Beyond the brink:

Niagara Falls experience extended

thanks to State Parks & partners

New Niagara Falls experience as much for locals as it is for tourists

By Joshua Maloni

GM/Managing Editor

When I was in high school, my peers and I always said, “We’ve got to get out of Niagara Falls.”

As it turns out, we didn’t know what “Niagara Falls” was back then.

Had we been smart enough to see past the gossip, the drama, the politics, the misconceptions, we might have noticed a caring community in our backyard; an award-winning college just a few miles down the road; or even the best-in-class pizza and chicken wings downtown and in LaSalle.

Thankfully, now that we’re adults … well, we still don’t understand “Niagara Falls.”

At least not when it comes to the Cataract City’s most famous attraction.

This is the challenge that now presents itself to Niagara Falls State Park.

When people think of Niagara Falls, they think of the water.

I mean, sure, it’s a wonder of the world. But, did you know the grounds that surround it actually extend past Goat Island? Or that a daytrip to Niagara Falls State Park can begin with an air-conditioned ride on the Discover Niagara Trolley – traversing all the way to and from Old Fort Niagara – continue with a moving tour of the Underground Railroad Heritage Center; a wet-and-wild walk under the water via the Cave of the Winds; a smooth, up-close-and-personal view of the falls from an electric Maid of the Mist vessel; lunch in the William G. Pomeroy Foundation-endorsed Cataract Park (by the Red Coach Inn); shopping at the Indigenous artisan marketplace; and dinner inside a new food court serving local favorites, or at Delaware North’s Top of the Falls Restaurant – just steps from where Nik Wallenda walked a tightrope to Canada?

Moreover, in the past 10 years, walkways have been renovated and pathways created, while retail and dining spots have been improved.

Two of the newest additions to the Niagara Falls State Park campus are designed to enhance the visitor experience – and, hopefully, educate all of us on what comprises “Niagara Falls.”

It’s so much more than just the water.

Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Welcome Center at Niagara Falls State Park: Aesthetics

Last December, the $46 million Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Welcome Center at Niagara Falls State Park opened in Prospect Park – just steps from the former visitor center.

Gov. Kathy Hochul’s team explained the 28,000-square-foot structure “features glass walls and a low roof to maximize views and connections to the falls. It includes new ticketing and information desks; new concession spaces; restrooms and associated support spaces; a rooftop PV array; special patterned glass to prevent bird impacts; green roof elements; and a separate restroom building. Enhanced site amenities include new accessible paths, native plantings and wayfinding elements.”

As State Parks Niagara Region Director of Public Affairs Angela Berti put it, “This is really a very grand entrance that is kind of befitting of the location where we're at.”

She described the plaza as “gorgeous” and noted, “It connects the city better.

“The primary goal was how do we better move people between the city and the park. Removing the visual barriers was the first step.”

“I think the challenge is most of these people have never been here before, so they don't know how lousy the previous experience was,” Berti said. “It was lousy. I think local folks who have been in that visitor center on a July, August day … it was just cramped.

“In travel, you expect to go somewhere and have the amenities nowadays: food, shopping, bathrooms, technology – all those kinds of things.

“We have Wi-Fi now throughout the park. We're amping up and trying to now catch up with other attractions and what people expect when they travel.

“I think arriving at a place like this certainly is befitting of the majesty of the falls.”

The old visitor center was clunky and hard to navigate, “And if you remember, there was a staircase down (to the falls), but you literally had to walk through the building,” Berti said. “The staircase was closed. So now, people actually can get right to the falls.”

Moreover, “The old welcome center, you couldn’t actually see the water,” she said. “Now, you see the water” from both the interior and exterior staircases.

The welcome center was designed by GWWO Architects of Baltimore, and built by Buffalo’s own R.P. Oakhill Building Co.

“Everything is natural. We tried to keep with the feeling of the gorge, with the stone and wood,” Berti said.

“And the thing that they kept saying and we were laughing about it, but it absolutely worked out, it sits quietly in the landscape,” she added. “When you’re down at the Maid, you look back and you almost don't see the building.

“It's not as obtrusive as the old one was. It's just kind of subtle. It blends into the landscape and really just complements the park.”

Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Welcome Center at Niagara Falls State Park: Amenities

“One of the main things is, again, how do we get people to experience the entire region once they’re here. So, we’ve got some electronic kiosks that promote more to do in Erie and Niagara counties and beyond,” Berti said.

On the top floor, guests can quickly and easily find those details. Brochures and travel guides were replaced by large touchscreen menus and QR codes.

“We have more staff here, so they can spend more time” with visitors, Berti said.

Getting people started on the right foot, “I think it's super important,” she noted. “People, in this day and age where social media is everything and a couple bad comments can make or break, we all, as a community, want people to have the best time possible.”

Here, “People can come, speak directly with staff, get real information. They can buy their Cave of the Winds tickets here, trolley tickets,” Berti said. “We talk a lot about other things to do. It's always people's questions: ‘Where can we eat? Where else can we go after this?’

“It's key. Getting the right information out is super important.”

Toward the interior staircase, there is a temporary exhibit on some of the falls’ most (in)famous explorers. “This will be a whole corner about the daredevils. There's a piece of Nik (Wallenda’s) wire that will be on display,” Berti said.

At the bottom of the stairs, “This will be full of exhibits, so there will be stuff to do in the winter time,” Berti said. A future immersive space will show a loop of three different films talking about the Indigenous creation story, how Niagara Falls developed as a tourism community, and future park plans.

“Just a lot of imagery more than storytelling; it’s just sort of a multimedia presentation I thought came together super well, and I'm excited to show it,” Berti said.

Delaware North serves millions of guests each year at Niagara Falls State Park in operating food and beverage, retail and other visitor services – including the Cave of the Winds, guided walking tours and marketing – for the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. Delaware North has been in this role at the park since 1995 and will continue through 2035 after being awarded a new 13-year contract in 2022.

On the ground level, the main foyer is wide open, and sort of feels like the brand-new Moynihan Train Hall across from Manhattan’s Penn Station, in terms of design and functionality. It features a dining area and gift shop run by Delaware North.

“The exciting thing about this, for locals, is they’re doing a lot of local foods, and with local vendors,” Berti said. “Perry’s, Sahlen’s, DiCamillo’s, Costanzo’s. All the bread is local. Costanzo’s rolls for the burgers. Wardynski’s sausage. Sahlen’s hot dogs.

“Everything is fresh made, too. We have actual DiCamillo pizza that they deliver every day.

“People are loving it. Every time we have guests, we make sure that they come and get a piece of pizza.”

“Delaware North worked really closely with DiCamillo’s to replicate that experience,” Berti noted.

Matthew DiCamillo said, “We have been fortunate to partner with Delaware North many times over the years. When DN reached out to us regarding pizza at the new welcome center, we were very excited and honored!

“So far, it has been a great project. Everyone at DN is very professional, and the responses we’ve had from NF State Park visitors has been very positive. We make and bake the pizza every day and make a daily delivery each morning. It’s wonderful to have a local business like ours featured at such a beautiful new building in our community.”

The adjoining gift shop features Taste NY products, as well as items from Dragonfly Jams & Jellies, Fowler’s Chocolate, Niagara’s Honeymoon Sweets and New Era.

“I used to not be able to find anything I would want. Now, I want everything,” Berti said. “People do seem to be responding well to it. When I bring guests in here, they’re like, ‘This is amazing,’ and everyone is buying stuff.”

Delaware North has overseen retail and concessions since 1995, investing more than $12 million in phased capital investments.

The company stated, “A refreshing of the Top of the Falls restaurant and development of the Taste of Niagara Food Court and Shops at Niagara portions of the new Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Welcome Center were completed last year as the first phase. At the food court, we serve fresh pizza, sandwiches, salads and more, and the restaurant features a menu with local flavors. The Shops at Niagara features exclusive merchandise from brands such as Champion, Cotopaxi and Buffalo favorite Oxford Pennant.”

Delaware North’s Niagara Falls State Park General Manager Michael Barnes said, “As a global hospitality and entertainment company founded and headquartered in Western New York, Delaware North is extremely proud to be able to provide best-in-class services and help enhance the bucket-list experience of visiting Niagara Falls State Park.”

He added, “We employ more than 200 local residents and work closely with dozens of local, regional and statewide purveyors, farms, brewers, distillers and retailers. We sell New York-sourced retail and food products at the park from local companies such as DiCamillo Bakery through the Taste NY program. Delaware North also actively supports local organizations, including the Culinary Institute, Community Missions of Niagara Frontier, Niagara County Community College and People Inc.”

Education center

Next to the welcome center is the 7,000-square-foot former regional administration building. This space was converted into an education center.

“Our interpretive staff is based here, the education team, and so, as a result, we’re doing more public programming in the park that we really never did,” Berti said. “Most every day, there's either a free walk, or we have what’s called an ‘education station’ that pops up around the park just to sort of help people better understand the park, the flora, the fauna, different topics. That’s an enhancement for visitors.”

On one side of the lobby is a community room, which can be rented and used for public programs, meetings, training sessions or even press conferences.

On the other side, where offices were located, “The Niagara Region archives will be here,” Berti said. “We have so much cool stuff in storage that's never been public. We've hired Courtney Geerhart from the Niagara Falls Public Library – she's our curator; the first ever Niagara Region curator to come in and organize this space. It’s completely empty. Brand-new. So, she's been very busy.

“We're hoping to have this available by next spring. People can come in and research, by appointment. We’ll have some public days where they can just kind of come in and browse around. We’ll have more exhibits in here; we'll be able to show off some of the stuff that we have, in terms of artifacts.”

Berti explained, “The hope is, in the offseason, to do more things to get locals who would want to come when it's not as busy. Sometimes it's just too wild to come down here. In the offseason, it'd be awesome to have photo shows from Niagara Falls kids, or from Lewiston kids, where families can kind of come and be reexposed to the park, but also feel like they belong and it’s part of the community, which is something we've always sort of struggled to do. We think that this space will allow us that opportunity to do that.”

She added, “We have the receipts for the first elevators for the Cave of the Winds. We have hiring papers for the first Park Police officer. We have handwritten letters from Thomas Welch. I mean, there's really, really great stuff that's never been seen before.”

Aquarium of Niagara & Great Lakes 360

In December of 2022, Hochul announced a $5 million project to transform the former Niagara Gorge Discovery Center/Schoellkopf Geological Museum into Great Lakes 360. The site had closed to the public in October 2020.

GL 360 is intended to be a “living museum that highlights the notable wildlife of the Niagara River and the larger Great Lakes ecosystem while celebrating the area's unique geological history.” As such, the Aquarium of Niagara was tasked with overseeing this venue.

Located just 500 feet from the animal preserve, the governor’s team noted, “This partnership between (State Parks) and the Aquarium of Niagara expands the Aquarium's geographic footprint and opens the opportunity for the Aquarium to develop a campus-like presence in downtown Niagara Falls. The opening of a new indoor, year-round attraction in this location also creates critical mass in a developing area of the Niagara Falls State Park.”

Chad Fifer, the new president and CEO of the Aquarium of Niagara, explained, “I think our side of the falls is finding its identity and definitely differentiating itself from the experience on the other side, and it is very nature-focused. I think the vast majority of people want to keep it that way – and want it to be distinguished from the experience on the other side. And I think that's what both the aquarium and now Great Lakes 360 lends themselves best to: As close as you can get.

“You can't typically get close enough to see what's beneath the surface, right, so that's where we come in, is bridging that gap and adding another layer to the experience when you're on this side of the park.”

With GL 360, “this is adding 15 new exhibits, which is a 40% increase in our size right now,” Fifer said. “And hopefully the name tells you exactly what it needs to, which is it’s focused on the animals that are right in our backyard. The animals that call the Great Lakes home.

“So, as you traverse around that ring that used to be the Niagara Gorge Discovery Center, you're really immersed in a lot of those different species that live in those lakes, and some right here in the Niagara River, as well. Opportunities that are somewhat similar to those that people love about the main campus, the main building here, which is the opportunity to get very close and to touch some of those animals, and to learn from our staff about what makes them an integral part of the ecosystems that they live in.

“But we really wanted to tie people to the animals that are in their backyard; so, if you look at the main building as connecting people to those aquatic species from around the world, the focus now for Great Lakes 360 is tying it all into Niagara and the animals that call this same place home that the locals here do. And our focus is really on bringing those locals back in to see these things that are right in their backyard.”

While GL 360 is bound to bring in more out-of-town guests, Fifer noted, “from my space, my mindset, is that this building, this aquarium, the main campus and Great Lakes 360, they're not built with tourists in mind. They're built with our local community in mind. And then we have the benefit of tourism in this area helping us to continue to do the things that we can do for the community of greater Niagara County, and really focus in on what we can provide to them. It's really just that added benefit.”

Another added benefit: “One ticket gets you into both – and we want to make sure that people use that to their advantage” Fifer said of the two buildings. “If there's a long line at one, they can go visit the other first, and vice versa.”

GL 360 will officially open Saturday, July 13. Hours of operation will be seasonal and similar to the Aquarium of Niagara, so about 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.

Berti said GL 360 will be an immense asset to the park system.

“How do we get people here 12 months of the year? The aquarium is a huge piece of that, and always has been. But now with what they’re doing here at Great Lakes 360, with what they’re doing in the main building, it’s remarkable,” she said. “It’s a nice effort to tie it all together and just really elevate the entire experience.”

Also located within the immediate GL 360 quadrant:

•“The aquarium is going to be overseeing the trailhead building, now, too,” Berti said. “We’re happy to work with them on that, as always. Native plantings, new signage. Really tying their campus together.”

•The Schoellkopf Elevator is free and “something all locals should do,” Berti said. “The view is amazing. There’s fishing access. If you’re not inclined to climb all the stairs, it’s a nice way to get down into the gorge.”

'A big deal'

Berti said, “People save money their whole lives to come here. On any given day you walk around, you're going to see families that have been dreaming of coming here; saving money; gathering their generations, and coming here.”

With the park additions, locals are starting to see Niagara Falls in that same light.

“There's been so much work done here in the last 13, 14 years. When people do come locally, that haven't been here, they’re like, ‘This is really pretty,’ ” Berti said. “They’re really happy with what they're seeing.

“COVID, as terrible as that was, opened a lot of people's eyes. They ran out of places to go, so locals were coming here – and they've been coming back. I hear a lot from locals that were like, ‘We never really came to the falls, but now we love coming.’

“Come in the early mornings, park for free along River Way, and walk and enjoy the park.”

Berti added, “It's a heavy lift to ask locals to come on a Friday afternoon in July, but there's plenty of other time to come and enjoy it, for sure.

“It’s nice to just come and spend time here and see people enjoying it. For me, it drives home the point that people are coming from everywhere.

“It’s a big deal.”

“The biggest thing is just tying the pieces together, getting people to stay longer, and better understand the entire story of Niagara Falls,” Berti said. “The other thing with the exhibits, and the welcome center is doing that, is trying to let people know that they're in a community that's more than just the waterfall.”

Visit for schedules and more information.

Upcoming at the Aquarium of Niagara

•‘Party on the Plaza,’ 5:30-7:30 p.m. July 31

Free event in the Whirlpool Commons plaza featuring more than 20 community partners, games, face painting and more. Visit

•Nature Stories Trail Walks, 10:30 a.m. on the third Sunday of the month

A free, one-hour guided walking tour of the Niagara Gorge on the trail system that surrounds the Aquarium of Niagara. The next one is July 21. Learn more here:

Aquarium of Niagara staff noted, “These events are both specifically catered to our local residents and emphasize our commitment to becoming a quality-of-life resource for our community.”




Destination Niagara: What to do beyond the Falls in summer

Guest Editorial by Destination Niagara USA

Thanks to its picture-perfect weather and stunning natural beauty, Niagara Falls USA truly comes to life in the summer. Once you’ve checked the Falls off your bucket list, there’s so much more to see, do and taste! Here’s what to do around Niagara County this summer.

Hibbard's Original Frozen Custard


If you love the outdoors …

Take a hike. As the oldest state park in the United States, Niagara Falls State Park boasts a vast network of trails spread out across 400 acres of lush terrain. Choose from over 15 miles of challenging hiking trails and relish in stunning Niagara Falls summer scenery at every turn. The Niagara Region Park Interpretive Programs Office offers free guided hikes year-round, while companies like Niagara Hiking Co. and Niagara Outfitters offer out-and-back day hikes with a range of distance options and amenities.

Stop and smell the flowers. Whether you’re looking for wildflowers or a sculptured garden, beautiful blooms abound across Niagara County. At Kin Loch Farmstead in Lockport, eight varieties of French and English lavender stretch across a 30-acre plot. From June to August, u-pick events allow guests to harvest their own lavender and shop an assortment of lavender-infused products. From July 12-14, explore a selection of private yards and public parks throughout Lockport during Lockport In Bloom.

Hit the beach. The shores of Lake Ontario provide delightful waterside spots that beckon beach-lovers of all ages. A visit to the shoreside hamlet of Olcott feels like stepping back in time. Peruse the mix of eclectic boutiques housed on the boardwalk at Lakeview Village Shoppes, while the nearby Olcott Beach Carousel Park, offering rides at just 25 cents each, is a treasure for kids. And don’t miss a stop at the historic Bye’s Popcorn stand, which has been operating in Olcott since 1923.

If you love to eat …

Make a pitstop. A treasure trove of delicious roadside food stands pop up in Niagara County every summer. Enjoy seasonal staples like frozen custard at Hibbard’s Original Frozen Custard in Lewiston, or hamburgers and hot dogs at old-school drive-ins like Reid’s in Lockport or The New Sullivans in Niagara Falls. 

Enjoy a refreshing beverage. From local craft beers to expertly prepared cocktails (or mocktails), these Niagara County hot spots offer a delightful array of libations – plus, an outdoor patio! Sip your drink of choice among the gardens and bocce courts of Judas Tree in Niagara Falls, alongside the hustle and bustle of Center Street at Battle Flag Tavern in Lewiston, underneath the swanky string lights at Canal Club 62 in North Tonawanda, or while feeling the breeze from Lake Ontario at The Ontario House (aka Stone Jug) in Youngstown. 

Scoop it up. Nothing says summer quite like a towering ice cream cone. Get your fix at one of Niagara County’s famed shops, where flavors are locally inspired and cream is sourced from nearby farms. A few noteworthy favorites: De Dee’s Dairy in Niagara Falls, Hoover’s Restaurant & Dairy in Sanborn, Platter’s Chocolate Factory in North Tonawanda, Brownie’s Custard Stand in Wilson, and Lake Effect Ice Cream in Lockport.

Glass artist Renee Arno won Best in Show at the 57th annual Lewiston Art Festival. (File photo)

If you love local culture …

Discover homegrown flavors. The region’s stunning countryside offers up a bounty of fresh produce. Snap up a bit of the local bounty by scheduling stops at the farmers’ markets that pop up throughout the week in Niagara Falls, Lewiston, North Tonawanda, Newfane, Lockport and Pendleton.

Get your fill of fun. Summertime in Niagara Falls USA is festival season. Whether your tastes lean toward live music, arts and crafts, food and drink, or history, there’s a summer event for every interest. Save the dates: Lockport Outdoor Arts & Crafts Festival (June 29-30), Olcott Pirate Festival (July 12-14), Canal Fest of the Tonawandas (July 14-21), Niagara Wine Trail Wine Festival (July 27-28), Lewiston Art Festival (Aug. 10-11), Lockport Food Fest (Aug. 11), and Northwest Jazz Festival (Aug. 23-24). 

Hop on the trolley. Experience Niagara’s iconic landscape, rich history and thriving communities from the comfort of the Discover Niagara Shuttle, which operates daily through Monday, Oct. 14. This free hop-on, hop-off service makes it easy to explore the very best of the region. Destination stops include the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center, Niagara Power Project Power Vista, Old Fort Niagara, and Erie Canal Discovery Center, to name a few.

If you want to beat the heat …

Take to the water. There are plenty of ways to get your sea legs in Niagara County, whether that’s by cruising down the Erie Canal with Lockport Locks & Erie Canal Cruises, taking a white-knuckle spin over the Niagara River rapids with Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours, or chartering a fishing captain.

Explore the great indoors. When the temperature goes up, head indoors to cool off in the A/C at places like the Aquarium of Niagara, Niagara Climbing Center, Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum and more.

Sarah McLachlan at Artpark (File photo)


If you love live music …

Attend a concert at Artpark. An iconic venue in Lewiston, Artpark boasts a massive outdoor amphitheater along the lower Niagara River, offering ample space and gorgeous views for its diverse entertainment lineup.

Jam out on Old Falls Street. Support the local music scene every Friday night from 5-10 p.m. on Old Falls Street this summer. See acts like Queen City, The Strictly Hip, and Letter to Elise while enjoying backyard board games and food trucks, just footsteps from the Falls. 

For more inspiration on things to do and events happening in Niagara Falls USA and Niagara County, visit

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