BUFFALO, N.Y. — The tour company chosen to take over the famous boat rides at the base of Niagara Falls said Thursday it plans to build customized new boats and upgrade amenities while maintaining the things that have made the attraction a must-do for tourists for more than 100 years.
"We're not looking to change the basic experience. We're looking to improve and enhance it," said Tegan Firth, spokeswoman for Hornblower Canada Co., a day after the company was awarded the rights to operate the tours offered by the Maid of the Mist Steamboat Co. since 1846. The 30-year contract takes effect in 2014.
San Francisco-based Hornblower Cruises and Events already operates the ferries to Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay and the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. Pursuing the Niagara Falls contract in the first-ever open bidding process "was a great opportunity to be part of something very special," Firth said. "It's certainly iconic and we've enjoyed working with other iconic locations in the United States."
While Canadian parks officials hailed the beginning of a new era, across the border, tourism and elected officials anxiously waited to see what effect the change would have on the Maid of the Mist tours that launch across the gorge from the New York shoreline.
Maid of the Mist President Christopher Glynn declined to comment Thursday. In a statement Wednesday night, he said the loss of the Canadian contract created many uncertainties, including whether to operate the tours from Canada this year.
"We are carefully assessing our position and will be consulting with other affected parties as we attempt to address the many serious issues resulting from this decision," the statement said.
Among potential hurdles is offseason storage of the boats used in New York. With control of both launch sites, the Maid of the Mist currently stores the boats at the more spacious Canadian docks and it's unknown if the arrangement will continue under the new management.
The Maid of the Mist operates boat trips from New York under a separate 40-year contract, good through 2042, with the New York Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. Asked whether the state was confident the New York tours would continue, the office issued a statement declining to speculate.
"We have a valid contract with the Maid of the Mist to provide boat tours at Niagara Falls State Park," the statement said. "While state parks will explore all options, it is premature to speculate about the future at this early date."
Niagara Falls tourism officials had a similar response.
"At this present time, we cannot comment on the effect this decision will have on the New York State side of Niagara Falls," a statement from the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp. said. "Our congratulations to Hornblower Cruises and we wish them much success."
Sen. Charles Schumer urged the Canadian Niagara Parks Commission and Hornblower to work out an agreement that would allow the Maid of the Mist access to the infrastructure it needs to continue tours from the American side of the Falls.
"We absolutely want to talk to the Glynns, talk to New York parks," responded Firth, saying there are many issues to be discussed.
Meanwhile, Hornblower is moving forward with plans to build two 599-passenger boats with enhanced viewing platforms, on-board concessions and "dry zones" offering protection from the soaking mist.
It also plans to redesign the plaza and boarding area to add interactive interpretive features. Visitors will still don the familiar plastic ponchos for the trip that takes them to within 300 feet of the walls of water crashing down from 170 feet above.
Hornblower was among six bidders for the contract, which guarantees the Niagara Parks Commission at least $67 million in revenue in the first five years.