July 12, 2011
NIAGARA FALLS, ONTARIO, CANADA—I’m in awe of Niagara Falls. Not the actual falls. Sure, that’s intriguing for about five minutes as you stare down into the churning misty canyon and wonder what it would be like to kill yourself.
No, what I’m talking about is the Canadian city of some 80,000 people, swelling to approximately eighty million on Canada Day, the day I unfortunately chose to traverse the Rainbow Bridge and plunge myself into the gridlocked wonderland known as Clifton Hill, or, in local Chamber of Commerce parlance, the “Street of Fun.”
Anyone who uses the phrase “Street of Fun” to promote tourism is either painfully naïve, destined to go the way of Wigwam Tourist Courts and Harvey Hotels, or so exceedingly brilliant that they’ve co-opted the term “fun” as a peculiarly Niagara Fallsian state of euphoria, almost as though to say, “You think you’ve experienced fun? Oh, yeah? Real fun? Do you know what fun is? WE GOT YOUR FUN RIGHT HERE, PAL.”
Niagara Falls, Ontario’s wise fathers fall into the stupendously brilliant category.
I’m a lifelong student of tacky American popular culture. There may not be anyone in the universe, living or dead, who has visited more snake farms, highway gift shops, all-you-can-eat cowboy buffets, carnivals, prairie-dog preserves, and bait-and-switch museums run by grifters and con men than I have. I’ve seen Rock City. I’ve gone down into Meramec Caverns’ murky depths to witness the stalactite light show with the original recording of Kate Smith singing “God Bless America.” I traveled the old Route 66 six times. I’ve paid money to see mummies, pygmy horses, bug-eyed freaks, Jesse James’s pistol, and, at the Texas State Fair, the Abominable Snowman. (It was three dollars and worth every penny.) So when I make the following statement, it’s based on a lifetime of accumulated wisdom:
Niagara Falls is the greatest tourist city in the world.
This is not an opinion. This is something I have scientifically proven. This is based on sophisticated metrics that I’ve refined and developed over the years, algorithms and indices that precisely measure the intensity of sign clutter, hucksterism, shamelessness, price-inflation, neon, and junk-food availability at roadside attractions from St. Augustine, FL (Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park, anyone?) to McMinnville, OR (the Spruce Goose exhibit). And based on what the charts tell us, no tourism center has ever scored a perfect 10. Not even Tennessee’s Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge nexus, the “Appalachian Alps” resort area where millions of southerners have not only enjoyed the Dollywood amusement park but have munched on a pink fudge log while browsing in a psychedelic Christian T-shirt shop. That area scored an amazing 8.5, ranking it roughly on the same level as Myrtle Beach, SC; Branson, MO; and Solvang, CA, which received a .3 bonus for being the only Danish-themed tourist trap ever devised.
So no one has ever approached a 9, much less a 10. Until now.
Niagara Falls is a perfect 10. You might as well put a giant picture of Clifton Hill next to the word “Mecca” in the next edition of the Rand McNally Road Atlas, because you will never match this.
Let’s break it down according to the ten standards on the Joe Bob Briggs Roadmaster Tourist Attraction Scale.
Witness the splendor:
STANDARD NUMBER ONE: Any great tourist center must have a Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museum.
Ripley’s Believe It or Not! is tourism’s sine qua non. In the 19th century it would have been called a Museum of Oddities, and then, as now, it was always a place where the exhibits might or might not be authentic, but the key factor is this: You would never consider entering such a place, much less paying for the privilege, if you weren’t on vacation. People do many insane things on vacation—purchase sombreros, paraglide behind power boats operated by ex-cons, eat at restaurants that revolve—but the Number One insane thing they do is suddenly decide that they really, really need to see that exhibit about the Chinese baby with two faces or the miniature giraffe that makes a noise like a referee’s whistle. I don’t even start to consider a town worthy of ranking unless it has a fully functioning Ripley’s, preferably on the main drag.
Niagara Falls not only has a Ripley’s, but it has one of the biggest Ripley’s in the world, with seven hundred artifacts and a giant artificial King Kong climbing off the building’s side, plus one of those virtual-reality movie theaters where your chair moves up and down and sideways to induce nausea as you watch various maniacs go over the falls in barrels.
In this, as in all the categories that follow, Niagara Falls records a perfect score.
STANDARD NUMBER TWO: There must be fudge.
Fudge, like oddity museums, is a product consumed only on vacation. It is occasionally mailed to children by eccentric aunts, but for the most part it’s an impulse buy that’s likely to be regretted within the hour. There’s this moment at which everyone says, “We must consume enormous chunks of virtually pure sugar congealed into bricks,” and at that moment you enter the fudge store.
The Fudge Factory is a neon-lit circus of fudge, brittle, taffy, toffee, jelly-based candies, and, since we’re in Canada, chunks of maple syrup prepackaged as snack bars guaranteed to overload your carb supply to the point where you’re singing speed-metal karaoke—which, by the way, is also available on the Clifton Hill strip, with the performers being projected onto the street via high-definition screens. If that’s not enough fudge for you, you can also visit the Swiss fudge store in the Fallsview Casino. (A cheesy casino is not necessary in a tourist town, but it does enhance your score. Niagara Falls has two of them.)
STANDARD NUMBER THREE: Wax figures must abound.
No doubt at some point in your life you’ve visited a wax museum, and there’s a good possibility that it was a Tussaud’s wax museum. What you may not realize is that there are three varieties of Tussaud. The original Madame Tussaud’s is in London, and all of its offspring with “Madame” in the name are descended from the woman who served in Louis XVI’s court, making death masks of executed aristocrats before establishing her permanent museum in the Baker Street Bazaar and, since 1884, in Marylebone Road. There are Madame Tussaud’s museums in a dozen cities around the world, including New York, Hollywood, Las Vegas, and Washington, DC, but not, alas, in Niagara Falls.
What you have in Niagara Falls is a Louis Tussaud’s museum. I don’t wanna say that Madame Tussaud’s great-grandson was a slacker, but if you look at, say, the wax version of Arnold Schwarzenegger in a Louis Tussaud museum and compare it to the Governator in a Madame Tussaud museum, you’ll see that one looks like a constipated Robert Goulet who’s been electrocuted with a blow dryer, while the other one looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger. (The third Tussaud’s museum is the Josephine Tussaud’s museum, which exists only in Hot Springs, Arkansas, thanks to a contract with a London beeswax company signed by Madame Tussaud’s great-great-granddaughter in 1885. They have an all-wax depiction of the Last Supper that’s been responsible for several conversions to atheism.)
STANDARD NUMBER FOUR: There must be a live-entertainment venue featuring acts that haven’t been seen on prime-time television for at least two decades.
My favorite example of this sort of venue no longer exists. The B. J. Thomas Theater in Pigeon Forge, TN, underwent a name change, and now the “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” superstar is a touring act only. But my fallback choice for best retro live-entertainment venue ever is the Yakov Smirnoff Theater in Branson, MO. Smirnoff is the Soviet-era comic (“What a country!”) who not only survived glasnost and the Berlin Wall’s destruction but still does live shows that sell out at 35 bucks a pop.
Can Niagara Falls compete in the retro-entertainment sweepstakes? I have two names for you from the current lineup at the aforementioned Fallsview Casino showroom.
We have Sinbad.
And, even more impressively, we have Herman’s Hermits.
I rest my case.
STANDARD NUMBER FIVE: All tourist cities must have a resident “internationally famous” magician who is not internationally famous.
The resident magician—and usually his lovely assistant—are probably doing illusions on a grand scale, the sort of stuff that David Blaine and Criss Angel are known for, the kind of tricks that experienced magicians call “box jumper” acts, a form of magic that reached its apogee in the form of Siegfried and Roy. Basically this means the guy looks good in a suit and the girl looks good in a body stocking but they have an amazingly well-equipped facility. These are original shows—nothing retro about them—that rely on stagecraft and quite a bit of flash powder.
Welcome to the Greg Frewin Theatre. Greg dresses all in black, works with Siberian tigers, and levitates various members of his hot-body all-female dance team. Yes! Again, a perfect score.
STANDARD NUMBER SIX: There must be a water park overrun with screeching children.
I think this one is fairly self-explanatory—who has not feared the yellow water in the kiddie pool?—but Niagara Falls has not one, but two “family fun time” water parks: the Great Wolf Lodge water park, featuring a thousand-gallon bucket that “tips from the treetops” (dad will love it!), and the Fallsview Indoor Waterpark, featuring six-story waterslides and direct tunnel and hallway connections to three huge hotels, guaranteeing a constant stream of swim-suited urchins somersaulting and whining outside your room at all hours of the day and night. It doesn’t get any scarier than this.
STANDARD NUMBER SEVEN: Nevertheless, you do need a haunted house.
In simpler times, a “haunted house” attraction would have been a spooky shambles of a frame house surrounded by local legend, preferably one involving a murdered child from the 19th century who still roams the attic. But in 2011 we can’t wait around for real estate to crumble, regardless of how many subprime-mortgage foreclosures we have. When people say “haunted house” today, they don’t even mean an actual house, except in the old carnival sense of “fun house.” What they mean is a dark, cavernous maze full of high-tech gadgetry and minimum-wage college students trained to scare the bejabbers out of you every time you round a blind corner. So successful are these attractions that they now have their own trade association and hold annual conventions dedicated to the fine art of devising ever more devious means of inducing hysterical states just this side of heart attack while avoiding messy litigation.
Niagara Falls has not one, not two, but six fully functioning haunted-house attractions, including the plot-heavy Nightmares Fear Factory (a vengeance-seeking Victorian businessman named Abraham Mortimer roves the halls of his abandoned coffin factory), the mildly confusing medieval-themed Mystery Maze, the Horror Manor, the House of Frankenstein, the kill-two-birds-with-one-stone Haunted House of Wax (on the American side), and the one considered the scariest by aficionados of the genre, Screamers House of Horror, in which a Freddy Krueger lookalike stands outside to beckon you in and, once inside, hissing snakes wrap themselves around your legs and you watch your own severed arm crash to the floor as Jason Voorhees materializes before you clutching a machete.
STANDARD NUMBER EIGHT: Any world-class tourist attraction must feature either a boat, a train, a monorail, or a Swiss ski lift that goes nowhere.
In Chattanooga, for example, this would be the Chattanooga Choo Choo, which is actually a trolley that runs in a circle and is a particularly inane invention since the term “Chattanooga Choo Choo” was invented by Harry Warren for his 1941 song about the train that left from Track 29 at New York’s Penn Station en route to the Deep South. (In other words, there was never a choo choo in Chattanooga, just a train that passed through there.) Warren also wrote a song about Niagara Falls, but you would never know it because the song’s name is “Shuffle Off to Buffalo.” This is why Buffalo rhymes with “Oh oh oh,” but the key lyric is “To Niagara in a sleeper/There’s no honeymoon that’s cheaper/And the train goes slow….” Unfortunately, the tradition of running off to Niagara Falls to: A) get married; B) honeymoon; or C) sneak around has apparently fallen into abeyance in recent years, although you can still get married aboard the famous boat-to-nowhere called the Maid of the Mist.
The Maid of the Mist is a rather ungainly ferry that for 165 years has made perhaps the shortest journey of any vessel in the world. It goes from a dock on the Canadian side to a point about 1,000 feet upriver where it sits in the basin underneath Horseshoe Falls, groaning against the current, while everyone gets wet in their souvenir Maid of the Mist raincoat. And there’s a fairly convoluted legend about the vessel’s namesake, an Indian maiden who was virginally sacrificed by being tossed over the falls to assuage the Thunder God, and then there’s something in there about a giant water snake, and supposedly her spirit is trapped behind the plumes like Jimmy Hoffa is trapped in the Giants Stadium end zone.
Niagara Falls and the Maid of the Mist once again outpoint all comers, surpassing even the lameness of the painfully cute San Francisco cable cars and the Catskill Mountain Railroad.
STANDARD NUMBER NINE: There must be a long-running IMAX film that sucks but has its own permanent theater.
Most tourist towns have some kind of natural attraction that they can cobble into an IMAX film experience, usually by strapping the camera onto helicopter struts and flying over a bald knob or a pear orchard while shooting at 96 frames per second so that when they run it at normal speed you feel like you’re skydiving. This thrill lasts for about, oh, two minutes. By the third time you see the effect, you’re sated, and then all that’s left is the dreaded narrative sequences, which tend to be body-painted summer-stock actors portraying Native Americans in loincloths who say things like, “When the white man brought Thunder Clap Smokestick, the spirit of Wise Rabbit left this land.” IMAX films always have to be written like a National Geographic documentary devised by peyote-smoking hippies, usually with a lot of underwater close-ups of back-stroking otters. If you have a good budget, you can hire Morgan Freeman to talk at the beginning and the end: “Some people say that north-central Iowa is God’s country. Others say it was made by the Devil. I guess that’s where the story of Silas Haverstreet begins….”
The Niagara IMAX Theatre has none of these problems. Besides the fact that the falls’ roar can be magnified a thousand times until it makes the floor rumble, plus the fact that they’ve acquired all the footage of every daredevil stunt in Niagara Falls history—including the ones where people didn’t survive—you don’t even need most of the high-def bells and whistles. By positioning themselves as champions of old-school Niagara stunts—for the record, 15 people have gone over the falls in a barrel and 10 have survived—Niagara IMAX is an activist for future Jackass-style behavior. For example, no one has crossed the falls on a tight wire since 1910, even though that was the preferred stunt in the 19th century, but Niagara IMAX and—get this—the city’s mayor support the efforts by Nik Wallenda, seventh-generation member of the Flying Wallendas, to change New York and Ontario’s laws so that he will be allowed to tightrope-walk across the gorge.
Forget your roller-coaster lookalikes. In IMAX land, Niagara Falls rules.
STANDARD NUMBER TEN: Any great tourist town must make you believe that you are honoring God, country, and mankind by being present at these attractions.
This is where I have mixed emotions about Niagara Falls. I feel that the genius that created Clifton Hill and the 200-some-odd attractions around it—this P. T. Barnum confection, this seething mass of cacophonous, headache-inducing arcades, carnie games, and larger-than-life animatronic fun-manufacturing madness—should rightly belong to us. Why is this on the Canadian side? Since when do the Canadians do anything tacky? Don’t the Canadians scoff at us for precisely the low-rent redneck attitudes enshrined in Clifton Hill’s very pavement? There’s also a town called Niagara Falls on the American side of the river, and when you go looking for roadside attractions, what do you find? Two well-tended parks of the sort that have signs explaining the local sturgeon’s migratory patterns and one ugly Indian casino surrounded by vast asphalt parking lots. Otherwise: zero! Nada. Except for the aforementioned Haunted House of Wax, there’s nothing to see, nothing to do. It’s a New York town that makes you yearn to be in Rochester.
I gotta give it to the Canucks—they know how to do the whole patriotism thing. They sell Royal Canadian Mounted Police Stupid Hats in the gift shops. They sell maple-leaf sweatshirts. They sell stuffed-animal moose pillows and gourmet maple syrup. There are Bangladeshi women—for some reason the Indian subcontinent is overrepresented in Niagara Falls—who emerge from shops wearing “I Heart Canada” hoodies with Canadian flags tucked behind their ears. Somehow the Canadians reached out and snatched the falls away from us.
Niagara Falls even has a theater that has been hosting the Oh Canada Eh? musical revue for the past 17 years. The show features a singing Mountie, a singing hockey player, and a singing Anne of goddamn Green Gables. They do seven performances a week and tickets range from 30 up to 70 bucks, which used to be a bargain because it’s Canadian dollars, but the American dollar’s decline means that the Canadian dollar is now worth…a dollar. That alone is humiliating. Those are Branson numbers. Those are Myrtle Beach numbers. Those are—gulp—Gatlinburg numbers. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Dolly Parton booked into the Fallsview Casino showroom any day now. Robert Ripley, the creator of the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! comic strip, was an American. Ripley’s owner today, the Jim Pattison Group, has annual sales of $7.2 billion and is one of Canada’s largest private companies.
How can this be happening? We invented Vegas, for God’s sake. They have stolen our heritage.
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