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New tour company taking over Niagara Falls boat rides

A change in contracts ends the reign of the Canadian Maid of the Mist boats that having been shuttling visitors around Niagara Falls since 1846. Msnbc.com's Dara Brown reports.

The tour company chosen to take over the famous boat rides at the base of Niagara Falls said Thursday it plans to build customized new boats and upgrade amenities while maintaining the things that have made the attraction a must-do for tourists for more than 100 years.

"We're not looking to change the basic experience. We're looking to improve and enhance it," said Tegan Firth, spokeswoman for Hornblower Canada Co., a day after the company was awarded the rights to operate the tours offered by the Maid of the Mist Steamboat Co. The 30-year contract takes effect in 2014.

San Francisco-based Hornblower Cruises and Events already operates the ferries to Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay and the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. Pursuing the Niagara Falls contract in the first-ever open bidding process "was a great opportunity to be part of something very special," Firth said. "It's certainly iconic and we've enjoyed working with other iconic locations in the United States."

A household name for generations of tourists, Maid of the Mist Co. has run boats at the base of Niagara Falls since 1846 — before Abraham Lincoln was elected president. The boats sail through the turbulent waters near the powerful falls, drenching the poncho-clad passengers on board.

Maid of the Mist said in a statement that having lost its bid to renew its Canadian-side lease with the Parks Commission, "our business, with a 165-year history of service to tourists from around the world, may soon come to an end."

"We are carefully assessing our position," company President Christopher Glynn said in the statement.

"Maid of the Mist" boat tours currently depart from both the Canadian and U.S. sides of the falls, and the company still holds the Parks Commission contract to run the tours from the U.S. side. It stores its boats at the more spacious Canadian dock.

"At this present time, we cannot comment on the effect this decision will have on the New York State side of Niagara Falls," a statement from the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp. said. "Our congratulations to Hornblower Cruises and we wish them much success."

Sen. Charles Schumer urged the Canadian Niagara Parks Commission and Hornblower to work out an agreement that would allow the Maid of the Mist access to the infrastructure it needs to continue tours from the American side of the Falls.

"We absolutely want to talk to the Glynns, talk to New York parks," responded Firth, saying there are many issues to be discussed.

Meanwhile, Hornblower is moving forward with plans to build two 599-passenger boats with enhanced viewing platforms, on-board concessions and "dry zones" offering protection from the soaking mist.

It also plans to redesign the plaza and boarding area to add interactive interpretive features. Visitors will still don the familiar plastic ponchos for the trip that takes them to within 300 feet of the walls of water crashing down from 170 feet above.

Hornblower was among six bidders for the contract, which guarantees the Niagara Parks Commission at least $67 million in revenue in the first five years.

Information from the Associated Press and Reuters was included in this report.

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