September 09, 2014



In case you missed the first part and belligerently refuse to click that link, I've been outlining two western Pennsylvania road trips taken one year apart and comparing both experiences. Next stop...


I stopped at the world's first oil well, Drake Well, on both of my trips. The well was unchanged, but this year's visit was inferior because after decades of free access they've suddenly started charging ten bucks. (Prior to this, only the museum had a fee.) A family of ten would be better off just buying a barrel of crude oil.

I saw some Shriners in miniature vehicles, just as they should be.

The Titusville McDonald's still has a couple members of the old McDonaldland gang including this Apple Pie Tree.

Heading northeast out of town in a secluded creek there is a massive rock that's painted like a frog. A self-appointed mystery rock painter has maintained it for decades.

But in just a few seconds you are going to be kicking yourself for having spent your time reading about a fiberglass tree and a painted stone because we are about to arrive at the destination of both trips—Niagara Falls, Ontario!!!

Before last year I had visited the Falls just once, on my honeymoon, because I wanted a mid-century cliche at the foundation of my marriage. At that time you didn't need a passport to get over to the superior Canadian view. I waltzed into that foreign land with a tip of my hat as Semisonic played on the car stereo. But these days access to the fairer side is a privilege that must be hard earned, first by going through the rigmarole of obtaining an up-to-date passport, and then by enduring the unruly lines and a way-more-intense-than-it-should-be interrogation at the border.

On my honeymoon visit all of my preconceptions were built on the movie Superman II. So I didn't expect much more than the Falls, some unsupervised children plummeting into the falls, and a bunch of hotels with heart-shaped Jacuzzis. I could not have been less prepared for this...

A street of fun indeed...

Yes, I had stumbled into a true tourist mecca, like a wedding gift from above. A decade and a half later the Clifton Hill funland is thriving with more attractions than ever before. (In order to achieve maximum impact I am mixing photos from both 2013 and '14)

You know you're in an amazing place when the giant King Kong is not even the biggest monster on the street.

The real estate closest to the falls is dominated by the bigger, slicker entities like some MGM complex, a Rainforest Cafe, the massive Canadian Midway arcade, and major fast food chains.

Blacklight mini-golf (as seen in above in Wizard's Golf) seems to have gained some traction about a decade ago across the US. I wish this trend a long and prosperous lifespan.

There are a few leftovers from back in the day, but they've been given facelifts and other businesses have engulfed them. Case in point, the Guinness World Records museum...

Once you venture off the main strip, the second tier attractions are less flashy, but more flavorful...
The exterior of the Rock Legends Wax Museum got me wondering, was their choice of celebrity heads determined by the shapes of scrap wood they had laying around?

This place has become an object of regret for me because I didn't have a chance to go inside. I had my son with me and frankly, I'm just not ready to give him the "Marilyn Manson talk." So I have to hope the place sticks around until my next visit. But I don't think I have much to worry about, check out the uncanny likeness!...

This stretch might be called Motel Row. If not, it should be.

Heart-shaped Jacuzzis! Expectations met.

Let's tour one of the many souvenir pushers, shall we?
These shops are at their best when the inventory is literally spilling out into the sidewalk. I suspect the owners are actually hoping that some of this stuff gets stolen.

Everything is just right.

There's such an abundance of things that I've never seen in anyone's home. I do not spend time with the right people.

Should you find yourself in a souvenir shop with a basement level, ALWAYS get yourself down there. It's often the greatest hodgepodge of older stock. In this case they were remodeling, but even then the two-toned pegboard and colorful cabinets were well worth a trip downstairs and a photo...

A Zoltar machine right on the street! Just like in that Tom Hanks film, Turner & Hooch.

Now look at it real close-like...

Is your vacation making you feel too good about life? How about paying to walk among interactive monuments to some of the worst atrocities mankind has wrought upon itself?

Just a few years ago the front of the building actually had a keystone cops style. Apparently market research suggests that today's audience demands more serial homicide.

My hats off to the Mystery Maze for keeping the age-old spirit of tourist deception alive. The photos don't show it well, but the maze is about one sixth the size of its facade, much of which is actually an adjacent motel painted up to look like it's part of the maze building.

This has everything I like to shoot at: cobras, skulls, and vampire torsos wearing pastel, knitted ponchos. 

Tussaud's was once in the heart of the strip, but has since become an "Off-Broadway" attraction, so to speak. They retained their nice assortment of attention-getters including a rotating sign and a tightrope walker that moves when he is not broken.

This day to night transition is the perfect segue into this next series that I like to call "Clifton Hill by moonlight."

The world's greatest cross-promotion looks even better at night.

You must be wondering about the Dracula sign. Don't worry, we're getting to that.

And now let us turn the spotlight on TripAdvisor's lowest-rated attraction in the entire area, The Guinness World Records Museum. After reading reviews saying it had scarcely been updated since the 1970s I knew who was getting my Canadian currency.

The world's tallest man seems to be Guiness's unofficial mascot. I like that Ripley's also features a statue of him. I like to think of this as an act of defiance. Tourist trap rivalry is an exciting topic for me.
This is their idea of keeping things fresh, using empty PEZ dispensers to illustrate a newish world record. To the left there was a knock-off LEGO set for a Pirates of the Caribbean record, I joke you not.

I knew you wouldn't believe me. Here's a photo...

This is what I came for, hallways adorned with Carter era whimsy. Whoa, you walk under a giant pencil?!

Say, while you're in the mood for entertainment, wouldn't it be fun to see a simulated execution? Actually it costs extra, unless you do as I did and wait around for someone to come along with Canadian coins and a blood lust.

This is pretty great. It's what science fair projects looked like in the Iococca family.

For me the jewel in the Guiness crown was the 1979 Hercules pinball machine from Atari. My photo fails to communicate the scale, but it's quite enormous.

Oh, and this area is home to one of the seven natural wonders of the world. Anyway...

Attraction-wise the spooky to non-spooky ratio is higher than any tourist mecca I know of. Why is this? It may have something to do with the low cost of renting a building, turning off the lights and charging admission. But still, they seem to draw enough customers to stay afloat, and I wouldn't have thought the demand would be so high. Do the Falls remind us of our mortality or something? I guess I shouldn't question it, and just enjoy it. So enjoy this look at the many haunted attractions of Niagara Falls...
Let's begin with the lower budget, yet higher admission Screaming Tunnels. It used to be called Screamers, but the new name capitalizes on a local legend. I didn't partake of this one, and truth be told, I've only been through half of these because as much as I love haunted stuff, for one, these are relatively expensive and second, some are 90% darkness and loud noises.

While the name seems like a shameless rip-off I must give props 'n kudos to Ghost Blasters. It's the most populated of them all, since it's a ride-n-shoot type of thing. Also, for making the letter "O" into the ghost's mouth. Most importantly, I salute them for maintaining traditional spook house imagery with a blacklight presentation. When you count your blessings, make sure one of them is the fact that sheet-ghosts and skeletons are part of the public domain.

Nightmares gets high marks online, but aside from a standard "car headlights scare" it is essentially a pitch-dark maze with one guy following you around. I can recreate this experience at my home any night of the week and I charge half of what they do.

The Haunted House is an unmanned walk-through with classic funhouse scares, limited scenery, and a nice facade.

For me, the best of the haunted Niagara assortment are the Castle Dracula (or, if you're looking at the other sign it's called Dracula's Haunted Castle) and its competition, the House of Frankenstein. They've both been there at least thirty years and they both feature classic twentieth century movie monsters in animatronic form (plus loads of dark nothingness.)

I guarantee they put that "Thriller" part on the building for the 1984 season.

I couldn't resist taking a photo from practically the same angle one year later. Good thing I did because I've documented the building both pre and post Grin's N Giggles novelty shop (seen on the left).

Note the "3 levels of fear:" Medium, Hot, and Hardcore. Someone please invest the thirty bucks and tell me if there's really a difference.

Needs more gargoyle.

Soon after crossing back into the United States this paltry operation dealt a crushing blow to my sense of patriotism...
I've since read that it's more museum than spookhouse. Plus they do have a crow's nest and skeleton on the building, so I may have been too hasty in my judgement.

All too soon it was time to head homeward. I took the same way back on both of my trips, but I made a point to stop at different places. First let's look at 2013...

World's largest wind chime, Casey, Illinois...

You can actually ring it by pulling back on a big thing, which was a nice surprise.

The "world's largest golf tee" is in the same town...

And lastly, the St. Louis Arch...

This year there was less time for lengthy stops, but thankfully I was running low on gas when I happened upon "truck world 'World's Finest'" in Hubbard, Ohio.
The light fixtures and wallpaper in the breezeway were reassuring, and I appreciated the photographic evidence that an official Truck World hot air balloon had both existed and been on the premises at one time. Probably a time when Happy Days was still airing new episodes.

The article "The Worst Game Room Ever" on X-Entertainment has stuck with me for years, and never fails to surface in my mind when I'm on road trips. It perfectly captures that familiar confusion that comes when neglect meets an environment that was intended for fun. It's such a harsh contrast, and yet I find myself halfway attracted to these scenes where I like to soak in the bittersweetness.

Truck World has nothing that qualifies as the "worst ever," but the vacant halls and empty fun zones gave me tinges of this feeling. For example, the name of this little alcove sets up impossible expectations from the get-go...

The presentation is in stark contrast to these four needy, ill-spaced machines and a corner full of disheveled chairs.

In the game room the still, glowing giants wait days on end for a single play. Together they emit a low electric hum, interrupted only by the occasional outburst of demo music from the one working pinball machine; a feeble effort to gain the attention of nobody.

But there were signs of life. Someone had decided to get a haircut that afternoon. And there was a man at a kiosk who made a sale to the only other human in the hall. The transaction involved a remote control helicopter, and the buyer seemed genuinely thrilled.

The  restaurant was a peaceful refuge for a handful of travelers, and Erin's Pub, with an entrance that resembles a funhouse barrel, provided a cool, dark place for afternoon drinkers.

I didn't want to leave.

But I did, and soon my weary eyes beheld this beacon of the road...
A Suckey's WITH a Godfather's Pizza!

The Stuckey's-ness was weak at this location, but they did have the one thing that ensures that it's the real deal...

In Rolla, Missourri the clouds rolled in just in time for our stop at the half scale partial reconstruction of Stonehenge. It was built in 1984 and "is reportedly accurate to within 15 seconds, when used as a clock."

Rolla is also good for places like this...

Lastly, we decided to explore a relatively new addition to this stretch of former Route 66, Redmon's candy factory, gas station, Branson ticket outlet, and world's largest gift store. 

For me, the boy mascot with the mannish nose was already a strike against it, but I must admit that I was quickly won over. Not because of the services, or product selection, or aesthetics, but because of the overall atmosphere. On a scorcher of a day, the place was cool and bustling with people, and they somehow seemed pleased, and excited.

Crowds were gleefully grabbing candy by the handful. I had to wait awhile for folks to momentarily clear so I could snap this photo...

I think they oversell the whole "Candy Factory" thing, as it's more like a glassed-off room where some candy is made, but nobody was complaining.

I don't know why I got such a surprisingly good vibe that afternoon, maybe it was just me, but it reminded me of what a roadside oasis on a family vacation can be.

The thing that impressed me about the Gift Store was how far back I had to walk to fit the whole thing in my camera's viewfinder.

It's one of those places where I'm amazed that there can be so much, and yet nothing that I want.

Well, of course I wouldn't turn down an over-sized sock monkey if someone were giving it away.

And while I've never worn one, I do admire these shirts. Why has it taken this long for this to happen? Domestic pets and printed textiles have been with us for centuries, and only now have these ingredients formed this recipe?

That's the thing about places like this, they don't even tell you there's an "I Love Lucy" car in the back, but there is one. The phrase "embarrassment of riches" seems appropriate. As it turned out Lucy's Cadillac was the last photo-worthy diversion on the journey home.




THE VERDICT: It's so obvious that I yielded a better crop of mementos last year. It had more diversity (this year was rife with magnets and trading cards from the Steel City convention), plus it covered so many of the classic souvenir categories: Pennant, Shot Glass, Ceramic, Fool's Gold, and Squished Penny.



Brian Barnes said...

Great travelogue, Kirk, with a strangely abrupt ending!

I visited the falls over 2 decades ago, and I don't remember it looking this kitsch -- and remember, to me (and obviously you), kitsch = fun. It's as if you stuck a trailer park and Vegas into the same teleporter pod from the fly ...

I do think I went through Ripley's, but it was so unmemorable that I'm not sure if that's true or not! I'll just assume your pictures are my memory.

Secure job? Fake stone facade construction in Niagara Falls!

Tom said...

We pass Redmon's on 44 at least once or twice each summer. His nose always bothers me too. From 44 west looking at the building, there's a vent pipe coming out of the roof that makes it look like something is dripping out of his nose.

Oh, and great travelogue!

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for posting this blog entry! Although anything vintage haunt related instantly grabs my heart, I think the story of the half-priced Star Wars knock-off gun wins the prize for most likely to make me feel 8 years old again! The nostalgia meter is off the charts for this one! :)

Christopher Smith said...

Those close encounters cards are a big win. I've stopped at that candy factory many times. Last October I purchased a decent pair of monster foot slippers from the worlds largest gift shop.

Kirk D. said...

Brian- Thanks! And I think it's built up a lot in the past couple decades. I was looking at video from 16 yrs ago and the wacky-ness is now more pronounced and extreme.

And isn't that how most trips go, with an all-too-abrupt end? :)

Tom- I saw that exact pipe! Yes, the nose makes him look like a man dressed like a little boy.

Anonymous- Glad to hear it, thanks!

Christopher- This is something you should have shared with me a long time ago. We will have to compare notes.