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What Happens When A Small-Town Family Visits The "World's Largest"... Whatever!

BIG Views of Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls

Binoculars and Camera

It’s one of the world’s largest waterfalls, though technically Niagara Falls is a set of three: Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side, and American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls on the U.S. side. To make the most of your visit, there are several ways to view Niagara Falls – you can ride a boat to their base, peer down at them from a tower 700+ feet overhead, or even take a peek from a tunnel behind them.

We took the kids to Niagara Falls, Ontario, and seeing them from different vantage points was important. The Teen has become a budding photographer, so great views were an overriding priority. So, these were our locations of choice:

At the Bottom of the Falls: The Hornblower Niagara ride

It’s one of the most popular things to do in Niagara Falls for a reason. Riding in a boat ride along the bottom of falls is a thrilling adventure for all ages! You’re close enough to get drenched by the powerful spray, and it feels as if you could reach out and touch the rainbows arching through the mist. If you’re on the American side, you take the Maid of the Mist. If you’re on the Canadian side, you take the Hornblower cruise, operated by Niagara Parks.

Hornblower cruise

Hornblower Cruise, Niagara Falls

Our 700-passenger catamaran traveled from the dock on the Niagara Great Gorge past the American Falls, Bridal Veil Falls and into the midpoint of Horseshoe Falls. We didn’t get completely soaked—much to The Girl’s dismay—because we chose a relatively dry spot in back of the bottom deck, and we made use of the complimentary souvenir ponchos.

Behind the Falls: Journey Behind the Falls attraction

This is another great way to get up close to the falls, and, well, to get even more drenched. Which is a delightful proposition for any seven-year old. From the Table Rock Visitor Centre, you take an elevator down a shaft behind the falls. Once you reach 125 feet, you’re released into a tunnel located about one third of the width of Horsehoe Falls. Two shorter, perpendicular tunnels bring you to a gated opening behind the rushing falls. It’s wet, it’s loud, and it’s pretty exhilarating.

Journey Behind the Falls

Even more exciting is the bi-level observation deck in front of the falls. The Girl couldn’t get close enough. Having read all about Annie Edson Taylor— the first person to survive a trip over the falls in a barrel in 1901—she was even more intrigued once she could feel the power of the water from 20 feet away.

Above the Falls: Niagara SkyWheel and Skylon Tower

To get great overhead views of the falls, you have several options, including dining in a local restaurant’s top floor, or taking the Incline Railway which connects Portage Road and the visitor center. We did both of these, but we also took the ten-minute ride on the Niagara SkyWheel, a 175-foot tall ferris wheel with 42 climate-controlled, enclosed gondolas. The gondolas have low-glare glass windows, perfect for taking photos of the falls, and the dinosaurs in the mini-golf course directly adjacent!

 

Niagara SkyWheel

Niagara SkyWheel

To really push my fear of heights, we took the outdoor elevator of Skylon Tower to the observation decks at 775 feet. You can stay inside, where signs point out the sites visible from each direction.

Skylon Observation Deck

Skylon Observation Deck

Or you can go out and brave the winds while walking around the circular deck. Worth it!

 

Skylon Tower

Skylon Tower, Niagara Falls

And of course, it’s always a sheer delight to stroll the sidewalk along Niagara Avenue to see the falls at eye level to where the Niagara River drops off in roiling fury. At night, powerful xenon lamps bathe the water in soft color, and during the season, nighttime fireworks shows add to the colorful pageantry.

 

Niagara Falls

Where river meets falls

Hey YOU! Go BIG!
Niagara Falls Tourism
800-56FALLS (563-2557)

 

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Bird Kingdom, Niagara Falls, ON: World’s largest indoor free-flight aviary

Sure, you go to Niagara Falls to watch 225,000 cubic feet of water per second plummet nearly 200 feet into the gorge below. After taking in the scene for 15 minutes…then what? With kids in tow, you need a plan. Luckily, there is plenty to do in Niagara Falls, especially on the Canada side. One of our favorite attractions was Bird Kingdom, home to the world’s largest indoor free-flight aviary.

You can easily spend an hour or more here, going through the three floors of exhibit space – themed as the “lost kingdom” home to hundreds of both bird and animal species. You set your own pace in each area, which for us meant less time in the Nocturnal Zone looking at the bats and Brazilian giant cockroaches (eek!), and more time in the Explorer’s Base Camp, where you can pet and talk to several animals, like Bearded Dragons and Toucans.

Bearded Dragon

A row of trees lined one wall, and on each, a large exotic bird was perched. Naturally, we immediately began asking “Polly want a cracker?” Why is that so instinctive?!? We had no luck encouraging the birds to converse, but a trainer went down the line, using just the right trigger words to get them to react. Jackie, a 28-year old Blue Macaw, was especially talkative.

There are other great exhibits within this attraction, which is located in renovated 1907 Spirella Corset Company building. We didn’t have enough time to visit the kids’ archaeology dig or Lorikeet Landing, where for the price of a cup of nectar, the Australian Rainbow Lorikeets will land on you to drink from it. But we were charmed by the diminutive birds—finches, doves, tanagers— flitting about our heads in the Small Birds Aviary, until one swooped too close to The Girl’s ear, and she was done.

Our final stop was the amazing, 50,000 square feet aviary, where some 400 birds—representing 70 species—live in harmony. This vast, open space is designed to resemble a tropical rainforest, complete with a 40-foot waterfall at one end. You’ll progress down ramps from the third to the ground floor, with views from every direction.

Bird Kingdom

Primarily, you’ll find species native to South America and Australia, and if you’re an avid bird watcher, you’re sure to see birds you’ll never see in your backyard. You can ask the staff members to help identify the birds, as we did with this Silver Pheasant, or you can consult the pictures on the walls.

pheasant 

The best part? You can get close enough to touch these beautiful creatures. The bright plumage on this Scarlet Ibis was almost too inviting not to try. It’s long, pointy beak provided the necessary deterrent.

Aviary

On your way out, you’ll find the Macaw Market gift shop and the café. If you go, check the website for a coupon for admission!

Hey YOU! Go BIG!
Bird Kingdom
5651 River Road, Niagara Falls, Ontario L2E 7M7, Canada

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Rock City Park, Olean, NY: World’s largest exposure of quartz conglomerate

Rock City ParkOur family is on a nature exploration kick lately, and no one is more surprised than me. It’s never really been our thing. Granted, we stick to “bunny slope” versions of hiking trails, and I don’t go anywhere without a backpack filled with antibacterial wipes and provisions for a potential week in the wild.

Earlier this fall we scrambled over a mossy rock embankment to reach the Old Stone Church in Dover Plains, a town park in the Hudson Valley. Most recently, we explored Rock City Park, home to the world’s largest exposure of quartz conglomerate, in Olean, New York. It’s a small city in the western part of the state, just north of the Pennsylvania border. And it was a little—okay, a lot—out of the way as we headed toward Niagara Falls, but we got to spend some time with Matt’s cousin, who told us about this “world’s largest.” We couldn’t resist!

This place makes you exclaim “wow” on a continuous loop. Rock formations, created 320 million years ago, surround and engulf you as you make your way through the 45-minute hiking trail. The rocks represent a combination of shale with exposed quartz veins, non-quartz sediment, and Olean conglomerate. Geologists believe the crevices and fractures formed 280 to 225 million years ago.

kids hiking

Your tour starts by descending down stairs into one of these crevices, called “Fat Man’s Squeeze.” There are endearing names like this for most points along the trail, as well as for many of the largest rocks.

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Save the Date: The world’s largest family reunion, June 6, 2015

Global Family ReunionWhat are you doing on June 6, 2015? Don’t know yet? I know where we’ll be – at the world’s largest family reunion, which being held at the New York Hall of Science in Queens, New York. The story behind this event is so cool…

Officially known as the Global Family Reunion, it’s a project spearheaded by best-selling author A.J. Jacobs. His goal is to build a massive family tree of the entire world, with the help of geneaology sites like Geni and WikiTree. Currently, it’s at 77 million people, and being recognized as part of a “revolution” in genealogy, enabled by the internet and its ability to connect us to our communal ancestry.

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Experience the World’s Second Largest Reef, By Submarine

The world’s largest reef, the Great Barrier Reef, borders Australia – a continent that tempts me from the top of my bucket list. The second largest? That would be the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, a 620-mile long, 11,000-acre protected coral reef system. Conveniently, it runs along the eastern coast of Mexico, specifically the island of Cozumel. Our big trip this summer just so happened to be to Cozumel, so we set our sights on seeing the reef.

Cozumel has become one of the world’s most popular scuba diving and snorkeling destinations, thanks to the highly-publicized praise from Jacques Cousteau in the 60’s. We’re not scuba divers, but in Cozumel, that’s not a deal breaker. You can see the reef just as well–without having to breathe through a tube–in the Atlantis Submarine.

The Atlantis Submarine in Cozumel

Our adventure began in the gift shop, where we assembled and were given initial instructions. Then we boarded a tender to take us on a ten-minute ride along Cozumel’s west coast to the site where the 65-foot long Atlantis was docked. We were the second stop, joining a group of people who were taking a day excursion off of the cruise ship in port. On board the boat, we heard from our captain in both English and Spanish, along with the requisite marine-themed jokes and music.

Atlantis Submarine

At the dive site, you climb out of the boat and down into the submarine. Inside, the vessel seats 48 people plus three crew members, and it’s completely climate controlled. There was little room to move around, and I could see that people with claustrophobia issues might not love it.

Submarine

Once the hatch was sealed, we began our descent. It was exciting, as the beginning of any new experience is, and the kids were pointing to everything with glee, even seaweed. Within 20 minutes, the pilot had slowly descended 110 feet, which we tracked on the digital counter.

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Taking the Kids to Big Cat Rescue, Tampa, Florida

Big Cat Rescue

Big Cat Rescue

The Girl is a BIG fan of animals, thanks to a steady diet of “The Wild Kratts” on PBS. A trip to Tampa allowed us to visit Big Cat Rescue, the largest accredited sanctuary in the country, and possibly the world, dedicated entirely to abused and abandoned big cats.

Big Cat Rescue is home to some 100 lions, tigers, leopards, cougars and other wild cats, who live in enclosed habitats on 67 acres in the Citrus Park area of north Tampa. These majestic creatures were, for the most part, former pets or victims of the “pet trade,” who were mistreated or abandoned. Some had been used for performing acts and were no longer wanted. The mission here is to end the abuse and abandonment of captive exotic animals and promote preservation of the species in the wild.

After learning all this, I explained to the kids that this was not a zoo, and these animals were not there for our entertainment, but because this was the safest place for them to live now that they were no longer accustomed to living in the wild. It was important for them to know that, although I tried to keep the message lighthearted for my six-year old.

You get to learn the cats’ individual stories along the way, both from the tour guide and from the posted signs which provide their name, the date they came to the Rescue, and where they were found. In many cases, this is an eye-opener. Divinity the Bobcat, for example, was rescued from a fur farm.

Bobcat

Divinity the Bobcat

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How to Experience Colonial Williamsburg With Kids

Colonial Williamsburg Courthouse

Colonial Williamsburg Courthouse

The world’s largest living history museum, Colonial Williamsburg, has lured us to Virginia twice before. We now know two things with certainty. A) There’s not a lot of shade on a hot day. B) Despite that, there is a lot of entertaining and educational fun to be had by all ages.

If you’re planning a trip this summer, there are a few highlights I would strongly recommend to maximize your experience, especially if you’re only there for one day. It’s best to have a plan of attack at a place this big — Colonial Williamsburg includes more than 400 restored or reconstructed original buildings, museums, lodging, and restaurants, retail stores and gardens.

Start your day at the Visitor Center. The map includes a weekly program guide, with kid-friendly programs highlighted. If you haven’t done so before your trip, make reservations for on-site meals, and purchase additional passes for special programs or tours not included in the general pass. You can even rent costumes for everyone in your family to wear so you can blend in with the colonists.

Walking through the streets is partly about watching, and also about participating. You can stop by the blacksmith shop or the bindery to observe these artisans in their trades, march along with the Fife and Drum crew, or stop into the Courthouse to hear a case before the judge. Make sure you hit the Kids Corner at the Gateway, where they taught our kids games like Whirligig.

Colonial Williamsburg kids

A lot tougher than it looks!

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BIG Finds at Ripley’s Believe it or Not: Ocean City, MD

Robert Wadlow

World’s tallest man!

You can find a lot of superlative stuff inside the 32 Ripley’s Believe it or Not museums around the world; each location has more than 300 exhibits and artifacts. We’ve never been inside one of these “odditoriums” before, but we finally took the plunge last week while in Ocean City, Maryland. We discovered that this beachy destination is very seasonal, so there wasn’t a lot to do yet in mid-April. The 2.25-mile Boardwalk was hopping, however, and Ripley’s is in a prime location at the southern end.

Robert Ripley, a cartoonist and adventurer, traveled to 201 countries over the course of his life, and collected a vast, eclectic collection of oddities. Many of these (originals and reproductions) are on display here, alongside newer pieces collected in recent decades.

I think it’s safe to say that this is the only place you’ll ever see an authentic concrete section of the Berlin Wall displayed near a model oil rig constructed of match sticks, and a mural of Rihanna depicted in Lite Bright pegs. A whole lot of weird. We liked it!

As you walk through different rooms, you’ll find the exhibits fit into themes, like animals, space, and human extremes. Of course, we had to take a photo with a statue of Robert Wadlow, the world’s tallest man. Wadlow (1918-1940) reached a height of 8’, 11”, and weighed 440 lbs. His arm span was 9½ feet! Only 17 people have been recorded in medical history to reach the height of eight feet.

In another room, a replica of the world’s largest Great White Shark ever caught with a rod and reel was hanging from the ceiling, near an iron cage you could step into. It’s 16’, 8” long, 3,427 lbs, and was caught off the shores of Montauk, New York in 1986 by Donnie Braddick.

Great White Shark

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World’s Largest Salt Water Lagoon; Cayman Islands

Even though there’s still some snow on the ground, it’s officially spring, and I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to turn off the heat soon. This photo has been my screensaver for the past few months, and it has gotten me through.

stingrays

Swimming with stingrays in the Cayman Islands

What you’re looking at is a warm and happy family posing with a stingray off the coast of Grand Cayman in the Cayman Islands. All that gorgeous blue is the perfect antidote to all the icy white I see from my window.

We were on the north side of the island, in the North Sound, one of the world’s largest and shallowest salt water lagoons. The Sound is also home to Stingray City, an offshore reef where friendly sting rays congregate. They’ve been accustomed to humans stopping by all day long in cruisers like these.

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World’s Largest Termite, and other BIG Things in Providence, Rhode Island

This long, cold, snowy winter we’re enjoying barely tolerating here in the Hudson Valley hasn’t been kind to our travel plans, beginning way back in November, when a storm prevented us from driving to Gatlinburg, TN for Thanksgiving. Another storm was forecast for President’s Day weekend earlier this month, when we were scheduled to drive to Providence, RI. The Girl insisted we go anyway, whining, “Weather has ruined all our trips!”

Okay, so we were committed to getting there. And then The Boy sprained his ankle, and was outfitted with a boot. My eye began to twitch.

But hey, flexibility is what family travel is all about, so we rolled with it. We were snowed in at the Hampton Inn for an entire afternoon. We couldn’t do much walking. But the important thing was WE GOT OUT of town, winter be damned.

And discovered some great BIG attractions in Rhode Island’s capital city.

Because we love roadside attractions, our first photo op stop was “Nibbles Woodaway,” also known as the Big Blue Bug. At two tons, he’s the world’s largest termite, and has sat on top of an extermination business building since 1980. He’s nine feet tall and 58 feet long, and is occasionally dressed in smart seasonal accessories.

Termite

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