The future of one of the most famous boat rides in the world is very much in doubt as the Maid of the Mist teeters on the edge of extinction.
But those who operate that “other” boat attraction on the lower Niagara River say their future is looking brighter — and not just because a mild winter means an early start to the season.
Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours will celebrate its 20th anniversary this summer amid increasing popularity, especially on the U.S. side of the border.
The attraction appears to be on the cusp of a change in how international tourism dollars are being spent, with Canada not necessarily the first choice anymore for visitors to Niagara Falls. Jet Boat owner John Kinney said he is taking full advantage of this, traveling around the globe selling his attraction to tour operators and promoting the region.
A small citizens’ group and a church in historic Queenston Village fought the town, Whirlpool Jet Boat Tour Co. and the Niagara Escarpment Commission — and won.
A hearing before the Ontario Environmental Review Panel, which began in March 2009, ended in a victory recently for the Queenston Residents Association and St. Saviour Brock Memorial Church. They were successful in preventing the jet-boat company from receiving a permit from the escarpment commission to construct a two-storey building at the Queenston dock.
Twitter can be a great thing. I’ve been able to get in contact with many operators that I otherwise might not have. One of those is Brad Billard, Director of Marketing & Promotions for Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours. I was in contact with him much earlier in the year about possibly getting some passes so I could write about the attraction. Brad was quite willing to arrange that, and a week and a half ago I made the trip.
Before I get into the details of my own trip, let me give you just a bit of background. The main dock for the boats is in Niagara-on-the-Lake. There was recently some controversy over whether the lease on the dock would be renewed. Some residents complained that the boats were too loud. In the end, Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours won, and is able to continue to operate. I don’t live there, but based on my limited time at the dock, I don’t see what all the fuss was about. The boats are very careful to respect other boats in the river, and since they aren’t going very fast, they don’t make nearly as much noise as they do when in the rapids.
The engines are made by HamiltonJet out of New Zealand. If you browse their site, you can see some pictures of other boats, as well as pictures of engines, and how the “waterjet” works. The hull of the boat is crafted in Clayton, NY. It is transported to the Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours shop in Virgil where their licensed welders and mechanics assemble the boats and build the rest. The guy running our tour mentioned that the boat is built like the Titanic. It has compartments in the hull. The Titanic’s problem was that the walls of the compartments didn’t go all the way to the top. They do on the jet boats. Apparently there are 8 different compartments, so even if there is a breach, the boat should still be safely above water.
When you first get to the attraction, the first thing you do is check in and sign a waiver. You then have a short safety orientation. The dock is just a short walk down the block. They give you a life jacket that you have to wear. They also want to make sure that you have footwear that won’t come off and will provide you with water shoes if you need them (no extra charge). There is also a poncho that can be worn.
When I was speaking to Brad before the ride, he asked what kind of a ride I wanted. I’m not really much of a thrill ride guy, but I said it didn’t matter. Brad explained that the best spot to get really wet is the 3rd or 4th row on the right side. There is a small “windshield” at the front of the boat so the people don’t get quite as wet. He also explained that the back seats were called the “Oh my gosh” seats as you have enough time to say that before you get splashed. As I boarded the boat, I was hoping to sit closer to the back, but somehow ended up in the 3rd row, on the right side.
The experience truly is a tour. There is a person who sits at the front of the boat and tells you a bit of history as you are going up the river. Our tour guide’s name was Jason and he was fantastic. He joked with us (he was truly funny) and he was incredibly excited and pumped up. Two of my sisters came with me (both adults). One of my sisters was quite nervous, and she said that listening to Jason and enjoying the banter helped her take her mind off her fear.
It takes 10-15 minutes to make your way up the Niagara River. It surprised me how far up we went. It’s a long way from Niagara-on-the-Lake, up past Queenston Heights, up to the whirlpool. The main destination is a set of rapids just before the whirlpool called Devil’s Hole Rapids. This is where the ride really gets wild. You go through the rapids several times, and it seems as if the whole boat fills up with water. At one point I understood why they have you sign a waiver. I got hit with a wave that seemed to be the size of a house and it took a few days for my hearing to be back to normal! Even with that little scare, I’d do it again in a heartbeat 🙂
The end point is the actual whirlpool. They can’t take you up any further than that as the rapids beyond that are too strong. However, you stop right at the edge and certainly get a sense of the power of the water and the speed of the current. You then head back through Devil’s Hole Rapids and then go quite fast on the way back. I don’t know how fast the boat actually goes, but it sure seemed very fast.
When you are planning on going on a tour, they tell you to bring a full change of clothes. That seemed excessive to me, but I did so anyway. Am I ever glad I did! I was soaked from head to toe, with not a single spot of dry area on my clothes. Thankfully, they have some change rooms at their location where you can get out of your wet clothes when you get back.
There is an option as part of the tour (at an additional cost) to get some pictures. There is a person along the way who takes pictures from the shore of you going through the rapids. The pictures turn out quite nice, and are worth the extra cost.
For more information on the Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours, be sure to check out their web site. You can find out the cost, their history, and see pictures and videos. You can also follow them on Twitter and Facebook.
My sister has a waterproof camera that I used and was able to take some pictures when I could. As usual, you can see some of the thumbnails below, or see all of the thumbnails and full images in the Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours in Summer 2010 gallery. There are several pictures that I took, as well as some pictures that were provided by Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours.
I was also able to get some video clips as well that I’ve put into one longer video (still only a couple of minutes long). You can watch the video Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours in Summer 2010 below or on YouTube. The video is made up of clips which I think will give you a good feel for what the tour is like. You can see and hear Jason, the tour guide. You also experience two of the Hamilton Turns (the 360° spins). You also get a feeling for how fast the boat can go. I don’t have any shots of the big waves, as we were supposed to put away the cameras and hold on at that point.