NIAGARA FALLS, Ont. – As a Hornblower ferry pulled away bearing a full group of tourists for the first time, a small crowd cheered, seagulls squawked and the falls raged majestically.
Then another ship passed by, passengers waving. These people sported blue Maid of the Mist ponchos, unlike the pink ones aboard the Hornblower ship.
For the first time, Hornblower Niagara Cruises on the Canadian side of the Niagara River and the Maid of the Mist on the U.S. side simultaneously had boats ferrying tourists at the base of Niagara Falls.
In 2009, the Maid of the Mist's lease for Niagara Falls, Ont., boat tour service expired. Hornblower won a bidding war for a 30-year lease in February 2012 against the Maid, which had chartered tourists from both the American and Canadian sides since 1854.
In a separate controversial process, the Maid retained its lease on the United States side, which was not opened for public bidding. Hornblower appealed but it was dismissed last year.
Hornblower's tours are open to the general public for the first time today, and the company held its ribbon-cutting ceremony Wednesday. The Maid of the Mist opened Saturday.
“There's been a lot of saga and drama along the way, but I'm happy to say it's going to have a happy ending and a great beginning,” said Niagara Falls, Ont., Mayor Jim Diodati.
Minutes before the first Hornblower ferry took off, Janice Thompson, chair of the Niagara Parks Commission, held up a pair of gold, 3-foot scissors and said, “they're appropriately sized for the size of this project.”
This undertaking has already cost Hornblower Cruises & Events more than $25 million to date and the Parks Commission is guaranteed a payment of at least $60 million during the first five years of the deal.
The Parks Commission has also invested almost $1 million in renovations to the neighboring Grand View Marketplace, including the addition of a retail store and three food outlets.
Part of Hornblower's marketing push has been its addition of nighttime ferries (the last boat is expected to come in at 10:30 p.m.). Passengers can choose from four 30-minute tour options: the Falls Boat Tour, the Sunset Cocktail Tour, the Falls Illumination Cruise, and the Falls Fireworks Cruise.
“Historically this operation has carried 1.5 to 1.7 million people” per year, said Hornblower CEO Terry MacRae. “I think the greater capacity we have with this boat – 700 passengers – from chartered activities to late-night activities, I'm highly confident we won't be below that.”
Hornblower, which has more than 30 years' experience sailing in waters around North America, operates the two largest ferry concessions in the United States, with ferries to Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay and the Statue of Liberty National Monument in New York Harbor.
Navigating the Falls seems to be a different challenge, though. As Hornblower Captain Jon Garno put it, “You don't have a 200-foot waterfall in front of you other places.” Hornblower also brought in an almost exclusively new staff, retaining one captain and one mate from the Maid of the Mist.
“Some aspects of it are harder,” said Garno, who began training in the beginning of April. “Certainly the current, you have to deal with the current and it runs in different directions at different parts … But something else to bear in mind is, two miles down the river is the strongest rapids in the world.”
“We're going to be more challenged operating late hours,” added Captain Julio Castellon Rodriguez, who started in March. “The tide will be down. It will be different.”
MacRae said he is “absolutely confident” in the quality and experience of his team – nine captains and five mates, all Canadian citizens – and the training has been rigorous and thorough, including rescue drills and certification from Transport Canada. He added that for the captains, operating in the Falls isn't all that different from doing so elsewhere.
Nancy and Tom Seddon of North Wildwood, N.J., were in line Wednesday morning and became the first to purchase Hornblower tickets. They'll be taking off at 10:45 a.m. Thursday.
“We didn't know the Maid had closed down until yesterday,” Nancy Seddon said. “It lets me go home and tell my dad, 'Hey, I'm the first on the new one.' Because he said, 'do Maid of the Mist.' And I'll say, 'no, it's not there anymore, we did this.' ”
The public can buy tickets for two of the boats – Niagara Wonder and Niagara Thunder, named during a public contest – and the third, the Guardian of the Gorge, is a chartered vessel.
Tours start at 9:45 a.m. today and cost $17.95 (Canadian). The Falls Boat Tour goes out for the last time today at 7:15 p.m.
Hornblower is planning to operate from Thursday through Nov. 15, a decision that could change based on weather.