Niagara Falls on $500 a Day

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View of the falls from the ferris wheel

Four more weeks and it’s summer in Ontario.  Because of the climate, our time for fun in the sun runs from our first holiday weekend (which we call the May 24 weekend even if it actually falls on, say, the 19th) to approximately October 31st.  Many of Ontario’s attractions are only open between those two dates.  Canadians save their vacation days all year to be able to book two weeks at a cottage in Muskoka, or a lakefront resort, or take the kids to Ottawa.  Most law firms I’ve worked at had “summer hours”, which means the office closes anywhere between 1:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m. on Fridays.  We don’t get a lot of hot, sunny weather, so when it finally hits, we go nuts.  Not a lot of working getting done in the average Ontario office July-August.

With four children, my family belongs firmly in the budget travel section.  However, the term “budget travel” is fast becoming an oxymoron in today’s economic climate, especially for large families.  A March Break deal a couple years ago caught my eye; a family suite that slept six with $40.00 dinner voucher and buffet breakfast for four included.  Price:  $129.00 a night.  Can’t beat that, eh?   In my head I was ballparking $200 for the room, $200 for food and maybe $300-$400 for entertainment – $800 more or less for one overnight…I was wrong.

The appointed date arrived and Steve and I loaded up the kids and headed to the Hilton Niagara Falls.  The online advertisement promised a two bedroom family suite with fireplace, Jacuzzi and waterpark.  I love hotel rooms – basically, any place I don’t have to clean is aces with me.  The room was nice, and also a valuable lesson for my kids in the manipulative power of advertising.   We did indeed have two rooms with two king beds, but one of these days I am going to have to take a photography course and find out just how they make these tiny rooms look so big in the brochure.  The fireplace was a fake gas thing that nobody took any notice of.  The TVs were nice, much bigger and more modern that our old circa 1997 set at home.  The bathroom was nicer than my entire house.

The buffet breakfast was a sumptuous affair with waffles, French toast, cereals, fruit and a toast/loaf/croissant station, scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon and tater tots.   Lineups were not bad; although for all our meals we had to wait a bit while they prepared a table setting large enough to accommodate us all.

As for the waterpark, in a city of at least three large waterpark resorts, it should be a law that you are not allowed to use the word “waterpark” in your advertising unless you have at least three slides and one animated character.  The pool was described as 10,000 square feet  – that meant nothing to me, but once again it looked larger in the picture.  There was one 30 foot slide and a small waterfall in the back corner.  The rest of it was just a pool, and so chlorinated the water was cloudy.  Steve spent all of five minutes in it and got out; he hates swimming in manmade pools and will jump off a bridge into a river before spending a lot of time in chlorinated water.  The kids had a blast though, swimming for almost two hours and didn’t even go on the slide.

The Niagara Falls tourist area is not for the financially faint of heart.  Being a family of six makes things more difficult; the average “deal” on anything is designed for either two or four participants, but the attractions are expensive for a family of any size.  We took our kids to the Bird Kingdom exhibit – $78, and that was after my $12 discount.  That entertained them for approximately two hours while they watched various exotic birds wander freely around a huge three story aviary.  They participated in a parakeet feeding time where Steve ended up with five birds sitting on his arms, shoulders and head contentedly sipping nectar, and none-too-gently pecking his skin when the nectar ran out.

Clifton Hill is the Vegas of Niagara Falls, a multi-block strip of fast food, hotels, souvenir shops and amusement park-like attractions.  It is a consumeristic nightmare, with giant chairs, gorillas hanging off buildings and screams from haunted houses echoing down the street that probably match the silent screams of parents reading the ticket prices.  The kids, however, loved it.  The older three begged to go into a haunted house.  Steve took them into Dracula’s Haunted Castle ($36) where you choose the level of scariness you want to see.  They chose level one and it was a good thing they did, as they were so scared Steve had three shrieking girls clinging like crazed monkeys to his arms; he ended up having to drag all three of them through to the exit.  That was it for haunted houses.  Our next stop was the midway, where for $50 we got 180 tokens that took less than an hour to spend.  In exchange you collect tickets for prizes, which meant for $50 we got approximately 40 minutes of video game entertainment and a handful of plastic rings, glow sticks and one scuba diver action figure.  We also saw the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum and the Hershey chocolate store.

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Replica of chair used by the tallest man in the world

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Hershey store – obviously

Meals.  Another wallet deflator.  We stopped at a restaurant that was the only place in visual distance that wasn’t a franchised fast food place.  Two adult cheeseburgers and fries, and four kids’ menu meals came to $109.98.  That was one meal out of five.  We had a $40 voucher for dinner at one of the Hilton restaurants, but even after the $40 discount the bill was still $92.00.  Breakfast was included for four of us, so we only had to pay $18.00 for the two extra kids.  And by then they were so tired and overfed they barely ate anything.  We had no lunch that day and instead had supper at 4:00, at the Rainforest Café – another $102.00 to sit in a room with fake trees and animatronic animals.

In total, we were there for 31 hours and spent around $1200.  For that amount of money I could have paid for seven days at our summer cottage with $450 left over for groceries.

The kids had fun but one night really isn’t enough time.  Unfortunately, with prices like that and a family of six, we couldn’t afford to stay a second night.  The Hilton was nice but not worth what the cost would have been if I had been paying regular rate.  The holiday would have been cheaper if we had stayed at a budget hotel and eaten at the Golden Griddle for breakfast and had pizza for dinner.  But at those types of hotels we usually have to rent two rooms.  Basically there is no such thing as an inexpensive vacation when your family numbers six.

The kids had a great time though, so it was worth it even though it took several weeks to financially recover.  I am currently planning our summer week holiday for this year.  We are renting our usual cottage, on Lake Erie an hour’s drive from the city, with no amusement attractions whatsoever.  Sand is free.

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