Hornblower launches Niagara cruises May 15

May 5, 2014 Updated May 5, 2014 at 8:53 AM EDT

By James Fink, Buffalo Business First

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Hornblower launches Niagara cruises May 15

May 5, 2014 Updated May 5, 2014 at 8:53 AM EDT

Years of planning and marketing for Hornblower Cruises will take hold in less than two weeks with its three Niagara Falls tour boats officially hit the lower Niagara River and begin carrying poncho-wearing tourists to the base of the waterfalls.

Terry MacRae, Hornblower Cruises & Events Inc. CEO, confirmed the maiden Hornblower Niagara Cruises will begin on May 15 from the Canadian shores. That date was finalized once the ice boom was removed from Lake Erie and the thick chunks of ice have started breaking up.

Hornblower's startup date is about one month behind what MacRae had hoped, but he acknowledged for all the planning and prep work that went into Hornblower's debut in Southern Ontario, Mother Nature had the final say. This winter was one of the harshest in recent memory.

"I wish we could have launched on April 15, but the weather just didn't cooperate," MacRae said.

San Francisco-based Hornblower won the tour boat operations pact from the Niagara Parks Commission, ending a run by the Maid of the Mist Steamboat Co. that went back to the 1800s. The Maid of the Mist continues to run its tour boats from the American side of the falls and is just finishing a $30 million project that will see new docks and storage facilities built at its home base. The Maid of the Mist boats are expected to begin their seasonal run by mid-month.

MacRae said his company invested more than $20 million setting up its Niagara Falls operations that includes a trio of specially-designed catarmarans. The work includes new ticketing pavilions along Hornblower's River Road visitor entrance and a set of two-tiered docks and visitor experience pavilion just as patrons get on the boats. Hornblower will operate a pair of 700-passenger catarmarans and a 150-person catamaran.

Bookings are strong. The first on-line booking came from an Italian visitor bound for Niagara Falls this summer.

Hornblower has added several twists to its tour offerings. It has an early morning voyage that leaves the docks just after 8 a.m. Conversely, the company has crafted a "Sunset Cocktail Cruise" that leaves just after 8 p.m. and another that leaves at 9:30 p.m. and showcases the nightly illumination of the falls and the thrice-weekly fireworks display. Fireworks are being held on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday nights with 80 fireworks dates set, up from the 36 that were held in 2013.

MacRae said he is looking forward to getting the boats in the water and seeing them filled with red-ponchoed customers.

"We are on a learning curve," MacRae said. "There are things we will learn along the way that will help us."

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