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NIAGARA FALLS, Ont. – Visitors who want a boat ride beneath Niagara Falls this year will be able to take it later in the evening, under fireworks and have a “sunset cocktail,” all in new boats – if they leave from the Canadian side.

Hornblower Niagara Cruises is gearing up to take over for the Maid of the Mist Co. on the Ontario side of the border, with boats expected to head into the water in April, or as early as they can, depending on ice conditions in the Niagara River.

Monday, Hornblower offered a sneak preview of what a trip under the falls, Hornblower-style, will be like for tourists this summer.

“Our whole focus is how to provide a great visitor experience in the Niagara Gorge,” said Hornblower Cruises CEO Terry MacRae. “Obviously, it’s one of the great wonders of the world. It’s powerful, it’s majestic, it’s amazing in so many ways, and so the ability to get the visitors up close and personal with the falls is a great, great concept.”

Maid of the Mist officials Monday were keeping quiet about what the company has planned for this year’s operations.

But with Hornblower upping the ante with its new amenities, there’s sure to be some competition this summer as the two sides vie to offer the best falls experience to tourists.

Nearly two years ago, Hornblower Cruises, a San Francisco-based company, won the rights to offer boat tours beginning this year on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls.

The Maid of the Mist Co., which had operated tours on both sides without interruption since 1885, will still operate tours from the American side.

Hornblower, which plans to have 150 employees for its Falls site, operates boat rides at the Statue of Liberty in New York City; at various sites in California, including Alcatraz Island; and in Corpus Christi, Texas.

The regular boat trips that have been offered for more than 100 years on the Canadian side will continue, but the experience is sure to be far different than what the Maid of the Mist Co. typically offered.

Dubbed “Voyage to the Falls,” Hornblower’s daily schedule for regular 15-minute trips will start earlier, with the first vessel leaving at 7:45 a.m., said Lee Carr, director of sales and marketing.

The earlier departure times are expected to appeal to Asian tourists visiting the area, Carr said.

In the evening, the last boats will leave around 9:30 or 9:45, on what will be known as illumination cruises, to view the falls lit in colored lights. On nights with fireworks put on by the Niagara Parks Commission, the rides will be called fireworks cruises.

Hornblower will also offer “sunset cocktail” cruises, marketed to couples.

The illumination, fireworks and cocktail cruises will be 30 minutes long. Talks are underway about increasing the number of nights fireworks displays will be shown, MacRae said.

For an adult ticket on a regular cruise, Hornblower will charge $19.95, plus the government’s 13 percent sales tax. Tickets for children will be $12.25 plus tax.

An adult ticket for one of the other, longer cruises is $35 plus tax, with a child ticket costing $31.50 plus tax.

Tickets for boat rides can be purchased in advance, and the buyer will be able to pick the date and time of the trip.

This year’s prices for rides on Maid of the Mist boats, as listed on the company’s website, are about $3 cheaper for the regular rides. The Maid of the Mist will also offer online purchases, but it is not clear whether visitors will be able to choose the date and time of their trip.

Hornblower is also sprucing up the entrance to the attraction at the top of the gorge. “Hornblower Plaza” is expected to feature canopied kiosks where tourists will be able to buy tickets and souvenirs. Most would continue to use the elevator to get down to the gorge, but group tours, which MacRae said are expected to account for about 25 percent of visitation, would be provided with shuttle service directly to the boats.

“They’re accustomed to sometimes waiting 60 to 90 minutes for what has traditionally been a 15-minute boat tour experience, and to us, that’s just a travesty,” said Carr. “We want to give that time back to those motor coach groups and their customers.”

Hornblower is also interested in extending the season in which rides are offered to mid- to late November. Formal approval of such an extension has not been issued.

Hornblower’s boats themselves will also be new.

The two-level boats are being built to hold up to 700 passengers and allow those passengers to enter or exit at both levels, which company officials believe will allow boats to be loaded and unloaded more quickly.

And good news for the cocktail sippers aboard: The boats will have restrooms, unlike the Maid of the Mist vessels.

Assembly of the company’s first 700-passenger steel and aluminum catamaran is about 90 percent complete, with the assembly of an identical second vessel expected to begin soon.

Crews have been putting the first 120-ton catamaran together at the base of the gorge, as well as the steel apparatus allowing them to fit the pieces together, since Jan. 2, the day after Hornblower took control of the site.

The boats were initially built by Hike Metal in Wheatley, Ont.

The cost for each: about $5 million.

Hornblower will also have a third boat – one that will hold up to 149 passengers – that will be used for private charters and special events. It will be separate from the boats used by the public, with different routes and schedules.

The third boat was built in Tacoma, Wash., and is docked at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

It was shipped in one piece on the back of a truck, taking about 23 days to arrive, said Brian Stewart, Hornblower’s vice president of development.

Assembling the boats in the gorge has not been easy with the brutal winter weather. The huge pieces have to wind down a steep, twisting road to the bottom of the gorge. A delivery of part of the hull of the second boat was postponed Monday because of the weather.

Down in the gorge, plans call for three boathouses and a pavilion to be built.

In total, with the boats and other work, Hornblower plans to invest $20 million to $25 million in the property, MacRae said.

In the longer term, MacRae said, Hornblower has designs on turning the office and maintenance building at water level into an events center.

Also in the future, Hornblower officials are looking at rehabilitating a funicular – tramlike car operated by cables on rails along a steep incline – as an alternative method to the existing elevator used for getting visitors down into the gorge. The funicular on site hasn’t been used since the mid-1980s, MacRae said.

With the Maid of the Mist losing the rights for tours on the Canadian side, the company also lost its winter docking facilities.

Last year, it built a storage facility on the U.S. side, on the site of the former Schoellkopf Power Station, so it could continue operations and stay in business.

Hornblower, which has a 30-year lease to operate the boat rides on the Ontario side, expects to provide rides to 17 million people at all of its operating sites this year.

At the Falls, the company expects to see the same range of visitors as its predecessor, with 1.6 million to 2 million visitors this year, MacRae said.

“Having this iconic destination is another perfect fit into our portfolio,” he said.

email: abesecker@buffnews.com