By Karen Carr Keefe
Senior Contributing Writer
Grand Island has lots of green space by design, with two state parks, a nature preserve and several local parks that afford access to nature and our scenic Niagara River waterfront.
But what many don’t realize is that there are three campgrounds on the Island that annually draw tourists here from across the nation and across the globe.
Yet there’s also a hometown appeal.
“You’d be amazed at how many people stay here that are local,” said KOA General Manager Virginia Rader, who is marking her 18th year of employment with the camping resort at 2570 Grand Island Blvd.
KOA, in fact, is right next door to Niagara Amusement Park and Splash World, 2400 Grand Island Blvd., and is even a stop on the park’s railroad trip, where those with prepurchased admission tickets can step through and hop on board.
The other two campgrounds are: Cinderella Motel & Campground, 2797 Grand Island Blvd.; and HTR Niagara, formerly Branches of Niagara Campground, 2659 Whitehaven Road.
Each has its own setting and character, with features that make the camping experience unique and special. All three are aware that Niagara Falls is the tourist magnet that draws many campers to them, and they provide a bridge, so to speak, to the attractions that likely got many of the campers here in the first place.
Campground staff can provide information and can help the travelers book tours and find their way to the majestic falls or Old Fort Niagara, for example. Even closer to home, there’s the Grand Island Fun Center, with its go-karts and mini golf, at 2660 Grand Island Blvd.; full golf courses at Beaver Island and at River Oaks Golf Club at 201 Whitehaven Road; and a wide variety of restaurants, among other attractions Grand Island offers.
General Manager Virginia Rader, of the Niagara Falls / Grand Island KOA, stands in front of a fishing pond at the camping resort at 2570 Grand Island Blvd. The campground has many activities for families and kids, including swimming, fishing and a large recreation outpost at the back of the campground with all kinds of games. (Photos by Karen Carr Keefe)
KOA Boasts Recreation, Amenities
Rader said KOA, open here since the 1960s, provides a wide range of options to travelers.
“It’s a little bit of everything,” she said. “We’re a base camp for tourists, because we’re close to Niagara Falls, of course, as well as being close to Buffalo. And then your locals, they like somewhere close to be, especially now that the amusement park is reopening again, in full this year. So, I think we’ll get a lot more locals this year that will combine their day next door, as well, with the campground.”
She said campers come from everywhere because they want to see Niagara Falls: “We have international travelers – and I actually have two different people from Alaska right now, one with an RV, one staying in a cabin.
“A lot of people ask that if they stay at the campground, is it enough time if they stay for a day.”
She said she replies, “I can keep you busy for weeks.”
“There’s so much history here in the area – in Buffalo, in the Falls, with the Fort (Old Fort Niagara),” Rader said. She asks campers to tell her what their interests are, and she will advise them on what to go see.
A lot of the campground bookings come from the internet, Rader said. From there, the adventure can have sidebars.
“We book tours here, so they’ll pick them up right here at the campground,” she said. “We sell tickets to the amusement park; we can get them into the Fun Center. There’s a lot of avenues that we can help them with, as well as just giving them maps and letting them know what is in the area to see.”
Rader said campers’ comments are consistently positive. Some examples from May 20 include:
“Only 7 miles from Niagara Falls. The park is very well kept and well-staffed.”
Another camper wrote: “Convenient campground to explore the Falls. Great amenities and plenty of recreation for the whole family. We love staying here.”
One response commended the Wi-Fi as very strong throughout the campground, a definite plus for today’s campers.
Rader said the camping season runs from April 1 through the end of October, “but our busy time is from Father’s Day to Labor Day.” She said the average length of stay is about four days.
KOA has 213 sites, including all of its cabins and tent sites, as well. Some of the RV sites are brand-new and include an increased parking area for large rigs. The campground has an outside landscaping company that does flower beds as well as mowing. There are decorative and functional touches with a patio, tables and chairs and fire pits. There are enclosures for pets at several sites, as well as a larger one for the whole campsite to use.
Rader said at KOA “we’re trained to connect people to the outdoors and each other, so we try to have a lot of different things that people can do together interactively.”
There’s a large recreation outpost at the back of the campground with all kinds of games – checkers, ping-pong, foosball, cornhole, ladder ball, a GaGa ball pit, a playground, bocce, horseshoes, pickleball and basketball. Amenities also include two fishing ponds and two swimming pools, a playground, and a flat jumping pad and a domed jumping pillow. The camp store is fully stocked with things campers need and want.
There is a KOA rewards program for an annual fee that provides an opportunity to earn points that you can redeem for dollars off camping fees. There are special rates for long-term camping, but typically, the Grand Island site doesn’t get many long-term campers, Rader said.
Campers frequent local restaurants, as well, and a new restaurant: Simply Boba Bubble Tea and Banh Mi is going to be among the offerings, expected to open in mid-June, at 2600 Grand Island Blvd., right near KOA.
In referring to KOA, Rader said, “My pride and joy is out there – other than my husband and my kids and grandkids.”
She clearly enjoys the job and the people she meets: “I don’t own the company, but I treat it as though it’s my own and I give it my all. I like to see people having a good time and spending time with their families.”
The KOA website is www.nigarafallsgrandislandkoa.com.
The DeAngelis family of Rome, Italy, camped at Cinderella Campground on Grand Island late last month while in the area for a special occasion: Nicola DeAngelis, 22, third from left, graduated from St. Lawrence University. Cinderella Motel & Campground is at 2797 Grand Island Blvd.
Cinderella Campground a Friendly Site
Cinderella Campground Manager Angela Onglay said there are 26 full hookup campsites and numerous tent spots at its site that opened in the 1950s. The current owners, 2797 Grand Island Blvd LLC, took over in July 2015. The season is open from April to October.
“The campers enjoy the small and quiet campground, where everyone talks and mingles with each other,” Onglay said. “Some campers who met previously at our campground are now friends and travel with each other to this day to other places. They also like how our close our campground is to the falls – 5 miles. Campers really like how friendly all of our workers are, and some even send Christmas cards to us every year!”
She said the place is very tidy and clean and is pet-friendly.
“Our campers are from all over the world. Both in the U.S. and out of the country,” she said. “Most campers are tourists. However, we do have some repeat WNY guests who come to see their family on or close by Grand Island every year.”
She said Cinderella Campground offers the campers brochures and tours so they will be able to enjoy the Falls.
Onglay said the feature they like most about owning the campground is the people they meet: “We like talking to all different kinds of people from around the world who tell us about their life and what their plans are for the rest of the seasons.”
She cited what they like best about their campground: “The name ‘Cinderella’ has remained the same throughout all these years, and how small and friendly our campground is.”
The website is: http://www.cinderellacampground.com/.
A young camper flies through the air along a zip line at HTR Niagara campground, 2659 Whitehaven Road. In addition to the zip line, campground amenities include swimming, fishing, boating, mini golf and crafts. (Contributed photo)
Branches of Niagara Becomes HTR Niagara
Two years ago, the privately owned campground known as Branches Niagara, which opened in 2010, was sold to an investor group and is now called HTR Niagara. The “HTR” part stands for Hit the Road, explained General Manager Cathleen Cvijetinovic.
Original founders, no longer involved in the business, included Elaine Pariso and Tom McLaughlin, Cvijetinovic said. Don Benoit and Larry Stolzenburg were also part of the founding group, according to published reports.
“They really created a beautiful place,” Cvijetinovic said. “People come and make their memories.
“What’s nice about our campground is the same people are here (staff). We were able to keep the same rules. The people who invested and bought the campground really loved the camp as it was and they wanted to leave it as is. We’ve been very fortunate and lucky enough to have a great team to guide us.”
She said HTR Niagara is a safe, family-oriented campground with Wi-Fi among the amenities. The spring and the fall are prime times for senior citizen campers whose main interest is visiting Niagara Falls. The summer is bustling with kids and activities right inside the campground.
A staff of three is there year-round. The rest are on board from mid-April through Oct. 29 for the camping season. Cvijetinovic called the Halloween camping “the best time around here. We do pumpkin-carving, trick-or-treating, guests decorate their site and the kids go around … it’s so much fun!”
The camper population includes locals and tourists.
“We get people from the Netherlands, Germany – all over Europe. We get people from everywhere wanting to visit Niagara Falls,” she said.
The campground is popular, with the sites booked throughout the season, Cvijetinovic said, so she advised people book early enough to get a spot. There are 127 sites, 70 of which are RV sites. There are 27 cabins, 10 of which are brand-new, and four tent sites, as well. The campground size is 70 to 80 acres. There is a camp store with ample offerings, and there are golf-cart rentals available for guests to get around the grounds.
“The campground is very family-friendly,” Cvijetinovic said. “Parents can trust that their kids are going to come and not be inside. They’re going to come outside, and they’re going to be in the activity center all day. They’re going to able to do zip-line, go on the boats, do the paddle bike, be in the pool.
“We’re very activities-forward, that’s what we’re known for.”
There are two heated swimming pools, a kiddie pool and three bathhouses. HTR Niagara also has a beach leading to a lake where one can swim within the buoyed area, or do catch-and-release fishing. Also available are mini golf, movie nights, guided crafts and other activities throughout the day.
The website is: https://www.htrresorts.com/destinations/niagara.