State Parks, Delaware North, Maid of the Mist working to enhance tourist experience - and reconnect with locals
Park becoming ADA-accessible; eateries welcome local vendors
By Joshua Maloni
One of the greatest attractions on Earth is less than 15 minutes from your backyard.
It's a wonder of the world, located within America's oldest state park.
And you're missing out on it.
"The thing that amazes me every day is that every day there are people here who save money their whole lives to come here - from around the world," said Angela Berti, APR, marketing and public affairs officer for the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.
Locally, "We get all these people that just - they take it for granted," Berti said. "And at the same time, people are saving to come from China and India. And we need to respect that, and take more advantage of it."
As the prime press agent for "our side" of Niagara Falls, Berti is intimately aware of the benefits people derive by experiencing the water on this side of the border.
"We offer more of a natural, authentic experience," she said. "That's where we do see the trends going. People who do travel, millennials, Gen X'ers, they want to be in nature. They want to disconnect a little bit. I think we give that opportunity."
Berti's mother, Connie, coined the tagline, "They have the skyline, we have the tree line."
Of course, Berti also is all-too-familiar with the complaints offered by those unfamiliar with what's in the park or of the work begun to upgrade the attraction's amenities.
"Growing up here, it's always too easy to just say, 'Oh, just go to the Canadian side. It's better.' I don't know what 'better' means," Berti said. "Yes, they have a better view; they don't have this (getting up close and personal to the falls). They don't have where they can actually hear it and feel it and touch it and smell it. We have the five-sense experience here."
"People save money their entire lives to come here. We need to come here more often as locals," she said.
Michael Barnes has served as general manager of Delaware North's Top of the Falls Restaurant, retail and concession areas for the better part of the past 15 years. He explained, "We do Earth Day every year. Every year I bring in two or three fifth-grade classes. They come for the day. ... When all's said and done, we take them down on the elevator to do the gorge trip. None of those kids - they all live two blocks from this park - have ever been on the Cave of the Winds trip."
"Most of them haven't been to the park," Berti said. "Worse than the kids, a lot of the teachers are like, 'Oh, my god, I haven't been here.' "
The future of Terrapin Point (Image courtesy of the NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation)
In an effort to lure locals back to Niagara Falls State Park, "We're reaching out to the kids to try to get them interested in coming," Berti said. "They'll go home and tell their parents how cool it was."
"Three-hundred kids a year now are coming in and doing stuff in the park," Barnes said.
State Parks, Delaware North and Niagara Adventure Theater underwrite each participating school's transportations costs. The field trip also includes lunch and a visit to the Aquarium of Niagara.
Off island, the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp. is directing marketing resources to reinvigorate the community.
"I think we've been doing it slowly, and I think what we'll continue to do year after year is, with our new branding that's coming out in the next year, we really want to get the community involved in that, and really take ownership of it," said John Percy, NTCC president and CEO. "I think, for far too long, locals, if they have people visiting them, they've taken them to Canada to see the falls. And now there's no reason to do that. We're really trying to get the messaging out that the U.S. side provides (so much). We want you to see the Canadian side, but the U.S. side provides such a unique perspective and a unique vantage point and a unique experience that you can't get on the Canadian side.
"You know, I have friends all over Western New York. And they're starting to realize, 'Oh, I do need to bring my relatives to the U.S. side.' So, I think, slowly, we just have to keep penetrating the local market as much as we did the worldwide market that the U.S. side is a wonderful and viable option to take their families, as well as people that are visiting friends and relatives.
"That market is huge. Upwards of 40 percent of people that come to visit in our region are coming to visit a friend or a relative. They once lived here, or they have friends and relatives that live here. So, it's important that those people realize that we're open for business, and we provide a wonderful and viable option for their guests."
Recent Park Improvements
So what has changed? The better question is what hasn't changed.
Sure, the water is the water. Save natural erosion, it's pretty much just as you remember when you first visited as a child.
It's everything leading to the water that's drastically different.
State Parks is currently executing an initiative to revitalize Niagara Falls State Park through the "NY Parks 2020" plan, which is a multiyear commitment to leverage a broad range of private and public funding to invest approximately $900 million into state parks from 2011-20.
To date, more than $64 million has been allocated to Niagara Falls State Park projects completed, under construction and/or planned within that time frame.
"I think everyone - I know that we, certainly at parks - are grateful to the governor for the commitment," Berti said. "It's long overdue, and we're proud that we've been able to move forward so quickly with the commitment of money. ... I think it was wonderful the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council identified tourism as an industry of importance. That refocused the energies and efforts on Niagara Falls. We've been able to take that momentum and run with it."
The most noticeable park improvements include:
Cave of the Winds
One of the top draws to Niagara Falls State Park is the Cave of the Winds, an attraction that allows people in rain ponchos to actually walk below the American Falls.
The elevator leading to the "Hurricane Deck" was replaced, while a new ticketing center opened two years ago. It doubles as a comfort station.
In the Cave of the Winds plaza, one giant change was made recently: The statue of Nikola Tesla was removed.
A tribute to the father of alternating current, the monument sat at the front of the plaza - and people sat on Tesla's lap for pictures. It's on the move to the back corner - and it will have a lower base, allowing anyone (including those in a wheelchair) a better photo op.
is an artist's rendering of where the Nikola Tesla statue will be situated.
(State Parks image)
A State Parks press release stated, "The tribute to Tesla, a gift from the people of Yugoslavia to the U.S. in 1976 as recognition of the nation's bicentennial, will serve as a principal focus in the prominent, inspirational and redesigned Stedman's Bluff setting, with views of the American Falls, Luna Island, Prospect Point and the Niagara River. Visitors will be able to recognize and appreciate the achievements and contributions of Tesla and what he meant to both Niagara Falls and the nation."
Berti said the layout idea is "Just to sort of create a special place to contemplate."
Tables and chairs will line the walkway, allowing guests to sit and dine and enjoy the outdoors.
The work at Stedman's Bluff includes a new stairway to Luna Island.
Tesla and partial staircase access should be in place by month's end. In the meantime, walkers can access Luna Island via the north shore trail.
Later this summer, the New York State Park Police headquarters will move out of the Cave of the Winds building and over to the Aquarium of Niagara campus.
Future plaza actions call for the HQ to be converted into a year-round interpretive theater attraction. The Cave of the Winds plaza, meanwhile, will be subject to more landscaping while an enhanced entranceway is designed.
Inside Delaware North's Cave of the Winds Snack Bar.
Next to the Cave of the Winds, Delaware North's snack bar and gift shop were modernized.
The former has new glass panels, digital menus, fresh interpretative boards, automated checkouts (with six different languages) and a phone-charging station. It also features a rare pick-your-Pepsi-product machine (similar to the Coke models at movie theaters).
The latter has an assortment of Niagara Falls-themed merchandise as well as homemade fudge.
Both will work more closely with local vendors this summer season.
In March, a "Shark Tank"-style competition brought in 42 local vendors peddling everything from jams to jewelry to skateboards.
"They invited local vendors to come and present what they had, and see if it fit in here," said Mandy May, manager of the Top of the Falls Restaurant. "Of them, they called 20 back for a second interview. Of that, about a dozen or so are going to be utilized between the restaurant and some in concessions and then the retail stores."
That's in addition to Delaware North's island partnerships with Sahlen's, Costanzo's Bakery, Original Pizza Logs and Perry's Ice Cream.
The retail areas, and the restaurant, are working with the state's "Taste NY" program, an initiative launched by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2013 to promote New York's food and beverage industries.
"For me, when I would travel, you know, you want to eat what the locals are eating. You see what's going on and what they're known for," May said. "It's been pretty good for us. We've had a lot of local items on our menu for the last handful of years, and now that we're partnering up with 'Taste NY' and really pushing that, and really telling the story, I think it will be better."
On the other side of Goat Island, Terrapin Point, a popular place to view the falls - and site of daredevil Nik Wallenda's 2012 highwire walk to Canada - is currently under construction. It's becoming Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant and will have expanded trails, stopping points and overlooks.
"This year, we know that some of the construction is a bit of an inconvenience," Berti said. "Terrapin Point is closed until probably late-July/early-August, which is, obviously, a disappointment to many. But, again, as we've talked to people, they understand.
"It's such a short construction season that the window is so narrow for getting stuff done. We got lucky this year with the mild winter, so, hopefully we'll be able to get things done a little earlier."
"We're asking for peoples' understanding that this is, obviously, one of the more impressive areas to see the falls and, unfortunately right now, it's got chain (fencing)," Berti said. "But, I think at the end of the day, it will be worth it."
Barnes said, "A person in a wheelchair can start at the top of Terrapin and get to the edge. Impossible before; totally impossible. To me, that's the ultimate home run."
Percy called it "a step in the right direction."
"The disability market is very large, and one that we do want to pay attention to. It's very important. Their dollars are just as important as any visitor," he said. "I think it's vital that that was paid attention to. And now it's accessible to the world - for everyone; all people. That's the way the parks really should be."
Top of the Falls Restaurant chef Daniel Thorington holds a plate of Buffalo mac and cheese.
Across from Terrapin Point, the Top of the Falls Restaurant recently opened and has a new top chef for 2016: former sous chef Daniel Thorington. The eatery, which has the best view of the falls, recently held an open house for local tourism leaders. Guests enjoyed the restaurant's Buffalo mac and cheese, which pairs boneless chicken wings with cavatappi pasta, Yancey's Fancy four-cheese sauce, blue cheese crumbles and green onion.
The Top of the Falls also offers Buffalo-brewed Flying Bison Brewing Co. Aviator Red battered haddock. The signature "Barreled Over" burger is Certified Angus Beef covered in Yancey's Fancy Buffalo Wing Cheddar, candied bacon, sweet New York state apples, lettuce, tomato and onion, all served on a brioche roll.
A little further down the walking trail, State Parks completed a multimillion-dollar renovation of Three Sisters Island in 2013. Changes included a new trolley shelter stop, a stone entrance and more accessible viewing points.
3 Sisters Island
Maid of the Mist/'Schoellkopf Power Plant Ruins'
At Prospect Point, just below the Observation Tower, the world-famous Maid of the Mist is back for another summer, taking guests right into the heart of the falls.
"Our boats have been in the water since April 2, and we are in the midst of what promises to be another tremendous season, as we welcome guests from around the world to the iconic Maid of the Mist, one of North America's longest-running tourist attractions," company President Christopher Glynn said.
The Maid of the Mist has created a new dry dock area at the location of the former Schoellkopf Power Station, which collapsed in June 1956.
Dubbed the "Schoellkopf Power Plant Ruins," the area has awe-inspiring stonewalls wrought with historical artifacts from its past life.
At the foundation, the Maid of the Mist spent an estimated $40 million to rebuild the elevator shaft, redo the grounds and install a boat crane.
Once rubble, the site is now "the best-kept secret," Berti said.
The ADA-accessible spot is a peaceful place to view and fish the Niagara River.
Once the Maid of the Mist boats are launched for the season, the site is open to the public.
"And it's free," Berti said.
"Our new dry dock and maintenance facility on the New York shores of the Lower Niagara River allows for improved access for our vessels year-round," Glynn said. "The facility, on the site of the former Schoellkopf Power Plant, has won a number of prestigious engineering awards for its innovative design. Rehabilitation and improvements were made to the former plant's elevator shaft. Utility services - electric, gas, water and communications - were also added, from the rim of the gorge surface down to the new facility; and a diesel fueling system for the boats was installed.
"New elevators have provided public access into the gorge for the first time. Over 100 people a day use the elevators to fish and to access the hiking trails.
"Along with the many improvements to Niagara Falls State Park, millions of guests are experiencing the power and grandeur of Niagara Falls like never before."
What's more, this site is located next to the Niagara Gorge Discovery Center, where parking is free.
The "Schoellkopf Power Plant Ruins."
Both Berti and Percy said Niagara Falls State Park visitors are impressed with the rehab efforts.
"People are pleased," Berti said. "People that are coming think it's beautiful. They think it's well overdue, and that it's certainly putting the sparkle back into the park. We've heard nothing but positive from visitors. ... We've won awards for a lot of what we've been doing, so that validates that we're on the right path."
Percy said. "It's hard to have the construction in the park - our season is only so long and construction means it's even shorter. It does interrupt tourism business a bit. However, we're so pleased with the TLC that the crown jewel is finally getting - and deserves."
Now it just needs locals to stop and notice.
For more information:
Visit http://www.niagarafallsstatepark.com for a 2016 schedule of rates and hours.
Shown is an artist's rendering of the Terrapin Point redesign. (State Parks image)