NIAGARA FALLS, Ontario The biggest challenge in creating a new tourist attraction at Niagara Falls is trying to live up to the main event.
Beyond being breathtaking, the waterfalls are free to look at. That means parks officials must respond to the "we've seen the falls, now what?" question with answers that not only wow, but pay the bills.
A newly opened virtual reality show delivers a time-lapse lesson about the 10,000-year formation of the natural wonder, complete with glacial snow, pelting rain and rumbling erosion, all building to 360-degree helicopter views unavailable from shore.
The $7 million "Niagara's Fury" is the star attraction of a $38 million renovation of Niagara Falls' Table Rock complex of restaurants and shops that ushers visitors to the water's edge.
"In Fury, we wanted the wind to blow, the rain to fall, the sky to open and the earth itself to move inside this building," said Mike Konzen of PGAV Destination Consulting, hired by the parks commission in 2002 to find ways to more fully reap the benefits of the 6 million yearly visitors to the Canadian Falls.
The large-scale upgrade at Table Rock, the first in 20 years, was considered a must by parks officials struggling to draw visitors against a bad-news backdrop of high gas prices, travel-dampening border regulations and a strong Canadian dollar that deflates U.S. wallets upon arrival.
A June report by the Tourism Industry Association of Canada warned the Canadian tourism industry "is on the precipice of an unprecedented decline." It cited a need for improved access to the country as well as compelling reasons to come.
The PGAV consultants recommended the parks commission "interpret the falls in a much more interactive way, by providing highly marketable, state-of-the-art experiences," Niagara Parks Commission Chairman Jim Williams said.
The two-part Fury experience starts off with an eight-minute animated film in which a cartoon beaver named Chip learns the geological history of Niagara Falls. It begins with a trip to the Ice Age that includes a hockey game between teams of woolly mammoths (this is the Canadian side of the falls, remember).
Visitors then move into the main theater, taking their place at individual safety rails mounted on the grated metal platform. There, the same history lesson unfolds but without the animation or narration. The six-minute show begins with a sudden 30-degree drop in temperature and a windblown snowfall. (The "snowflakes" look and melt like the real thing, but they're actually soap.)
Then come rain and strobes of lightning, low rumbling and shifting underfoot, which elicited much screaming from an audience of youngsters at one recent viewing, all while a seamless projection screen encircling the room fills with high-definition images of whitewater and other nature views. Some 30,000 gallons of water cascade from the bottom of the screen into a pool under the platform as fog and mist fill the room.
"Exciting, fun but scary at the same time," is how 10-year-old Ciara Pember, droplets of water still clinging to her nose, summed it up.
The family-friendly Fury, unlike anything offered on the American side of the international falls, "will create a lot of buzz and will provide a real economic boost to the Niagara region," predicted Ontario Tourism Minister Peter Fonseca.
Creators visited dozens of theme parks around the world researching technologies and experiences available to discerning tourists. The dizzying research took them to Japan, China, Korea, the Philippines, Europe, the Middle East and all over North America.
"Everything from small family amusement facilities in Bavaria to the latest rides in Orlando," said Joel Noden, the parks commission's marketing and business development chief. "Just to find out what was out there, what we could do, what we could do different because we didn't want to do something the same. We didn't want somebody to say, well that's like going to Spider-Man (at Universal in Orlando) or the zip line ride in Munich."
Two California studios, Blur and Technifex, were hired to create and engineer the special effects. The project took about a year to complete.
"NPC is a client that was not afraid of new technology," Rock Hall of Technifex said. "They were willing to stick their necks out and try new things."
• NIAGARA'S FURY: Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada, www.niagarasfury.com. High-tech attraction telling the story of the creation of the famous falls. Centerpiece of renovated Table Rock observation site. Adults, $15; children 6 and up, $9. Children under 5 are free. Open daily 9 a.m.-9 p.m. The attraction can accommodate 102 people at a time and runs every 10 minutes.