July 12, 2011
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.