When I was a single chap living near Cleveland, whenever I felt restless, I would get in my car and drive to the wide open space at Niagara Falls and stare at the rapidly moving water. After a few hours of feeling relaxed and refreshed, I would turn around and head back home. A few years ago, I went with my family and stayed on the Canadian side of The Falls and we all had a great time.
For some reason, lately I have been feeling quite stir crazy and in need of some wide open space. My kids and I looked into where we could have a nice little getaway from NYC, where we could run free and feel refreshed. Niagara, New York, popped into my head as the destination for us. Niagara is a 6.5 hour drive from New York City – not close, but not terribly far either. So with my Kia Sorrento packed full of clothes and snacks and kids, we headed on up the road to The Falls. We made a few stops along the way to use the bathroom and for a couple of picnics, but we still made it in a little over 7 hours.
Let me cut to the chase – for all those who grew up hearing “you really need to go to the Canadian side of The Falls; Niagara, New York is nothing special” or for those who haven’t visited Niagara, New York in the last ten years, I must say that you really don’t know what you are missing. The area has experienced a renaissance and it stands on its own as a vacation destination.
My kids and I arrived at the Sheraton At The Falls with crumbs on our clothes and stains from juice boxes and milk shakes on our shirts. I was craving open spaces and relaxation and I didn’t even need to see The Falls to receive it. My kids overflowed with excitement as soon as we entered our room. We had the luxury of staying in a family suite and, I must say, this is the way to travel when you have a big family. Sheraton At The Falls treated my kids like royalty. In the family suites, there are TVs on each bunk, which helped during those moments when I really needed a few minutes to myself and my kids needed some independence.
My room was huge and I immediately wished my wife would have been able to join me on the trip when I saw the King-sized bed, walk-in closet, and large bathroom. But hey, a king-sized bed all to yourself is its own luxury after 13 years of marriage and three kids. We didn’t linger long in the room, though, because the large pool in the hotel was a huge hit with my kids after the long drive.
Our first meal in Niagara was at the Rain Forest Café, which conveniently is located inside the Sheraton At The Falls. The Rain Forest Café might be the best chain restaurant for kids. My 3 year old is much like a lot of other 3 year olds and it’s difficult for him to sit for a long time at restaurants. And one of the great things about eating at the Rain Forest Café is that kids don’t have to sit for long. There is much to see and it is not a big deal for a kid to stand up, walk around, or talk loudly. My kids were either pointing out all the animals, the stars on the ceiling, or the delicious deserts that poured out from the kitchen. And the food was really good too. So that made me extra happy.
But The Falls…
The hotel and Rain Forest Café were worth the 7 hour trip themselves, but I was there to see The Falls and experience it with my kids. To officially kick start our Niagara adventure, we stopped by the Official Visitor Center on 10 Rainbow Blvd and picked up our Discovery passes, which is a fantastic deal. Visitors can go on board the Maid of the Mist, walk up to the Cave of the Winds, tour the Aquarium of Niagara, gain some Niagara knowledge at the Niagara Gorge Discovery Center, and watch a film in the Niagara Adventure Theater, all while using the Trolley for one day. The Discovery pass is a bargain at $38 for adults and $31 for kids 6-12. Most of the attractions are located within Niagara Falls State Park, the nation’s oldest state park. In addition to the attractions listed above, Niagara Falls State Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, includes 400 acres of terrain and 15 miles of challenging hiking trails with stunning views of The Falls.
It is possible to see all the sites in one day, but we chose to break them up into two days. If breaking up the trip into two days, I advise using the trolley ticket the day you visit Cave of the Winds. We chose to see the Adventure Theater, Cave of the Winds, and Maid of the Mist on the first day of touring Niagara and visited the Discovery Center and Aquarium, which are close together, the second day. If you are worried about needing a trolley to get to the other sites, single tickets can be purchased for $2. We made the trek on foot and it wasn’t too long (we’re an active bunch, though, and don’t mind long walks). Even the 3 year old was good for the walk. Plus we were still enjoying being away from the closed-in spaces of NYC.
Our first vacationy (I made up a new word there) stop was at the Adventure Theater, where we watched a film on the history of Niagara Falls. There are also posters on the wall where we read more details about the area. From there we walked down the steps to the Maid of the Mist. Everyone in Niagara told us that we should go to Cave of the Winds first so we could use the flip flops that everyone receives so their shoes don’t get wet. We ignored these suggestions and wore our shoes on the Maid of the Mist. And we were fine. Everyone on the Maid of the Mist gets a rain cover and that was enough for us to stay dry. Well, mostly. You’re in Niagara, so of course you’ll get a little wet. The back of the boat was less crowded and we decided to stake out a spot there. A good look of The Falls can be seen from the back once the boat turns around. The wind on the boat bothered my 3 year old a little bit, but he was fine for most of the time.
From there we took the trolley to the Cave of the Winds and it was our favorite activity in Niagara. A visit to Cave of the Winds includes an elevator ride into Niagara Gorge and then a walk along a boardwalk that takes you within feet of Bridal Falls. We were thankful for the rain cover and flip flops, because we got soaked. I carried my 3 year old up the boardwalk steps while my 10 and 8 year old walked. I was a little concerned about my 3 year old slipping, so he stayed very close at all times. Given how windy and slick it is, I think it is wise to do with all kids his age. My 10 year old couldn’t get enough of the falling water. He repeatedly ran under the pounding water and cheered wildly.
And that was the end of day one. From there it was off for a little trip to the ER due to a broken arm. (The broken arm was completely unrelated to Niagara Falls or Cave of the Winds. My 10 year old was running around the big open fields that we love so much and tripped going downhill. So for the rest of that day we got a tour of the local hospital. That review will not be found here.) When we arrived back at the hotel, my kids were in need of a fun meal and I was in need of a beer. A TGI Fridays inside the Sheraton At The Falls seemed to call our name and we answered the restaurant’s call. After dinner, my kids let off some post ER steam at an arcade that is also within the hotel. This hotel has everything!
The next day we ventured out to the Aquarium and the Discovery Center. The Discovery Center provides some history of The Falls and the science behind it. The Aquarium is nice with a cool view of an octopus and a variety of other fish. My kids enjoyed staring at Nemo (the Clownfish) for a very long time while I did all of my Finding Nemo impressions. I’m sure the other visitors were not annoyed at all.
After our aquarium exploring had come to an end, we ate lunch on Old Falls Street, which is a 3 block section of Niagara that is lined with cobblestone streets. There is more to do than eat in this area, and my kids played with a giant chess game, a huge Janga, ping pong, and simply ran around. My one regret for the trip (other than the broken arm thing) was that we did not spend more time on Old Falls Street. I hear on weekends that there is even more to see and do.
I didn’t leave The Falls feeling as relaxed as I did when I was younger and single without kids, but I did leave with a smile. Watching my children laugh and smile in awe of Niagara Falls was a huge treat. My kids and I had a great time taking in the scenery, eating out, and lounging around the hotel. Other than my son breaking his arm, the trip was perfect. My son even said on the way home, “That was one of the best times, except that part about getting hurt.”
The Official Visitor Center is located at 10 Rainbow BLVD and is a short walk from the hotel.
Disclaimer: I received a stay at the hotel, Discovery Passes, and dinner for my review. The thoughts, words, and fun are all my own.
Above video from my son’s perspective while under a waterfall at Cave of the Winds. He was a bit excited.