If you have several children like I do, you’re probably on the lookout for low-cost or free activities to do with the family. My two youngest and I recently spent a wintry afternoon exploring a couple Niagara County attractions. We did this without spending a dime, if you don’t count the gift shop!
Our first stop was the Castellani Art Museum on the campus of Niagara University in Lewiston, 4 ½ miles north of Niagara Falls. The Museum, which opened in 1990, was founded by art collector, the late Armand Castellani, founder of Tops Markets, and his wife Eleanor.
The museum’s permanent and special exhibits are displayed in seven galleries that branch off from a massive central exhibit hall. When looking at Armand and Eleanor: a Lifetime of Collecting, which runs through March 15, my four-year old son was fascinated with a work called Wasco, a mixed media piece made up of old supermarket signs, metal cylinders and other found objects.
My eleven year-old daughter enjoyed the Lesley Dill exhibit, which features three-dimensional sculptures created with fine-gauge wire, horsehair and thread. One sculpture, Wire Poem Wall of Words, has phrases from Dill’s favorite Emily Dickinson poems. My kids enjoyed the hands-on craft, where they could cut out words from the exhibit brochure, string them together in a poem and tape them on the gallery wall.
We also liked Freedom Crossing: The Underground Railroad in Greater Niagara, which includes historical documents, photos and information about the regions role on the Underground Railroad. Two videos explained more about this secret network of people who assisted those escaping slavery in the United States in the mid 1800’s.
The museum’s gift shop had a nice selection of items, including inexpensive toys. There is also a café, but they just have coffee and packaged snacks. If you are looking for something more substantial, there are numerous restaurants in the nearby village of Lewiston.
Our second stop was the New York Power Authority Niagara Power Vista. As soon as we walked in the door, the kids were intrigued by the live camera of the Niagara Gorge. Dave, one of the guides, helped them focus the camera on some fishermen on the river. We saw them reel a pretty big one into their boat!
The main portion of the building is located right on the rim of the gorge. Take a look at the view; you can see the power plants on both sides of the gorge, as well as the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge.
I turned the kids loose to enjoy all sorts of interactive exhibits that demonstrate how electricity works. They were even able to have a “hair-raising” experience, when the staff demonstrated the Van de Graf generator, which creates static electricity. A huge topographical map gives you a birds-eye view of the Niagara Falls region and an audio tape explains how the process of hydro power works.
Downstairs, you’ll find exhibits on the geology and formation of the gorge, information about the earliest inhabitants to the region, and a 15 minute video about the construction of the power plant. A recently restored 20 foot wide mural by Thomas Hart Benton depicts Father Louis Hennepin viewing the falls, one of the first Europeans to do so.
However, the exhibit my kids liked the best was the electronic postcard. They picked one of four backgrounds of the Power Vista, stood in front of a blue screen, posed and the resulting image layered the two, so they appeared as one photograph. Best of all, you can e-mail the image to the folks back home.
If you go
Castellani Art Museum (716-286-8200; www.niagara.edu/cam) Route 104, on the campus of Niagara University, Lewiston. Open Tues.-Sat.11-5, Sun. 1-5. Admission is free. The Museum also offers Art Express, a family workshop on Saturdays at 2pm, which involves viewing a work of art, reading about it and doing an art activity. Advance registration is required and a fee is charged.
New York Power Authority Niagara Power Vista, (716-286-6661 or 1-866-NYPA-FUN; www.nypa.gov) 5777 Lewiston Rd., Lewiston. Open daily 9-5. Admission is free. The Power Authority often sponsors special family-oriented programs on select Saturdays throughout the year.
Other nearby freebies
Niagara Falls –Viewing the falls is always free, however, you will have to pay to park.
Our Lady of Fatima Shrine (716-754-7489; www.fatimashrine.com) 1023 Swann Rd., Lewiston. Daily 9-5, free admission. While this is more of a warm weather attraction, the dome-shaped basilica is open year round, along with a large religious gift shop
Smokin’ Joes (716-297-0251; www.smokinjoe.com) 2293 Saunders Settlement Rd., Sanborn. (On the Tuscarora Indian Reservation) Open 9 a.m.-10 p.m. This is a unique shopping experience and a good place to fill up the gas tank tax-free for the trip back to Rochester. They carry an assortment of clothing, jewelry, cigarettes, and groceries. They have a large café, as well as the Joseph Jacobs Museum of Native American Art, which has free admission.
From Rochester, you can take one of two routes. You can travel scenic Route 104 west from Rochester. Once you are past the village of Lewiston heading towards Niagara Falls, look for the overhead walkway of the New York Power Authority. Turn left immediately after the walkway. The parking lot for the Power Vista is to your left, the entrance to the Niagara University Campus/Castellani Art Museum is to the right. If you prefer the Thruway, Take the I-90 west to the I-290 west (just past Williamsville toll barriers) to I-190 North, across Grand Island. Continue past Niagara Falls to exit 25A (Lewiston) Turn left onto Route 265 and go to the end. Turn left onto Route 104 towards Niagara Falls and follow the directions above.