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Issue Date: August 2004 Issue


Betting on the Falls

The new Niagara Fallsview Casino Resort hits the jackpot by infusing some Vegas mojo into the natural wonders of Niagara Falls.

I was a winner at the new Niagara Fallsview Casino Resort.

Less than two weeks after the billion-dollar casino complex opened, the house was quaking. Pay me, baby: $4.50 — Canadian.

Maybe ending my night of craps and blackjack with a few extra dollar-coins in my pocket was a small victory, but it certainly wasn't the only one during our family's two-night stay in Niagara Falls.

In fact, we hit the jackpot the moment we checked in. The Fallsview Casino Resort has Las Vegas in its veins. Compared to Casino Niagara down the street, "It's like Circus Circus vs. the Bellagio," remarked our bellhop, who said he'd given up a gig as a Casino Niagara dealer to work lugging bags at the 30-story hotel.

Everything about it invites you in — a siren call to indulge: A tiered fountain dominates the entrance, where ample space, attentive valets and eager bellhops make unloading your luggage easy and efficient. Once inside, the lobby swirls above you in arches of brushed steel rising to a glass-and-girder dome and below in a rich marble floor that echoes the overhead curves.

At its center is a $10 million hydroelectric water feature created by the same firm that designed the Buccaneer Bay pirate ship battle at Treasure Island. Power turbines dip into the fountain's pool, where several whitewater sprays mimic the frothy churn of the falls. Water pours into see-though buckets around an electric-blue, video-screen core capped by a transformer and high-voltage cable.

The scene reeks of Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory, especially during the near-meltdown in its nightly show. But rather than creating a monster, this seems to be the image of the new Niagara Falls: stitching together the area's hydroelectric past (the form∆r Hydro Building's east facade is integrated into the complex), the natural wonder of the falls and the city's kitschy tourist appeal with the resort's belle époque luxury and dynamic entertainment future.

We're talking triple sevens here: The 200,000-square-foot casino is divided into 10 pit areas offering 150 gaming tables, 3,000 slot machines, wide aisles between them and a Salon Privé for high rollers. The 1,500-seat Avalon Ballroom theater draws big-name touring acts such as Wynonna Judd, Kenny Rogers and Alanis Morissette (all in August). Plus, there's a full-service spa, pool and fitness center, an array of luxury boutiques and restaurants in the Galleria and a 3,000-car parking garage.

Though all 368 guest rooms offer a view of the falls, the two walls of windows in our elegantly appointed corner room practically pulled the Horseshoe Falls and surrounding area into bed with us. Crack open the window and the sound of the falls rushes in as well.

Though drawn by the current of awe-inspiring nature, we felt an almost stronger force tugging us down to the casino floor to test our early good fortune.

But alas, the children.

Understandably, you must be 18 to enter the casino, which raises the stakes on a family stay. With almost none of the Galleria restaurants open during our June visit and the Grand Buffet accessible only through the casino, our search for kid-friendly dinner fare within the resort went bust. (Everything from sushi to Canada's popular Lick's hamburger chain should be available by the end of summer or early fall.)

We finally found the large outdoor patio and band at My Cousin Vinny's, which offered something more than the nearby chain-same Applebee's or Denny's.

Murray Hill has been transformed by the 23-acre Fallsview Casino. What was a dark, dreary — and somewhat scary — descent to the falls a few years ago, now delivers a pedestrian-friendly stroll punctuated by a landscaped median, antique-style lighting and a retaining wall of monstrous sandstone slabs.

But even with all that man has built up around it, the falls still command top billing. In a din of languages that rivals the pounding waters, tourists soak in the awesomeness of what, in the words of our 2-year-old daughter, is a simple act: "That water's falling." For some reason, the kids appreciated it more than a similar visit last summer (even though we skipped the Maid of the Mist boat tour this time around). Like most everyone else, we passed our camera to a stranger for a family photo and then returned the favor farther down on our walk.

Rain started to fall, clearing out many of the sightseers. But we were already wet from the rising mist and the kids enjoyed an up-close and unobstructed view of the Horseshoe Falls before heading back to the hotel, where we watched the fountain's light show in the lobby and then another on the falls from our room.

Day two was divided in half: daytime devoted to the kids and night for Mom and Dad.

But doing Niagara Falls with the entire family (especially with young kids) almost requires that you yield to all that is touristy. So, for much of the day, we wrapped our wallet around it in a loving embrace.

The kids got quite a flutter out of the Niagara Parks Butterfly Conservatory and Botanical Gardens. Inside the glasshouse, butterflies in electric blues and shocking reds flitted about, landing on the greenery, tantalizing with near-miss passes around our heads and, in a birthday-like gift, pausing on an outstretched hand or convenient shoulder. Even the most rambunctious of kids stood still, hoping for a butterfly to land on them.

After a quick stroll through the garden grounds, our little flowers needed more substantive stimuli. Clifton Hill's Marvel Super Heroes Adventure City quickly ensnared our threesome in a web of activity. The mini theme park features tons of video games and five interactive rides, including the 3-D Spider Man Ultimate Ride in which passengers witness a battle between Spidey and his enemies. The much milder Spider Man & Friends Fun House was the perfect speed for our 6-and-under crowd as they battled with foam balls, punched padded villains and navigated a maze of mirrors.

And just as planned, it worked like Kryptonite on their superhuman energy.

We'd arranged for a baby-sitter through the hotel. She brought along a checklist of questions for us and games and activities for the kids.

With our first real chance to spin the wheel of fortune, we found the perfect bet for dinner: 17 Noir. The roulette-themed restaurant's deep red interior is accented in black marble and neon ribbons of light that change hues as if in tune with the techno house music. From our private corner perched perfectly between both falls, we quickly discovered why chef Michael Olson — along with his wife and pastry chef, Anna, who has her own show on Canada's Food Network — have garnered so much acclaim in the regon. Our starters, the grilled portobello mushrooms on Niagara microgreens ($11) and the charred calamari in coriander-seed dressing ($12), were winners in their own right. And the main courses, wild BC salmon in tikka spices with onion yogurt and potato-cauliflower curry ($35) and hickory-smoked pork rack in Niagara "Iceblock" maple glaze ($35), were the culinary equivalents of watching your roulette number come up 10 straight times.

Once in the casino, we worked through the food coma at the 365 Club, with its circular stage, large comfy booths and a '70s-style lounge act in colorful tie-dyed outfits who danced and sang everything from the Bee Gees to C&C Music Factory.

When the set ended, my wife relieved the sitter and I found a spot at the craps table. From my spot opposite the shooter, I watched as he rolled and rolled and rolled. And bettors won and won and won. He crapped out and the entire table passed the roll back to our lucky shooter and it began again, in a streak that one dealer said she hadn't seen in six months. When his luck finally ended about an hour later, most everyone at the table — except me — had won a lot of money.

In my search for more action, I discovered what may be the only clock anywhere in casino land. But like most players' bank accounts, the hands only move backward.

When 2 a.m. finally rolled around, I gathered my chips from the blackjack table and cashed out a winner.

And you could be, too, at Niagara Falls and its newest wonder, Niagara Fallsview Casino Resort.


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