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The Town That Was Also a Theme Park

From the book The Second Greatest Disappointment by Karen Dubinsky

The growth of tourist services–or the “tourist plant”–at Niagara was staggering. On the Canadian side the number of restaurants, for example, increased from 40 in 1945 to 79 in 1955 to 115 in 1965. Motels appeared almost out of thin air; there were none in 1945, 79 ten years later, and 115 in 1965. By the early 1960s Ontario’s Niagara region, with one-eighth of the province’s population, contained 20 per cent, pr one-fifth, of the province’s motels. The local Chamber of Commerce estimated in 1958 that 80 per cent of the overnight accommodation in town had not existed ten years previously. Across the river in Niagara Falls, New York, the story was the same: the town boasted the United States’ highest concentration of motels outside Miami Beach.

When tourists were not eating or sleeping, they could find plenty of other things to do. Certainly, playing with the waterfall remained an important item on the tourist agenda, and the old standbys–the Cave of the Winds and Table Rock tours, the Maid of the Mist boat ride, and the Spanish Aerocar over the Whirlpool–remained popular. But postwar Niagara also featured a catalogue of other amusements that would have made nineteenth-century entrepreneurs like Saul Davis and Thomas Barnett green with envy. By the early 1960s tourist attractions on both sides of the river included two golf courses, replicas of an Indian village and the English crown jewels, an antique auto museum (inexplicably proud of its main attraction, Mussolini’s limousine), two children’s amusement theme parks, two wax museums, Marine Wonderland and Animal Park, and Niagarama (an “animated historical funhouse”). Then too there was Davis’s Niagara Falls Museum (back on the Canadian side of the river in the old Spirella Corset factory), a second museum operated by the NIagara Parks Commission (which also operated a restored eighteenth-century fort at Niagara-on-the-Lake), Ontario Hydro’s Floral Clock, a planetarium, and three massive observation towers. The resulting landscape must have been reminiscent of that other great postwar amusement park, Disneyland, which has opened its doors in 1955 in Anaheim, California.

North American entrepreneurs were uncharacteristically slow to recognize and successfully copy the Disney formula. Theme parks did not really proliferate until the 1970s–including Disney World, which opened in Florida in 1971. But in the 1950s and 1960s other popular tourist destinations became fractured versions of Disneyland, offering many of the same sorts of attractions. At Niagara, Storybook Park, for example, invited children to play with Mother Goose characters, and at the Indian Village visitors could stroll through longhouses and teepees and watch what the brochures called “Real Indians” (from the Six Nations reserve near Brantford) perform dances and manufacture souvenirs. Such attractions were low-budget derivatives of Disneyland’s “Fantasy Land” and “Frontier Land,” but with important differences. Disney’s park operated as a miniature state. Disneyland was (and remains) one of the most highly scripted playgrounds in human history, with centralized control entrenched in its design and day-to-day operations. Park designers worked hard to establish a “coherent, orderly, sequenced layout within which elements would complement each other rather than compete for attention.”

But the attractions of Niagara Falls, which was, after all, a community, were not centrally planned or owned. The diffused and hodgepodge nature of Niagara’s amusements made for unique problems and neighbourly difficulties. The Niagara Parks Commission and the New York State Reservation waged a war of words, which eventually ended up in court, with Alice Landmuir, owner of the Burning Springs Wax Museum used a loudspeaker to attract visitors, and park officials complained bitterly of the loudspeaker’s “intensive bombardment,” audible to park visitors as well as passersby. Similarly, in 1960, motel owners began to complain to city council about their new neighbour, the Indian Village (owned not by Indians but by Murray Ruta, a local real estate broker). Anthony Solose, owner of the Horseshoe Falls Cottages, complained about the “continuous smell and smoke of the bonfire” and the “beating of tom-toms, yelping and hollering.” There was more. “Tourists with families have always favoured our cottages,” he continued, “but with Indians peeping over fences the younger children get frightened.”

Things had changed considerably since the days when travellers eagerly sought a glimpse of their “first Indian.” In mimicking–on a smaller and more fragmented scale–the sort of amusements that had drawn 10 million visitors to Disneyland within its first two years of business, postwar Niagara stands as a perfect example of the increasing cultural uniformity–what people today call “McWorld” or “McDisney”–that was beginning to characterize North America.

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5 Responses
  1. sameera says:

    This a good account on Niagara.I am looking for atourist destinations.I am impressed by this article.I decided to visit this place.
    THANKS for the owner

  2. Neon Clock says:

    A good post buddy. Reiterates the importance of natural tourist destinations. Niagara is really a nice place to visit. No one should miss when they are touring Canada.

  3. Mikey says:

    Some interesting info on the defunct Niagara Falls attractions, but, do you have any info on “Canadiana”; a “Miniatures park” that preceeded Cullen Gardens and was closed in the late 60s? (It featured models of famous Canadian buildings, such as the Parliament and a working model of a Welland Canal lock ) The exibits were all outside and very accurate….It was situated somewhere near Marineland, if I properly recall.

  4. Lauren says:

    I was just remembering “Canadiana” today… I think it was at the other end of town on Dorchester Road??? But I could easily be wrong

  5. I use to live with an exchange student from Canada and all he talked about was how gorgeous Niagara falls is

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