Travel: Winter Splendor in Niagara Falls
Niagara Falls might not immediately come to mind when you consider a winter family getaway, but there are plenty of reasons to add it to the list. While the region is most popular in the summer, it becomes a frozen paradise in the winter, with cascading and dramatic ice formations. The result is a unique perspective on this stunning natural wonder that straddles the border between New York and Ontario, Canada.
Though some attractions do close for the winter, there are other experiences that only happen at this time of year. Visiting and observing the falls is free. Each side offers a unique view of the falls with family-friendly activities. Attractions and tours require admission, but it is easy to find discounts and bundled tickets online.
The winter temperatures around Niagara Falls generally stay around freezing, with little snow accumulation. That means it is easy to navigate the parks, even in the cold weather. Wear layers, and plan a mix of indoor and outdoor activities to make a visit comfortable for children.
“Visiting Niagara Falls USA in the winter months offers a completely different experience than during our peak summer months. It’s truly breathtaking. An added bonus for winter visitors is that the hotel room rates are much lower than in the summer, which makes for a very budget-friendly getaway to a winter wonderland,” says Andrea Czopp, vice president of operations for Destination Niagara USA.
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Here are some of the attractions on both sides of the border that are open during the winter:
Viewing the frozen falls (NY/Ontario):The waterfalls on both sides of the border are made up of Horseshoe Falls, American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls. While Niagara Falls never completely freezes, the impressive struggle between water and ice is a breathtaking sight because the scenery constantly changes. Witnessing the massive chunks of ice piling up against the falls is a rare treat.
The World Changed Here Pavilion (NY): The pavilion is the best place to start the Niagara Falls journey because it provides an introduction to the falls’ history and significance. Learn what the falls originally looked like and how it became a worldwide attraction. Families are outfitted with ponchos before taking an elevator to view the frozen falls from below.
Niagara Falls State Park (NY): With 400 acres of natural landscape, Niagara Falls State Park offers more than just scenic views. It is open every day, year-round. There are foot trails throughout the park. Travelers with smaller children might want to take the hop-on, hop-off Niagara Scenic Trolley to see the park without having to walk the entire way.
Niagara Adventure Theater (NY): The Niagara Adventure Theater, located in the Niagara Falls State Park Visitor Center, showcases elements of the falls that you might not get to experience during your visit. This is a great launching point for exploring the park.
Aquarium of Niagara (NY): The Aquarium of Niagara is a great indoor activity that is open year-round. The Aliens of the Sea exhibit is a favorite, as is the Penguin Coast, which enables families to view penguins above and below the water. A new exhibit, Shark and Ray Bay, opens in 2020. The interactive, hands-on attraction will occupy a 4,000-gallon display.
Winter Festival of Lights (Canada): The Winter Festival of Lights in Ontario is a must-see if you visit Niagara Falls before Jan. 12. This is the 37th year for the festival, which is one of the most celebrated events at the falls. More than 2 million lights sparkle throughout the city of Niagara Falls and along the Niagara Parkway.
Journey Behind the Falls (Canada): This is one of the most exciting attractions on the Canadian side that is open during the winter. A 45-minute tour is followed by the chance to stand on an observation deck 13 stories high to see the winter falls. Note that visitors are likely to get wet from the spray.
Niagara SkyWheel (Canada): For a different perspective, take a trip on the Niagara SkyWheel, which provides panoramic views from 175 feet in the air. The enclosed gondolas and eight-to-12-minute rides make for a fun excursion that is especially beautiful at night.
Niagara Falls Bird Kingdom (Canada): This is a nice indoor attraction when you need a break from the cold. The multilevel building gets kids up-close to free-flying birds in the aviary, bird feeding experiences and educational exhibits like the Night Jungle with nocturnal animals.
Butterfly Conservatory (Canada): This indoor option is located in the Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens. It is open year-round, but has limited hours around the holidays. The conservatory has more than 45 species of butterflies and interactive experiences throughout the facility.
While most visitors plan to spend their trip on one side of the border or the other, it is possible to experience Niagara Falls from both sides if you have the time and the proper identification.
To cross into Canada, U.S. residents need a passport, passport card or other accepted documentation (see a list at niagarafallsusa.com/planning-tools/border-information). Children younger than 15 can cross into Canada using only a birth certificate.
Border-crossing stations are located at the Rainbow Bridge, Peace Bridge and Lewiston-Queenston Bridge. Be advised there can be wait times to get into Canada, but they generally are not as long in the winter.