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NIAGARA FALLS – Niagara Falls’ most iconic tourist attraction is gearing up for a new season that will be unlike any it’s seen in the past.

For the first time in the Maid of the Mist’s history, it will share the falls with another operator.

The Maid of the Mist Corp. launched two 600-passenger boats Tuesday morning from its new $32 million winter dry-dock and maintenance facility in the Niagara Gorge.

The company will provide boat rides under the falls only from the American side of the border, at Niagara Falls State Park, having lost the rights to provide the rides from the Canadian side to Hornblower Niagara Cruises as of this year. The Maid of the Mist has not announced an opening date for the attraction, but an announcement is expected later this week.

This season marks 43 years since the Glynn family bought the company, which was founded in 1892.

It will be the first year the company’s had to face competition from another operator on the Ontario side.

Watching as the second of two 250,000-pound boats was picked up by an 85-foot-high crane and placed in the lower Niagara River, Christopher M. Glynn, the company’s president, said he believes the Maid of the Mist has the reputation and experience to succeed.

“People value the Maid. We see now how much people value the Maid. Not everybody did, but over here it mattered and they did, and we appreciate that we’re here. We’ve done a lot of work … and so we’re glad to be here,” Glynn said. “We think that the opportunity for Niagara Falls, N.Y., is good. We think that it’s turned the corner. It has quite a distance to go yet, but it certainly has turned the corner, and I think there’s tremendous upside in the years ahead.”

The Maid of the Mist has no plans to alter what has been its typical daily schedule, even though its competition across the border has promised to start trips earlier in the morning and run cruises later in the evening than the Mist traditionally has. In addition to its two newly built 700-passenger catamarans, Hornblower will also have a third vessel for private charters and special events that can accommodate up to 149 passengers.

During the peak of the tourist season in the past, the Maid of the Mist offered roughly 22 trips per vessel every day. It expects volume to stay in that neighborhood, Glynn said.

This will also be the first year Maid of the Mist will offer customers the chance to buy tickets online.

Seven of the Maid of the Mist’s eight boat captains stayed with the company as it moved to the American side, bringing a combined experience of 111 years of service and roughly 400,000 combined trips, company representatives said.

The two boats launched Tuesday by the company – the Maid of the Mist VI and the Maid of the Mist VII – were built in 1990 and 1997, respectively.

When it operated on both sides of the border, the company saw about 2.5 million passengers per year, with about 60 percent of trips starting on the Canadian side and 40 percent on the American side.

After losing rights to boat trips on the Canadian side, the Maid of the Mist had to find a new place to store its boats in the winter. After a deal was struck with New York State, the company had to jam a lot of work into a short period of time.

Construction on the winter dry-dock facility – which is where the boats will also be docked nightly and refueled during the tourist season – began last year. Work on the site is largely complete, though renovation of the original power plant elevator and other work will continue at least until mid- to late summer, and possibly into early fall, Glynn said.

Having faced legal battles over historic preservation concerns at the site, where part of the former Schoellkopf Power Station once stood, Glynn said it is “very satisfying” to have reached this point.

“Although we own the company and the stock of the company and the brand name and all of that stuff, we have always run the business as if it was stewardship as much as ownership,” he said. “And I think it’s that outlook that is the reason why we’re still here.”

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How the boats compare

What the Maid of the Mist and Hornblower Niagara Cruises are offering:

Boats: Hornblower has two 700-passenger catamarans plus a 149-passenger vessel. The Maid of the Mist has two 600-passenger boats. Hornblower’s boats have restrooms.

Hours: Hornblower will offer trips that depart from 7:45 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. The earliest trips of the Maid leave at 9:15 a.m. and are scheduled for Memorial Day weekend and starting June 21 through Labor Day. Aside from those times, the earliest trip leaves at 10 a.m.

Trips: The Maid offers its regular, 20-minute cruises. Hornblower is promising a 30-minute ride. Hornblower will also offer trips while the falls are illuminated at night, as well as under fireworks displays and “sunset cocktail cruises.” The smaller boat will be available for private charters and special events.

Tickets: Both companies sell tickets online. Hornblower allows customers to pick the date and time of their boat ride at the time of purchase. A ticket for the Maid is valid for anytime during the season, but you cannot reserve a specific time.

Prices:

Maid of the Mist (U.S., includes tax)

Age 5 and under – free; ages 6-12 – $9.90; 13 and up – $17

Hornblower Niagara

(Canadian, does not include tax)

Ages 4 and under – free; 5-12 – $12.25; 13 and up – $17.95

For Hornblower’s one-hour fireworks/illumination cruises and its sunset cocktail cruises, an adult ticket is $35, while children ages 5-12 are $31.50.

email: abesecker@buffnews.com