Americans love a realistic spectacle, the more realistic the better. So says Umberto Eco in Travels in Hyper Reality, a survey of American theme parks and attractions that argues the premise that for Americans, the real is not real enough, and that enhanced reality (or even enhanced unreality) are sometimes better than the thing itself. One could certainly make that case with the theme park called Niagara Falls, which I was fortunate enough to visit recently at night, when Niagara transitions from mere natural wonder into a 20th century spectacular worthy of Las Vegas.
Niagara Falls itself is a pretty spectacular thing. All those tons of water pouring past you into the churning river below impart a thrill of fear and awe that no man-made structure could surpass. It’s hair-raising to stand at the railing at cliff’s edge watching the mists rise above the roaring power of the river. I mean that literally, in this case – the closer one gets to the falls, the more one’s hair is propelled straight up, not by wind per se but by the oddly uplifting quality of the air itself.
Not surprisingly, people have been attracted to the Falls for as long as there have been people. Native Americans made practical use of them and surely admired them too, but it took the European-Americans to really exploit them, both industrially for power and, less definably, as a commercial attraction that didn’t need to be created or maintained. For over 150 years, the Falls have drawn tourists, painters, and newlyweds eager to witness this natural marvel. A tourist industry sprang up to support these visitors, and for many years, the visitors came just to see the Falls. But over time, the natural features of Niagara ceased to be quite enough. It was then that the enhancements started to creep in.
Although there is plenty of amusement during the day – the Maid of the Mist boat ride, the Cavern of the Winds under the falls, and the new, scary jetboat ride – the real visual spectacle starts around sunset. Here, the natural meets the technological in ways that don’t enhance the real so much as suffuse it with unreality. Standing on the observation deck at the edge of Goat Island, visitors can watch the Falls against a backdrop of brightly lit towers and hotels that form the skyline on the Canadian side. Everything is lit with multicolored lights that shift and change to supply new colorways for the drama below. Off to the side, a giant ferris wheel illuminates and spins, and above it all, the real sky – massive and pearly blue – joins the show with a sunset display of purple, orange, and pink clouds slowly shifting in hue and intensity above the amusement park landscape. Or at least they did the night we were there.
As the sky darkens, a huge bank of multicolored spotlights comes on, aimed at the two arms of the falls surrounding Goat Island. Slowly they shift from red to green and purple to gold. Although the rainbow effect is muted by the ever-present mist, it’s a worthy effort, and we were amused for a while watching the colors change on the falls, the buildings, the space needle observation tower across the river. Then we happened to glance up. What was that strange sickle-shaped light behind the casino, floating golden in the sky? Could it be – the moon? The real and actual moon? And of course, it was.
At this point, the aura of hyper-reality was fairly breathtaking. There were stood, a small band of mostly foreign tourists, gaping out into the void at this miraculous landscape that filled one’s visual field to the point of overflow. And then, just as the last of the sea gulls flapped off to whatever quiet island they call home, the first tell-tale whoosh was heard. The fireworks had begun, launched from a barge far below us in the river, such that they exploded in all their sparkling splendor right before our eyes. This was the coup de grace of the evening, an uptoppable finale to what had already been an incredible show.
Needless to say, we enjoyed it all immensely. It’s hard to witness an attraction enacted on this scale and not be sucked in, much like the magnetic effect of the Falls themselves, which seem to pull the viewer closer and closer despite the sense of danger that causes one to grip the handrail and lean back, not forward, to look.
After the fireworks, I expected the park to empty, since the show was clearly over, but no. Despite the late hour, people lingered and so did we. We scattered out to other observation decks, along dark pathways, up and down stairs, over bridges, to see again from different vantage points the one thing that couldn’t be simulated and needed no enhancement – the Falls themselves, plunging ceaselessly over the cliffs as they have done for thousands of years.
Had the Niagara Falls of today existed 40 years ago when Eco was writing his essay, I feel sure he would have included them. He would have appreciated the whole scene – the commercialization of the natural, the enhancement of the wondrous, and the sheer surreality of this odd attraction. But Eco was wrong in one regard. As much as we all enjoyed the lightshows and explosions, they weren’t what held our interest. The real fascination was the Falls and the sense of the ineffable that they impart, which goes beyond spectacle and resists all efforts at translation. The Niagara Falls simply are, and so were we as we stood there in the thrall of a hyper-reality not made by hands.
Top photo by Christopher Grotke. Lower photo by Leo LePage.