Falling for You: Niagara Falls Courts the LGBT Wedding Market
Back in the day, if you had any taste whatsoever, a summertime stay in Niagara Falls was just what you did. It would be so still if it weren’t for the air conditioning.
Pre-Frigidaire, the Yankee side had a lot going for it - the city rests in the perfect summertime "Goldilocks" zone: Not too hot, not too cold. Enticed, glitterati ascended upon this far corner of New York State to escape the heat, and because the marrying month of June heralded the beginning of Bermuda High season (if you don’t know what it is, you’ve never experienced one), overheated lovebirds made it a twofer, escaping to cooler weather after tying the knot and making Niagara Falls "The Honeymoon Capital of America."
Then came Freon. With the advent of AC, Hawaii, the Caribbean and other tropical climates became year-round destinations and Niagara Falls lost popularity. Even as Canadians glitzed their side into a Las Vegas knock-off, the U.S. portion slipped into obscurity.
But fortunes whirled around again in 2011 when New York governor Mario Cuomo signed into law the Marriage Equality Act - something that Hawaii, the Caribbean and just about everywhere else within eyeshot of a palm tree fell short. Seeing opportunity, Niagara Falls made a robust public relations move: Not only can gays and lesbians honeymoon here, they can get things rolling by marrying here.
Says Sally Fedell of The Falls Wedding Chapel, "It definitely gave my business a boost, and these weddings are so much more emotional than heterosexual ones." Fedell saw a 20 percent increase from the LGBT community alone.
It’s a similar experience throughout the city. At the aptly named Romantic Wedding Chapel, the figure is 25 percent. Same-sex marriage specialist Shanie McCowen of Rainbow Bells has joined couples from 13 states and as far away as Australia.
Taking the Plunge
Couples could hardly pick a more dramatic backdrop, a sentiment shared by everyone in town, but particularly by those who take one of the most awesome sights of nature and turn it into one of the most romantic.
"It’s the most beautiful place," McCowen tells me. "There is something magnetic that just draws you to it. It’s just beautiful."
"It’s one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World," adds Laura Lee Morgan of the Romantic Wedding Chapel (and B&B), noting, "The falls produce ions that make everyone feel good, and I think that is a part of the atmosphere it provides."
American or Canadian, going to a Niagara Falls and not actually seeing the Niagara Falls is like traveling to Mars and not stepping out of the rocket. Wrought by Frederick Law Olmsted, the same mind behind New York City’s Central Park, the leafy lanes and sculpted gardens of Niagara Falls State Park are an arboreal buffer between the cataracts and the city. Deliciously green in summer and blazingly scarlet in fall, each section of the park is named after one of the Great Lakes before opening up into the grand vista of the falls. Three cascades compose Niagara Falls, along with one international border and a veritable United Nations of sightseers squeezed in.
The U.S. claims American Falls and aptly named Bridal Veil Falls while Horseshoe Falls is split down the middle with Canada. All three pour into the Gorge, whose deceptively calm-looking waters roar to life yet again in the Niagara Whirlpool until it all finally blisses out in the waters of Lake Ontario. It is little wonder Native Americans envisioned Hino, God of Thunder, living not in the sky but in the falling waters.
But Park Warden Ang Berti is quick to point out that while couples can get married anywhere in the park, above the falls or below them, some vistas are more prudent than others. What makes Niagara a magnet for tourists can be downright detrimental to a wedding.
Options for Your Nuptials
Every second, 150,000 gallons go over the edge of Niagara. The Maid of the Mist boat tour, a sightseeing must, offers an unparalleled view of the spectacle...whereupon it struck me - literally - that if all that water swan dives off the top, so must it crash at the bottom. Clouds of mist sprinkle sightseers at American and Bridal Veil Falls as the Maid skirts by, but at the U-shaped Horseshoe Falls, the waters fall 167 feet straight down into the river.
From a distance, picturesque Horseshoe looks neat and orderly; zero in and it’s awe-inspiring: a deafening, out-of-control flying stampede of water coalescing back into a river. No "sprinkle" here, I got drenched and the rush of water - zipping by at three feet a second - creates a roaring downdraft of 68 mph.
All of which are part of Niagara’s thrill, but for a wedding with gowns, tuxedos, and blow-dry’s, it’s not the best setting. It’s not to say river weddings are verboten, particularly on the jetboat tours, but make sure you are on the U.S. side, or else your officiator will be out of bounds. Not surprisingly, most weddings take place up top, called "the Brink" by locals, by American Falls on Luna Island (where you can see the legendary lunar rainbow on a full moon) or Goat Island.
While Niagara Falls State Park can easily absorb wedding parties on a grand scale, McCowen, Fedell and Morgan agree "cozy" tends to be the rule.
"The majority of are small and intimate," says McCowen. "It’s usually something symbolic to legalize a union that has already been a committed relationship. Most of them are just the couple, or a very intimate, small group of friends and family. We do a cake cutting, a champagne toast, we have a photographer. And anything they want to do while they are here, tours or activities, we’ll help them."
For those eschewing intimacy, however, the sky is the limit. Rainbow Air usually makes its bread and butter with helicopter tours of the falls, but has since become the latest Niagara wedding hotspot (the pilots happily serve as witnesses). For those set on a church wedding, however, the dramatically designed First Unitarian Universalist Church Of Niagara stands at the ready, doors open.
The Wedding Night and Beyond
One of the most obvious signs of Niagara Falls’s revitalization is the Giacomo Hotel, a spire of Art Deco elegance and Mayan Revival exoticism rising opposite the LED-spangled Seneca Niagara Casino a few blocks away. Few spaces are more Cupid-friendly. To enter this hotel is to enter the romanticism of soft-focus Hollywood (Marilyn Monroe herself sauntered down the lobby staircase in the 1953 film "Niagara"). The chrome and classy baroque black-and-silver velvet wallpaper combine with exposed pipes and ductwork from the building’s manufacturing past to create a cool, industrial feel reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s "Metropolis"... or Madonna’s "Express Yourself" video.
Not far from the Giacomo are other signs Niagara Falls is a city on the rise; I was just one of 8 million sightseers jamming the city this year. I hit the iconic Red Coach Inn, a riverside wood-and-daub manor with AAA Three Diamond cuisine. Its formality is a nice complement to the über-chicness of nearby Wine on Third. The hand-made chocolates at the sparklingly new Niagara Falls Culinary Institute give Switzerland stiff competition.
And then there is the Niagara Wine Trail. Ice wines and Rieslings thrive here and a diverse chain of 16 artisanal vineyards string themselves among fairylands of espaliered vines and wide-open spaces just outside of town. Many, like the Arrowhead Spring Vineyard, are family-run, with barrels neatly stacked in the basements of the family home. Exploring wine-making on a more intimate scale, producers have room for some fun, whipping up vintages unique to the region such as Naked Chardonnay, something that has "wedding night" written all over it.
New Orleans does Mardi Gras, Palm Springs does the White Party - Niagara Falls does weddings. But as for the marriage, that is up to you.
Niagara Falls can be reached by Greyhound and Amtrak, and also via the regional Niagara Falls International Airport, and, 30 minutes away, the Buffalo International Airport. Some attractions, including the Maid of the Mist and Cave of the Winds pathway, close for the winter.
Check out EDGE’s other recent coverage on LGBT wedding destinations:
Portland, Maine Rolls Out the LGBT Welcome Mat