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Niagara Falls with Kids

The Native Peoples called them "Thundering Waters." Winston Churchill declared it the "prettiest Sunday afternoon drive in the world." Writer Charles Dickens said that after witnessing the awesome spectacle, he "seemed to be lifted from the earth." Well, if only they could see Niagara Falls now -tens of thousands of tourists speaking languages from all over the globe jostling past Elvis, Dracula, and even Margaret Thatcher (in wax), through a ticky-tacky carnival atmosphere of candy floss and casinos and mini golf courses boasting roaring dinosaurs.

That's not to say that parents and kids shouldn't visit the famous site.The town that for years was known as the Honeymoon Capital of the World is now a stimulating family playground. And sooner or later, all roads lead to the Falls, where visiting families can experience the awesome water power in any number of ways. Kids can sail over the Whirlpool basin in an aerial car, venture out into the spray on Maid of the Mist and experience a death-defying plunge over the Waterfalls through IMAX cinema. Bring binoculars to view the water power from the top of the hill. My husband and 13-year-old daughter even rode up the Niagara River to the level five rapids on a jetboat and came back laughing, and totally soaked.

During our quick 24-hour trip to Niagara Falls last weekend, our fourth family visit, we also took some time out to visit the quieter natural attractions of the Niagara Parkway. The new Niagara Parks Butterfly Conservatory and gardens are attracting thousands of butterflies-and they, like the Falls, perform at no extra cost. But that's another column. Back to the Falls, here are our favorite attractions:

JOURNEY BEHIND THE FALLS: Kids seem to like donning yellow raincoats, walking through echoing tunnels, and coming almost face-to-face with water rushing past at 70 gallons per minute. A bonus is the real-live Mountie who is positioned at the Table Rock area each Friday, Saturday and Sunday between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. until September 7.

ILLUMINATIONS: Every evening the Falls light up with the colors of 4 billion candlepower, electrical energy courtesy of the nearby water power. On Friday evenings until August 29 (and on Labor Day Monday), fireworks from Spain explode over the water at 10:30 p.m. By day, if you're lucky, you may see a rainbow in the mist.

MAID OF THE MIST: For 150 years, boats have been taking sightseers out in blue hooded raincoats to get wet from the tremendous spray. A fellow passenger likened our boatload to an troop ship of Smurfs. Cameras and eyeglasses get drenched too, and although you can hardly make out what the taped commentary is telling you, you certainly hear the roar of the water. A new Maid carrying 583 passengers means line-ups are minimal.

NIAGARA: MIRACLES, MYTHS AND MAGIC is the six-storey IMAX film that tells the history of Niagara. Though some of the dramatisations are a bit hokey, like the Indian maiden in the sunset or schoolteacher Annie Taylor ordering with a twang to pack more cushioning into her barrel, there is a suspenseful re-creation of a true story that happened in 1960. After a boating mishap, teenager Deanne Woodward was saved just at the top edge. Miraculously, her seven-year-old brother, Roger, survived a plunge to the bottom of the Falls wearing nothing but a bathing suit and a life jacket. Also included is a visit to the DAREDEVIL ADVENTURE museum, a weird assortment of trivia and containers used for travelling over the Falls. Most kids will be fascinated to peer inside the metal contraptions or read about such daredevils as Bobby Leach, who, in 1911 survived a trip in a steel barrel sustaining injuries so severe he spent 23 weeks in hospital. Just 15 years later, however, he slipped on an orange peel, broke a leg and died from the complications.

JETBOATING THE RAPIDS: For kids over six who are brave enough, a Whirlpool Jet boat tour from Niagara-on-the-Lake can be an exhilirating experience. For kids that are not sure about getting their faces blasted with large doses of cold water, it's best to give this ride a miss. At $48 for adults and $38 for kids under 16, it's an expensive thrill, but it could also be a highlight as it was for our young teenager. Call 905-468-4800 for reservations.

ACCOMMODATIONS: Because some 12 million tourists come to Niagara Falls every year, and use more Kodak film than anywhere else in the world, there are rooms for every budget. We've stayed at Best Western's Cairn Croft Inn with its indoor pool and $3.25 breakfast and the Holiday Inn on Grand Island with its indoor Olympic Pool and view of the river. Call the Niagara Visitors and Convention Bureau 1-800-563-2557 or consult www.tourismniagara.com

NOTE: Before we planned our first trip, we had talked about going to "see" the Falls. When we arrived, the kids took one look, shrugged and moved on to more vigorous activity such as pelting each other with chestnuts fallen from the trees. It was only after we explained that "seeing" the Falls meant more than just looking and started telling the stories from Linda Granfield's excellent book for kids, All About Niagara Falls (available at the public library), that they became enthusiastic. Granfield also suggests 20 different ways of enjoying the natural wonder such as sending a postcard and signing it "Yours till Niagara Falls!"





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