After our umpteen day trips escorting overseas visitors to Niagara Falls, it's hard to imagine there could be anything new to see. But this time we're doing it differently – just us, with two kids aged 1 and 3 in tow, and for a three-day stay. Settling in at one of the parade of hotels overlooking the falls, we decide to check it off our list right away, and head down to take in the view, with expectations the older child will either squeal with delight or stand rapt in awe of its majestic power. Instead, a fight over a sippy cup ensues.
In need of a distraction, we cross the road to the tourist centre (Is there any place that doesn't have a Tim Hortons?) for the Journey Behind the Falls. Having done the Maid of the Mist countless times, this is our first take on the attraction, where tunnels drilled deep underground lead to viewing stations directly behind and beside the falls. Our visit to the latter, which provides possibly the best perspective of all, is brief, as daughter suggests (read: screams) she doesn't care much for the heavy splashback. They don't hand out those plastic ponchos for nothing. Calm is soon restored by the opportunity to push the buttons in the elevator for the journey back up.
Next day, we drive a few kilometres down the Niagara Parkway for our one planned must-do outing: the botanical garden and butterfly conservatory. The glass-roofed pavilion, landscaped with walkways and tropical plants, is home to so many butterflies that visitors often serve as landing stations. The ramped pathway is mercifully stroller-friendly and our girl is given free rein to run wild. The 14-month-old surely doesn't get the butterfly thing, but nonetheless maintains a beatific smile throughout as they alight and take off again. The adjacent arboretum and gardens prove another big hit because they're taken in from a one-hour horse-and-carriage ride. They're an even bigger hit with dad, as they cost a small fraction of the rate for a similar ride alongside the falls.
From the gardens we head back toward the falls, stopping in at the Whirlpool Aero Car, a diversion that sounds more like a manic fairground ride that what it actually is: a cable car suspended above a section of the river, near a whirlpool. The 98-year-old gondola creeps across the river, stops and reverses for the journey back. That's pretty much it. The kids seem to like the view from about 60 metres over the river, with our oldest pointing out the White Water Walk below, a 300-metre boardwalk that runs alongside the river. Since she has to be continually reminded to stay by your side, there was fat chance the family would be taking in that one.
Heading back toward town, we decide to get a bite to eat. Most of the eateries we could see were of the "themed" variety, with largely overlapping menus that included basic fare like hot dog and fries, for about 20 bucks. We settle on the closest joint, Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville. It gets the kids' attention, with flashy decor, video screens and stilt walkers making balloon animals – the sort of stuff you expect in any decent restaurant. Five minutes after the food arrives, it's meltdowns all around, and we ask for our food to go, and have empty boxes delivered to the table. Sorry, we're told, they can't give us doggie bags – municipal law, you understand – and we're left to scrape our dinners off our plates ourselves and box them up before heading back to the hotel.
On our final day, we don't have time to visit my favourite spot in town – the midway-on-a-slope known as Clifton Hill. Flashy, a little trashy, with more than enough fairground thrills packed into its short stretch. The kids are far too young to partake of my favourite sport, mini-golf, so we have to give Dinosaur Adventure a miss. The place apparently boasts two 18-hole courses dotted with 50 life-size dinos, ponds, rapids and … wait for it … a 15-metre-high erupting volcano. Surely this must be mini-golf nirvana? Nearby is the Movieland Wax Museum, for those who enjoy getting their picture taken with waxy models of their favourite stars, a 53-metre Ferris wheel, the Guinness Museum (of world records, not beer) and an old favourite, Ripley's Believe It or Not museum. Shrunken heads, anybody?
Instead, we head out for a stroll on the promenade behind the Fallsview Casino Resort, a massive complex that sticks a hotel, casino, entertainment venue, waterpark and shopping centre under one roof. A brick walkway is fringed by low walls, well-kept gardens, seating areas and dotted with Belle-Époque-style lampposts, giving us a relaxing walk to soothe the baby for the drive home and an opportunity for our toddler to safely blow off steam. But, despite the charm of a quiet mosey overlooking the falls, it's no match for blasting spooks in a black-light haunted house ride. That'll be on the must-do list for next time, whether anyone else likes it or not.