Niagara Falls has much to offer, even in fall! We run down what to do and where to go to make the most of a family weekend at the horseshoe.
Perhaps one of the best things about Niagara Falls is that there’s so much to do there that a second visit starts planning itself. My daughter, Annie, and I could pick among activities during a visit this summer knowing we’d like to come back for more in the fall.
October is a great month to visit Niagara Falls in Ontario, Canada, because the crowds have thinned from summer and the heat should have diminished as well. Attractions are still open on weekends, although the last 10 p.m. fireworks over the falls concludes Oct. 8 (Thanksgiving in Canada). That’s also Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples’ Day weekend in the United States, so it may still be a bit busy. But there’s plenty of room for everyone.
If possible, drive to the Falls on Friday evening. It takes about two and a half hours from Syracuse, including time to cross the border, depending on traffic. When traveling by vehicle, those over age 16 must have a passport or enhanced driver’s license; kids age 15 or under may use a birth certificate, although a passport is preferred. (Additional preparation details can be found on the Falls’ tourism website.)
My 12-year-old nephew, Conner, of Manlius, said, “Niagara Falls was one of the most memorable places I’ve ever been!” And he used to live in Seattle, so we knew we were going to the right place. We’d stopped at the Falls and seen them once during a family trip back from Canada. But this time we wanted “to do” the Falls.
It’s exciting for kids to visit another country, especially one close to home. Getting some Canadian dollars from one’s bank ahead of time (usually with a fee) can build interest for children and emphasize that they’re really going to a foreign place. The exchange rate hovers around 77 cents U.S. for every Canadian dollar, which benefits U.S. visitors. Credit cards do the exchange automatically, sometimes with a charge for a foreign currency transaction.
After crossing the Rainbow Bridge, we waited in line at the border. We noticed the signs in English and French and could hear the falls and taste the water in the air. After presenting passports, driver’s licenses or birth certificates to border patrol, turn left and head down Niagara Parkway past the U.S. falls to see the illuminated Horseshoe Falls. More than 20 lights placed behind the falls light up the water in rotating colors 365 nights a year. It’s a great way to start the visit. The U.S. falls are lit up, too.
We stayed in the heart of the falls viewing area on Murray Street, across from the Fallsview Casino Resort and mall. From there we could walk down the street the next morning to view the falls and walk about five minutes more to our main destination, Journey Behind the Falls. My sister’s family had ridden the Maid of the Mist, one of the boats that head into the mist generated by the 3,160 tons of water going over the falls each second. These boats run through most of November, but my daughter wanted to try something else. Open year-round, Journey Behind the Falls takes one 125 feet down literally behind the falls.
We bought our tickets and were given a time to venture in about 20 minutes later. The main viewing areas are next to Horseshoe Falls, with water pouring over about 50 feet away. Everyone is given and wears the souvenir yellow rain poncho because the mist and water fly. After the 15-second elevator ride down, participants walk to the first viewing area, which is covered by rock. If you want to stay dry, that’s the place to do it. But a short staircase leads to the outdoor viewing area, where the mist and water from the falls drift over as one takes in the view. Amazing. If there were chairs, I could’ve stayed an hour.
We returned inside and walked along a tunnel to two other viewing portals located right behind the falls. It was interesting to see the water fall consistently with intermittent bursts of more. No one rushed us out of any spot; the whole activity took about an hour, including time in the gift shop.
Next up was a buffet lunch near the top of the Skylon Tower. Our plan was to see the falls from high above, eat a big lunch and then head back outdoors. An elevator on the outside of the tower climbs 775 feet to the buffet level. Buffet tickets include a trip to the observation decks as well. We thought the buffet would be faster than the a la carte dining level, which rotates 360 degrees once every hour and is located one floor up. Both fill up quickly for lunch and dinner, so make reservations.
Adult lunch buffet tickets are $32.95 Canadian and $14.95 Canadian for children 12 and under. A ticket to visit the observation decks alone is $14.50 Canadian; children 4 to 12 are $8.50 Canadian, and under 4 are free.
Other visitors prefer to picnic on grassy spots in viewing distance of the falls. Two Tim Hortons doughnut and snack shops are available in this area as are street hot dog vendors and a few fast food restaurants in the Table Rock Welcome Centre complex. Arvind Diddi and his family from Oswego visit the falls at least once a year when out-of-town company comes. It’s about a two-and-a-quarter-hour drive from Oswego, and he says his 5-year-old daughter, Anika, loves seeing the falls. She’s almost old enough to try one of the boat rides. They picnic, take in the sights, and drive home in one day.
One can take the easily accessible WEGO buses that run to all the major sites in Niagara Falls. But we drove our car north along Niagara Parkway about 12 minutes to the Butterfly Conservatory, which we heard was a must-visit. Lovely old homes, some bed and breakfasts, and a few motels line one side of the parkway while the river runs along the other side. A $15 Canadian admission fee allows one to walk the trails through a rainforest atmosphere where up to 2,000 butterflies live and dance. After the butterflies, we drove a few more minutes north to see the giant Floral Clock.
After all that sightseeing, some time in the hotel pool is well-deserved. Or take in Clifton Hill, if you dare. Bowling, race cars, haunted houses, ice cream, souvenir shops: It’s a child’s dream and a parent’s possible nightmare. With the right attitude, it can be fun and offers the Rainforest Café, Hard Rock Café, and more for interesting meal options. If rains keep you inside, try the nearby IMAX theater. The weekend reminded me of visiting a beach or shore town with an active boardwalk and so much to do.
On Sunday you have other options for your weekend. You might visit the Bird Kingdom—a sight we didn’t have time to see. Next time I’d like to try another view of the water, perhaps by AeroCar. Started in 1916, the cable car glides over the whirlpool that forms where the rapids end and the river turns sharply. The car holds up to 35 people and costs $15 Canadian for a ride. One can zipline near the falls, which costs $59 Canadian per person.
A thunderstorm blew up one day and we headed into the Fallsview mall for shelter and a cool treat. The Il Gelato di Carlotta was fantastic. Coffees, snacks and indoor and outdoor seating are available, too. Visit the mall’s fudge shop, maple products and clothing stores for a break.
Another day would’ve given us time to take in the historic attractions, known as the Heritage Sites in the area. They include: Old Fort Erie from the War of 1812, where children are known to run and climb; St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre, where everyone can watch ships navigate Lock 3; and the Ontario Lacrosse Hall of Fame and Museum, also at the museum and which includes a lacrosse shooting gallery. The Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center just opened in May on the New York side of the falls and is open every day except Monday.
Around noon on Sunday I recommend heading home. . . but with a stop at the Buffalo Zoo to put off the disappointment of leaving for a while. It’s open until 5 p.m. every day with the last admission at 4 p.m. It’s a short drive from Niagara Falls to the zoo, about 20 minutes. Traffic caused a 40-minute delay when we visited, so we saved the zoo for the next trip as well. But there’s always the Waterloo mall outlets: They close at 6 p.m. on Sundays, 9 p.m. the rest of the week.