Weekend service has rolled out for the Discover Niagara Shuttle, which last year ferried some 33,000 riders from the Falls to Old Fort Niagara with stops at attractions and business districts in between.
Rain and chilly weather throughout the first weekend washed out ridership for the shuttle, but Sara Capen, executive director of the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area, which administers the shuttle, looked on the sunny side.
"We are excited to be up and running, three weeks earlier than we were last year," said Capen. "We're really excited for the drivers to be out and engaging with visitors, but it was a rainy weekend across Western New York. We are looking forward to the weather changing and more visitors riding."
The distinctive white-and-blue 28-seat trolley-style buses, along with two smaller mini-buses, are rolling along a 16-stop route that runs from the official Niagara USA Visitors Center at 10 Rainbow Blvd. to Old Fort Niagara. Passengers ride the hop-on, hop-off shuttle for free.
Daily service, which will run from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 9 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday, begins May 19.
In between the falls and the Fort, the shuttle stops at Third and Old Falls streets, the Third Street entertainment district in the 400 block of Third Street, the Niagara Gorge Discovery Center, the Aquarium of Niagara, the Niagara Arts and Cultural Center in the old Niagara Falls High School, Oakwood Cemetery, the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center in the old Custom House on Whirlpool Street, the new Niagara Falls Amtrak Station, Whirlpool State Park, the Castellani Art Museum on the campus of Niagara University, the Niagara Power Project Power Vista, the Lewiston business district at Fifth and Center streets, the Lewiston waterfront and the Youngstown business district at Main Street and Route 93.
Three of those stops – the Third Street entertainment district, Oakwood Cemetery and the Niagara Falls Amtrak Station – are new this year. The Third Street stop replaces one at Old Main Street that was in the middle of downtown Niagara Falls congestion, Capen said, and the new Amtrak Station just opened.
Oakwood Cemetery staffers are avidly waiting for the first tourists to get off the shuttle at the cemetery's stop, which, like all the others, is marked by a sign.
"I can't tell you how excited I am," said Tim Baxter, director of operations at Oakwood Cemetery. "This is a golden opportunity for us to be able to tell everybody about the history that is here. This is what we've been waiting for."
"Having the shuttle is the difference between going into a large store and asking, 'Where's the milk?' and having somebody say, 'Go down Aisle 15, then turn left ...' or the guy bringing you to the milk," said Baxter. Although Oakwood is just over a mile from the falls, there is no direct, uncomplicated route.
The only cemetery in the world that is the permanent resting place for several Niagara Falls daredevils, Oakwood will offer Daredevil Tours at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. every Sunday starting May 28. Those can be pre-booked or taken by walk-ins, said Baxter.
Outside those times, visitors to the cemetery may collect a detailed map showing distinguished persons buried in the cemetery, as well as some information on the natural and built landscape. "This is the ground floor of our heritage tourism business," said Baxter.
Robert Emerson, executive director of Old Fort Niagara, said that at least 4,000 visitors took the shuttle to the fort last season, making up 5 percent of the visitors who came to the fort on their own rather than with organized tour groups. The fort's total attendance last year was 266,000, of which only 85,000 came without a tour group.
"We thought it was terrific," Emerson said of the shuttle. "We found that the riders were an interesting mix of visitors to our area and local residents, and we struggle to get local residents."
Emerson said that by enabling tourists to visit the Fort, "we provide a memorable experience for them, and they are going to go home and tell 20 other people that they parked their car, got on a shuttle and went to Old Fort Niagara or any of the other stops along the route."
A total of 33,000 people rode the shuttle last season.
For decades, tourism experts "struggled with the vast amount of people who come to Niagara Falls and how we can connect them to other cultural assets that we have in the region," said Capen. "Transportation has been identified as one of the biggest challenges that people face, to getting people to stay longer, to get them to really experience our region."
But part of the challenge was simply making people aware of what else was available beyond the falls, said Capen, echoing historic complaints. "A great deal of the people who visit our region at first are not aware of the other assets we have," she said. "But also, there are not easy ways to get to those places, especially for international visitors, or for people who don't have cars, or for people who aren't comfortable driving their cars for 13 miles to Old Fort Niagara."
Emerson praised the developers of the shuttle route for "being very sensitive to the history of the region. This area has not been traditionally identified on the national level for its history, and that has to change."
One stop on the shuttle's route is still being developed, Capen said. The Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center is not projected to open until March, but it remains on the route because some programming will be offered there this summer.
Other than that, arrangements have been made at every stop to have things for people to see and do, Capen said. At the NAAC, for example, Capen said, "We partnered with them to open the Freedom Crossing exhibit, which tells the story of the role Niagara Falls played in the Underground Railroad." The exhibit is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and noon to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
The shuttles, which offer free Wi-Fi and space for wheelchairs, are stocked with brochures about the destinations, said Capen. "Both the digital app and our website connect to each partner's website as well," she said. Two apps can be downloaded for free. The Discover Niagara app informs visitors about the history of the region. The Discover Niagara Shuttle app tracks the vehicles, so riders will know when they arrive.
The Niagara Falls Heritage Area will use social media to announce special events, such as the Garden Walk of Niagara Falls, so people can plan trips on the shuttles.
Drivers will go out of their way to inform and assist visitors, Capen said. "We are hoping to be able to activate a docent on the vehicles this summer who would be riding the vehicles during the busy times, to be able to provide overviews, and also to aid visitors."
One surprise from last year was the number of local people who hopped on and hopped off the shuttle, some of whom brought their bicycles on the shuttle's bike racks, Capen said.
"This is not formalized, but what we learned from the people who were riding it last year was that we had a really significant local audience that were re-engaging with our landscape and with these places in a way that they hadn't before," she said.
"We had hikers that were hiking the gorge, whether they hiked from Devils Hole to Whirlpool, and got on the shuttle and went back, and people who were putting their bicycles on and going down to the lower river region."
Last year's shuttle was paid for by USA Niagara Development Corp., which contributed $120,000 for the first year; the New York Power Authority, which committed $250,000 over the first two years and another $100,000 through the Western New York Power Proceeds Allocation Board; New York State Parks, which contributed $200,000 over two years; and the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp. and the National Heritage Area, which each kicked in $50,000 for the first two years. This year's shuttle is also being funded by the City of Niagara Falls, which provided $100,000; the Town of Lewiston, which made a $50,000 commitment through the Greenway Fund; and Niagara University, which offered $15,000, Capen said.
"I think it's so awesome that we have this service, and for the Fort and Lewiston and for everybody this is such a great thing," said Baxter.
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