Toddler-Friendly Roadtrip: Ontario's Niagara Region
As kids growing up in Canada, my husband and I both visited Niagara Falls, Ontario. We remembered it as a busy tourist site with tons of cheesy attractions surrounding the beautiful, powerful falls themselves (think cheap arcades and Louis Tussaud's Wax Museum).
On a recent road trip to Toronto from New York City, we made a spontaneous decision upon crossing the border to show our two-year-old daughter the Falls. As we made our way along the riverside Niagara Parkway (a 15 minute drive to the Falls), we were pleasantly surprised by the lush, picturesque drive, along with several outdoor stopping points perfect for our toddler to run around and explore.
Niagara ended up being a peaceful, nature-filled location to spend a few hours on our road trip. And although all of our family members have Nexus passes (meaning we are pre-screened by the US and Canadian security agencies and thus can expedite all border crossings), for families who will wait in long US/Canada border lines, Niagara ON is a great place to burn off your toddler's pent-up energy before continuing on your road trip.
Ours was a spur-of-the-moment pit stop that surprised and delighted us all. We only scratched the surface of the outdoor nature sights that we could have visited. With more planning, the Niagara region could be a lovely weekend destination in its own right (especially if you include Niagara-on-the Lake's vineyards, with great restaurants).
Toddler-Friendly Stop #1: Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens
The Gardens have over 99 acres to explore, and the sections we visited had a very English garden feel - very manicured and landscaped. The gardens were incredibly peaceful, with plenty of wide open spaces for our little one to run free.
Coming from Brooklyn, where its Botanic Garden tightly regulates where you can walk and eat on-site, I appreciated the absolute freedom we had to move about and enjoy the gardens as we pleased.
We also loved that admission to the gardens is free! There is a Butterfly Conservatory on site, with over 2000 butterflies of 45 different species, which we did not visit on this trip. Admission to the Butterfly Conservatory is $15 per adult, kids 5 and under are free.
Parking at the Niagara Parks Botanical Garden & Butterfly Conservatory is $5 for lot parking, or $3/hr for metered parking to the left of the entrance. There is a cafe on site as well, which we did not visit.
Toddler-Friendly Stop #2: Niagara Falls
From the Botanical Gardens, we continued driving along the Niagara Parkway into town to visit the Falls.
With a toddler, viewing the Niagara Falls will probably be a 15-20 minute excursion. Though there are many adrenaline-filled ways to experience the Falls - including a cruise that takes you into the Falls; a walk behind the Falls; a boardwalk alongside rushing rapids; an aero car and a zip line - with a toddler you'll be best to view the Falls from the promenade alongside Niagara Parkway. The promenade is walled, so you can hold your toddler while they stare at the Falls; go for a short stroll; and do the requisite photo opportunity before moving on. Our daughter loved looking at the Falls and pointing to the Maid on the Mist steering close to the waterfalls.
There are barriers between the road and the walking path, and even on a Saturday morning in summer, there was plenty of space to maneuver the stroller (and to let our daughter run safely along the path).
Despite the distance between the Falls and the promenade, there is spray. So if it's a cool day, be sure to take a jacket and hat for your little one. On a sunny day, you'll want to take a sunhat and sunscreen, since there is really no shade cover - though the spray will feel delightful!
Do note that parking is difficult to come by, and expensive - lots fill up quickly and charge between $25-40/day. We found no hourly parking around the falls, except for a few meters around the police station, which were all taken.
Therefore, if you're coming for a day trip, it's best to park and ride, making use of the city's WEGO buses, a hop-on, hop-off visitor transportation system that connects all Niagara Parks locations. The buses looked new and clean; came frequently and appeared underutilized. Plus I've never met a toddler who didn't love taking the bus - making it a fun excursion in its own right for your kids.
The WEGO buses are $8 per adult for 24 hrs, and free for kids ages 5 and under. There are several bus stops, including one at the Botanical Gardens, and a few bus stops where parking is free (see Niagara Park's website for more info - https://www.niagaraparks.com/visit-niagara-parks/plan-your-visit/getting-around/)
Toddler-Friendly Stop #3: Queenston Heights Park, Niagara-on-the-Lake
Heading back out of town the way we came, Queenston Heights Park is leafy and picturesque, with a splash pad and playground; a picnic pavilion; a seasonal snack bar and upscale restaurant; nature trails and more.
We spotted the playground from the road - and upon closer inspection found a play structure that would be suitable for early walkers through to school-age children. The playground was sparsely populated, giving little ones plenty of space to toddle without fear of being trampled. Slides and play elements can be accessed via stairs and ladders for the older kids, or a ramp for the younger ones.
The splash pad is a wading pool with one giant mushroom in the middle that rains down water. Our two year old still prefers gentler streams, and collecting water from fountains, but if your little one is more of a daredevil, it does provide a way to cool off on a hot day, while you sit and watch on a shaded bench.
Parking is free at Queenston Heights Park, making it a great place to park and ride the WEGO to the Botanic Garden, Butterfly Conservatory, and the Falls themselves.
Though we continued on to our destination after a couple short hours in Niagara Falls, Ontario, a short 15 minute drive from Queenston Heights Park takes you to Niagara-on-the-Lake, a quaint town with cute shops, nice restaurants, beautiful homes, surrounding wineries, and - as it's name implies - a lake. The area is a great place to relax, explore and be outdoors, whether for a few hours or a weekend.
Been to Ontario's Niagara region with a baby or toddler? Share your recommendations below.