Which country offers the best experience for the money?
Niagara Falls is one of the most popular destinations for American families. The waterfalls (actually three separate falls) straddle the border between Canada and New York. I can remember coming here as a 7-year-old and being truly awed by this thunderous force of nature. I can still see my dad and I, wearing rain ponchos and descending to the platform at the falls’ base.
Admittedly, the town of Niagara Falls in Ontario, Canada, has changed. To be honest, it feels like Reno - very touristy, very cheesy, very we’re-here-to-take-your-money - with a crush of international visitors. But the Canadian side benefits from unparalleled views of all three falls: the iconic Horseshoe Falls, plus the less-impressive American and Bridal Veil Falls. (Know that the American and Bridal Veil Falls actually appear to the visitor to be one large curtain of water, and you’ll often hear them simply referred to as the “American Falls.”) In contrast, the American side has been preserved as a state park; it’s quieter, less-crowded, and more natural. However, even from the Observation Tower, you won’t be able to get the full effect of Horseshoe Falls.
Each country’s visitors center offers a discounted pass that includes several experiences for one price. On the Canadian side, the Niagara Adventure Pass Classic includes the Hornblower Niagara Cruises boat ride, Journey Behind the Falls, Niagara Fury, White Water Walk, and two days’ transportation on the WEGO bus. Online cost (April-November): Youth (5 & under) Free; Youth (6 -12) about $29; Adult about $44, depending on the exchange rate.
On the American side, you can purchase the Niagara Falls USA Discovery Pass. It includes the Maid of the Mist boat ride, Cave of the Winds, Niagara Adventure Theater, Aquarium of Niagara, and unlimited trolley rides around the park. Online cost (May-October): Youth (5 & under) Free; Youth (6-12) $34; Adult $45, plus a $1-per-ticket fee for processing of online orders. At the time of this writing with the strong American dollar, the Canadian pass was less expensive.
So which experiences are worth your time and money? Does buying a pass make sense or should you just select one or two activities… or none? Do you really need to visit both sides of the falls for a satisfying visit? These are the questions that my 14-year-old son and I set out to answer on our most recent visit to Niagara Falls. The answers surprised us. We also make recommendations about where to stay, if you choose to overnight.
Note: While we did compare the major attractions on each side, we didn’t go to White Water Walk (Canada) or Aquarium of Niagara (USA). White Water Walk is simply a walk along the raging rapids in the Niagara Gorge and honestly, didn’t hold a lot of interest for us. And while the aquarium may be enjoyable for young children, my son - who has been to some of the finest aquariums in the world - had zero interest. To his point, if you’re going to Niagara, I’d recommend focusing on the falls themselves.
1/Hornblower Niagara Cruises vs. Maid of the Mist
Both the Canadian and American sides offer a half-hour boat cruise that takes you to the base of Horseshoe Falls to experience the power and grandeur firsthand. Visitors have been doing it for more than 150 years. Yes, you will get wet - that’s the point!
Both the Hornblower (Canada) and Maid of the Mist (USA) take the exact same course pass the American and Bridal Veil Falls and right up to the heart of the majestic Horseshoe Falls. Obviously, you get close enough to get sprayed by the falls' mist but not too close as to get sucked under the falls themselves. Watch here. Before you board, you’re given a souvenir poncho (which you can recycle after the cruise, if you choose). Hornblowers wear red ponchos; Misters wear blue. These cruises are appropriate for all ages; parents hold little ones in their arms.
The differences are subtle. The Maid of the Mist’s recorded commentary is more detailed than the Hornblower’s version. Hornblower uses large vessels with a wider base than the smaller, traditionally-shaped Maid of the Mist boats. For this reason, we slightly preferred the smaller boat; it made the falls feel even larger. During peak season, Hornblower offers an extended 40-minute illumination and fireworks cruise on selected nights, departing at 9:30 p.m. I think the illuminated falls are actually better observed from shore or high up in a hotel room (more on that later) as opposed to on the water.
KidTripster Tip: Wear flip-flops and shorts, if possible, to avoid wet shoes and pants.
Hornblower online cost (when purchased individually and not part of pass): Youth (4 & under) Free; Youth (5-12) about $12; Adult about $20, depending on exchange rate. Maid of the Mist online cost (when purchased individually and not part of pass): Youth (5 & under) Free; Youth (6-12) $10.65; Adult $18.25. Reservations aren’t accepted.
This is an important point: if you are only going to visit the American side of the falls (maybe you don’t have a passport or you have limited time), do the Maid of the Mist ride. It’s the only way that you'll see the full shape of Horseshoe Falls, and honestly, Horseshoe is the highlight of a visit to Niagara. Also, when you pay for the boat cruise, you’re also able to walk up the side of the American Falls on your return and walk out onto Observation Tower for better photos.
Journey Behind the Falls begins at Table Rock Welcome Centre, closest to Horseshoe Falls. Once again, you’ll pull on a souvenir poncho and descend 150 feet in an elevator to a series of underground tunnels carved in the bedrock. One tunnel leads behind the curtain of water where you’ll find two openings; you’ll see the falls cascading in front of you. But the better view is actually down a separate tunnel that leads out onto a platform that sits at the base of the falls. The sound is thunderous! Take a peek here. Journey Behind the Falls online cost (when purchased individually and not part of the pass): Youth (5 & under) Free; Youth (6-12) about $9; Adult about $13, depending on the exchange rate.
On the American side, the Cave of the Winds experience takes you along wooden walkways that hug the side of Bridal Veil Falls. You gear up in souvenir sandals (wear the sandals!) and ponchos for the short walk. Yes, you get wet, and yes, it’s windy on the Hurricane Deck, but I found the experience to be underwhelming at best. I actually asked my son, “is that it?” as we walked back. Especially if you do the Maid of the Mist cruise where you can walk along the American Falls on your way back, there’s no reason to spend your money here. Cave of the Winds cost (when purchased individually and not part of pass): Youth (5 & under) Free; Youth (6-12) $14; Adult $17.
3/Niagara's Fury vs. Niagara Adventure Theater
Ok, my son and I have differing opinions about Niagara’s Fury, the film experiences on the Canadian side. Located at Table Rock Welcome Centre, you begin by donning the ever-popular rain poncho and entering a theater to watch an 8-minute animated movie with Chip the Beaver who attempts to explain how Niagara Falls was formed during the Ice Age. I found the explanation to be disjointed. Just as you’re asking yourself, “why did we need ponchos,” the doors open, and you’re ushered into a 360-degree, multi-sensory theater. Snowflakes fall, rain mists, thunder cracks, and the floor shakes as you’re surrounded by images of the falls. Again, the 6-minute presentation is meant to communicate how the falls was created, but for me, it fell flat. And while it bills itself as an “Universal Studios-style attraction,” I felt as if the 4D effects didn’t go far enough. However, my 14-year-old son liked the animated movie and enjoyed the unpredictability of the second show. Unless you plan on buying the pass, I’d suggest skipping it. Niagara Fury’s online cost (when purchased individually and not part of the pass): Youth (5 & under) Free; Youth (6-12) about $7; Adult about $11, depending on the exchange rate.
KidTripster Tip: The effects can be loud and scary for young children; there were kids in the theater who were visibly upset. I wouldn’t advise the experience for kids under 5.
The American side offers a low-tech theater experience. Inside the Niagara Adventure Theater, you can watch a 30-minute movie about the history of the falls. The movie is similar to what you’d expect in a national park visitors center. However, this movie is quite dated; just look closely at the “present day” skyline shots that are missing most of the Canadian hotels. The most interesting part of the screening is the dramatizations that depict the various daredevils that either have tried to cross the falls on tightropes or plunge over the falls in barrels. And then there’s the truly miraculous story of a 7-year-old boy who survived an unintentional dive over the falls in only a life jacket. If you have the pass, see the movie. If not, I don’t think that it’s worth the money. Niagara Adventure Theater online cost (when purchased individually and not part of the pass): Youth (5 & under) Free; Youth (6-12) $8; Adult $12.
Photo courtesy: Niagara Parks
After experiencing the major attractions on both the Canadian and American sides of Niagara Falls, here’s what I’d recommend:
If you can, visit both sides as they each offer a very different feel. Spend the least amount of time on the American side, saving your excursions for the Canadian side. Both sides can be visited in one day.
If you can only visit one side, make it the Canadian side. You’ll be better positioned to appreciate the enormity of Horseshoe Falls. I’d recommend not getting the Niagara Adventure Pass Classic; instead purchase tickets à la carte for the Hornblower Niagara Cruises and if you have time, Journey Behind the Falls. Purchasing tickets separately for these two activities is less expensive than buying the pass.
If you can only visit the American side, skip the pass and only buy tickets for the Maid of the Mist.
If you stay overnight, opt for the Canadian side, as only these hotels have views of the falls. I will say that both my son and I enjoyed the falls’ illumination at night; the colors change every few minutes. And actually, the best view is likely from your hotel room. We stayed at the Embassy Suites by Hilton Niagara Falls - Fallsview. Our falls-facing room was just above Horseshoe Falls. But unlike some of the hotels on the Canadian side, we had a magnificent view of all three falls. After a long day of sightseeing, we were happy to catch the lights from our spacious and comfortable room. If you have little ones, a fallsview room may be a particularly good option; younger ones who need to turn in early can do so, while the rest of the family watches the lights and catches the fireworks show (Monday through Friday only) at 10 p.m. during the summer. The hotel also has a pool for an evening swim. Fallsview rooms for four start at around $180/night.
KidTripster Tip: Skip the complimentary breakfast in the morning. The buffet line is crowded, and the food is cold and sub-standard.
Ready to venture a little (ok, a lot) farther for some of the world’s most spectacular waterfalls? Check out our recommendations for Iguaçu Falls on the Brazil-Argentina border and Victoria Falls on the Zambia-Botswana border.
Editor Shellie Bailey-Shah still has a photo of her standing alongside Niagara Falls with her pink Barbie camera in hand, back in the days before cell phone cameras.