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The water thunders down -- 700,000 gallons per second, in fact -- as we stand underneath Niagara Falls on the famous Hurricane Deck, part of the Cave of the Winds tour. We're totally soaked, but we don't care.
The sheer power of the water is mesmerizing. So are the rainbows over the falls. Did you know that 20 percent of the fresh drinking water in the United States goes over the falls and that Niagara Falls is the second largest power producer in the country? From the falls, the water travels to Lake Ontario, the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Atlantic Ocean.
The last time I visited here, I'll admit, I was more focused on my three young kids than this natural wonder. We were moving from Chicago, headed east on our way to our new house and the kids weren't thrilled by the disruption to their lives. We thought a stop in Niagara Falls might cheer them up, especially my 10-year-old daughter, but at this very spot, she berated my husband for "ruining her life."
I smiled at that memory while back here recently -- I was co-chairing the TMS Family Travel Conference that brought family travel writers and bloggers here from around the country. Of course, it had taken just a few weeks in a new school for my daughter's life, and that of her brother and sister, to get back on track.
What I didn't realize then -- and I was glad to discover now -- was how much there is for families -- even those on a tight budget -- to see and do here, beyond exploring the falls in what, I learned, is the oldest state park in the country and one that has served as a model for others. Good thing P.T. Barnum didn't get his way to turn Goat Island inside Niagara Falls State Park into a circus ground!
In case you are wondering, couples have honeymooned here since the early 19th century, coming with their families, as was the custom then, according to local historian Paul Gromosiak. "They said they liked that the falls would drown out what they were saying to each other," he said. In the 1960s, Niagara Falls Mayor E. Dent Lackey declared his city the Honeymoon Capital of the World and the name stuck, Gromosiak said, though there was no statistical evidence to back up his claim.
Today, families from around the world account for the majority of the city's 8 million annual visitors, (Yes, you need a passport if you want to walk across the famous Rainbow Bridge to Canada.) So many families from India come here that there are seven Indian restaurants within a one-mile radius in downtown Niagara Falls.
You could also say that Niagara Falls is the Stunt Capital of the World, since many adventurous spirits come here to try their luck. Nik Wallenda was the first to successfully walk across Horseshoe Falls -- and that wasn't until 2012. More than a hundred years earlier, in 1901, 63-year-old teacher Annie Edson Taylor became the first person to survive going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. Sad that her stunt didn't bring her the fame and money she'd hoped for.
There's no match for the experience of standing under the thundering falls or getting up close to the American and Horseshoe Falls on the Maid of the Mist boat tour, which has been shepherding tourists since the mid-19th century. Kids who love roller coasters and water rides will love the Whirlpool Jet Boat Tour through class-five rapids up the Niagara River, especially in summer and early fall.
But there's so much else to show the kids within a half-hour's drive. Here are six ideas guaranteed to please:
1. Learn how the water from Niagara Falls generates enough electricity to power nearly 2 million households at the New York Power Authority's free visitor center. Check out the view -- 350 feet above the Niagara River gorge.
2. Pick apples (and other fruit in summer) at Becker Farms, which has been operated by the same family since 1894. The kids can feed goats and llamas, play in the playground and see who can make it through the corn maze first. You'll find 100 produce stands and farmers markets throughout the county.
3. Travel back in time at Old Fort Niagara the oldest original buildings on the Great Lakes, active during the French and Indian War, the American Revolution and the War of 1812. Especially in summer, there are battle demonstrations and living history programs, though the fort is open all year. Learn about the fort's headless ghost at Halloween.
4. See the last stop for runaway slaves on the underground railroad on their way to Canada in historic Lewiston, which was also the site of the first battle of the War of 1812. Today, besides its history, Lewiston is known for its quaint downtown area and its restaurants.
5. Venture deep underground at the Lockport Cave and Underground Boat Ride in Lockport, N.Y., through a water tunnel blasted out of solid rock in the 1850s and learn the history of the Erie Canal. Take a walk or a bike ride along the Erie Canal towpath where mules once led boats through the canal. While you're there, check out the original Flight of Five locks that were built in 1840 or take a cruise on the canal that was completed in 1825 to link the waters of Lake Erie in the west to the Hudson River in the east.
6. Enjoy the Niagara Wine Trail with 18 wineries showcasing not only the wine but the western N.Y. countryside. The kids should be able to taste locally made fruit juice at some of them.
My daughter, by the way, has grown up to revel in leaving her comfort zone, especially in the outdoors. Thanks, Niagara Falls, for helping to start her on that journey.