions available to families visiting the Canadian side are the Butterfly Conservatory, Bird Kingdom, and Clifton Hill.  The Butterfly Conservatory was a hit with our kids from the moment they could walk!  Hundreds of butterflies fly around in a natural indoor habitat that is kept extremely warm.  Our kids still enjoy chasing the butterflies and hoping that one lands on them.  It is a photographer lover’s dream as my wife can attest.  Bird Kingdom is similar in that it is the largest bird aviary in the world!  But it also contains reptiles and features demonstrations and explanations from the attraction’s staff.  Clifton Hill is a steep street leading to the falls with a wide variety of family attractions, museums, and restaurants.  These include The Ripley’s Believe It or Not and Guiness World Records Museums, a heated gondola Ferris Wheel that offers a great view of the falls, glow-in-the-dark mini golf, and video and virtual reality game arcades.

Hotels, Restaurants, and Shopping

There are many good places to stay for families on both sides of the border.  Where you situate yourself may largely depend on what you are planning to do.  For example, for the exclusive water park experience, away from the hustle and bustle of the downtown Niagara Falls area, you should choose Great Wolf Lodge.  There are several hotels located on or near Clifton Hill, the Rainbow Bridge, or Fallsview Indoor Waterpark, including the highly rated on Tripadvisor.com, The Skyline Inn.  Our personal favourite is the largest Embassy Suites in the world, which overlooks the Horseshoe Falls.  It includes a fabulous buffet breakfast , two room suites for more space and privacy, free snacks and soft drinks in the afternoon, and offers packages with meal discounts and free attraction shuttle passes.

However, be aware that many of the hotels offering these packages, have restaurants that are particularly overpriced and so you may end up paying a high tab, despite the coupon or discount.  Also, many hotels charge high parking fees, but two that I have stayed in on the Canadian side that offer free parking are the Holiday Inn by the Falls and the Hampton Inn at the Falls.  There are some reasonably priced restaurants on both sides of the border.  Just ask for recommendations at your hotel or check out Tripadvisor.com and read the reviews.

Both Niagara Falls, Ontario and its New York State counterpart have good outlet malls for shopping.  The one on the US side, Fashion Outlets, is larger and is mainly indoors and has an extensive food court.  It also is surrounded by supermarkets and restaurants, and has both a Walmart adjacent to it, and (particularly exciting for visiting Canadians) a Target about a mile drive.  The Factory One Outlet Mall is located on Lundy’s Lane near the Waves Waterpark.  It is smaller and is entirely outdoors, but has very good deals, particularly on or shortly after Boxing Day.  There are several places to eat, both fast food and family sit down dining nearby.

Each and every year my family makes the trek to Niagara Falls, and we will be doing so again this year.  It is always fun to plan for what we are going to do, and it never disappoints us while we are there.  Certainly one can wait until the warm spring or summer weather to visit, but there are many good reasons to go in the heart of the winter and holiday seasons.

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About the Author:

Steven Jeffries is a writer and teacher, husband to family photographer Lisa, and father to twins.

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