Niagara Falls with Tweens: A Perfect Family Day
What follows is my secret recipe to a perfect family day in Niagara Falls with tweens, although you're welcome to come up with your own variations. Most importantly, keep them moving, keep them fed, and then, at precisely the right moment, get them soaking wet. If you're trying to find the best family vacation ideas for a trip with your tweens, I would definitely suggest taking them to Niagara Falls.
1. Tim Horton's
Just 36 miles long (around one thousandth the length of the Mississippi), the Niagara is one of the world's shortest rivers. However, it performs a series of mighty feats, including splitting the countryside into two nations, the United States and Canada. Each lays claim to part of the falls, but Canada claims the better view.
It also claims Tim Horton's, a legendary doughnut chain that's as Canadian as apple pie is American (although Tim makes a mean apple fritter). You're on a family vacation with your tweens, so don't worry about the calories. After all, calories might be like the Canadian dollar -- they add up to a little less once you cross over to the US side -- and besides, you're about to get some exercise. Try the location at 5551 Murray Street in Ontario, 905-356-0236, open 24 hours.
2. Mac's Bikes
Someone from Mac's Bikes will meet you wherever you choose, since they offer a free drop-off and pick-up service on the Canadian side. Call 289-969-MACS to reserve a time for drop-off. Family-run Mac's Bikes offers a variety of bike hire deals for those on family vacations at Niagara Falls. CDN$30 (CDN$20 for the youth size, perfect for your tween) gets you a bike, helmet, lock, maps of the area and advice on where to go.
Start by walking your bikes down the amazingly steep Murray Street to the Niagara Falls themselves. A tip for iPhone users: Mac's Bikes makes route-finding easy with the EveryTrail app. U.S. users should make sure data roaming is turned off to avoid international data rates.
3. Chippawa Battlefield
At the bottom of Murray, stop long enough to take a picture, but don't stay too long because you'll have a much closer view of the Niagara Falls later on. Pedal south along the Niagara Parkway for incredible views of gardens, grand buildings and wide rapids. It's one of the best things to do in Niagara Falls if you're on a family vacation with tweens. Winston Churchill called it the "prettiest Sunday drive in the world", but I promise you'll find breathtaking scenery no matter which day you choose. You'll find plenty of public bathrooms along the way, and there's a Tim Horton's at the end of the parkway that makes a great turnaround spot.
Picnic at the Chippawa Battlefield Park or cycle back to popular riverfront restaurant Edgewater's Tap and Grill, a park-owned restaurant where your tweens will love the maple leaf or bear paw-shaped burgers. Ask for a table on the second floor patio for incredible views of the falls. Edgewater's is located at 6345 Niagara Parkway, and is open seasonally from May through October, daily from 11:30AM-9pm. Call 905-356-2217 for more information or reservations.
4. Rainbow Bridge
Next, ride your bikes back up the Niagara Parkway, past your starting point to Clifton Hill. Cycle fast, not because of the hill (it's a real hill, but short) but because this is Niagara's "street of fun" -- a wild, permanent carnival. Not now, kids.
Lock up the bikes and avoid traffic by walking across the Rainbow Bridge into the U.S. (you can walk, but there's still a toll -- 50 cents no matter which currency you are using). Mom and Dad need passports, but you can just bring birth certificates for the kids if they're under the age of 16. This goes for both U.S. and Canadian citizens. While you're crossing, look right for the best view of Niagara Falls. Once across, turn right, enter the park and head for the pedestrian bridge to Goat Island.
5. Goat Island and Cave of the Winds
You won't find goats here, but rather a welcome green relief after the congestion and commerce of the Canadian side. Line up as soon as you can for the Cave of the Winds. USD$11 (or USD$8 for kids ages 6-12) buys you an elevator ride, sandals, a bright yellow poncho and more water than you've seen in your life.
Brace yourself for the world's fastest 17-story elevator ride as it plummets to the base of Bridal Veil Falls, and then prepare to become the world's coolest parent. If they've not already run ahead, tell your tweens that the wooden boardwalk here is built from scratch every year (and not using power tools because, let's face it, the workers would electrocute themselves) due to water damage. And tell them to prepare to get wet.
Tweens who have had to watch the Falls from a distance all day will delight in the Hurricane Deck, which sends a rather large portion of Bridal Veil Falls directly onto your head. If Mom or Dad has had a long day (or a long year), here's where you rinse it out; if a sullen sibling wants to stand to the side and sulk, use your waterproof watch to time just how long they're able to resist the fun. The Cave of the Winds tour opens daily at 9AM, and has seasonal closing hours. Visit the website or call 716-278-1730 for more information.
6. Clifton Hill
Head back across Rainbow Bridge to Clifton Hill. A good family vacation restaurant is Boston Pizza (4848 Clifton Hill, 905-358-2750). There are a million video games for the kids, almost as many TVs for adults and more than 20 varieties of pizza. They're open daily from 11AM to 2AM.
Hand your bikes back over to Mac and take a quick stroll through the area, spending as much time as your kids will let you. Maybe they'll surprise you and say they want to go to bed early -- it's been a long day. Maybe they'll surprise you and say this is the coolest place ever. Who knows? There's definitely magic in the water, if not in the doughnuts. Visiting the Niagara Falls with tweens is the key to a perfect family day.
Liam Callanan is the author of All Saints and The Cloud Atlas, a finalist for the Edgar Award for Best First Novel. He has written for the New York Times Book Review, Good Housekeeping, Parents, and a number of other publications in locations ranging from Canada to Brazil. Read his blog on Red Room