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DISNEY ENTERING MAID OF THE MIST FRAY AS CONTRACT COMPETITION GROWS FIERCE: Thirteen companies seeking lucrative Canadian concession

ANALYSIS By Mike Hudson and Frank Parlato Jr.

The list of 13 bidders now standing in line to take over the concession to operate sightseeing boats below Niagara Falls from public docks on the Ontario side of the river reads like a who's who of international tourism superstars.

And two independent sources with direct knowledge of the bidding process told the Niagara Falls Reporter last week that Disney Cruise Lines, a subsidiary of one of the richest and most renowned entertainment companies on earth, is the early favorite in a field containing any number of household names.

Three different Disney press spokespeople told the Reporter that company policy forbids discussion of deals that have yet to be consummated, and the Ontario provincial government has refused to provide the names of any of the potential bidders to the public. But Disney representatives will be among those to conduct an inspection of the Canadian dock site next month, the independent sources confirmed.

The Walt Disney Company has based its wide appeal on family-friendly entertainment that has included classic films, television programs, fabulous theme park resorts and, more recently, Disney Cruise Lines, which owns and operates a private Caribbean island and offers destinations from Alaska to the Mexican Riviera and Europe.

Since 1971, the Niagara Falls tour boat concession has been run by the Maid of the Mist Co., a local, privately held corporation founded by James Glynn, who has received a series of secret and highly lucrative no-bid contracts from both the Ontario and New York governments that have allowed him to continue unmolested. Glynn's tour is rather primitive, conducted in older steel boats without air conditioning or heat.

Glynn provides only one tour: a 15-minute, packed-like-sardines standing-room affair during limited daytime hours, which makes a brief run along the American Falls and slightly into the heavy mist of the Horseshoe Falls. Because the Maid of the Mist is "grandfathered" in, Glynn does not have to meet newer Coast Guard standards as to seating capacity. In fact, there are no seats, nor handicapped access to bathrooms. In fact, none of the boats in Glynn's tiny fleet even have bathrooms.

And those wanting an up-close and personal look at the colossal cataracts must wait in line, often for two hours and more, to buy their $14.50 tickets, since Glynn has steadfastly refused to sell ducats over newfangled inventions like the telephone and the computer.

Outrage erupted in the Canadian provincial Parliament following publication of the secret contracts by the Reporter in 2008. Ultimately, the scandal prompted the Ontario minister of tourism to order the Niagara Parks Commission to put the Maid boat-tour lease out to bid.

No such outrage has occurred has occurred on this side of the river, where Glynn and his company routinely pad the pockets of our less-than-honorable political class. Even in New York, no-bid multimillion-dollar contracts have largely gone the way of smoking cigarettes in saloons, but Glynn's peculiar political proficiency has allowed his to remain the exception. The colossal cheesiness of Glynn's operation stands in stark contrast to state-of-the-art boat tours offered elsewhere. If you've ever sailed on board one of the Circle Line cruises around Manhattan, or gone to the Statue of Liberty or Alcatraz Island aboard one of the vessels operated by Hornblower Yachts, the differences are quickly apparent.

The Alcatraz Island cruise, for example, can last anywhere from two to four hours, complete with a gourmet buffet and cash bar. The Hornblower fleet consists of 29 vessels of various sizes, offering accommodations for between 50 and 2,000 guests. Evening dinner cruises and a host of special events cruises on Mother's Day, Easter and other occasions are offered in addition to the standard transport fare.

The three-hour Circle Line tours of Manhattan are likewise far more appealing than what is offered here, and include a catering menu, beverage service and amenities other than blue plastic rain ponchos made to resemble garbage bags. The Hornblower and Circle Line offerings are of interest, because both companies are also on the list of bidders for the Ontario concession, which also includes the largest hospitality cruise company in Canada, Mariposa Cruises, and Ripley Entertainment, the world-famous company owned by Canadian billionaire Jim Pattison, who owns 31 radio and TV stations in Canada.

Ripley's has had a rich presence in Niagara Falls, Ont., since the early 1960s and recently constructed the $130 million Great Wolf Lodge. Internationally, the company owns the Ripley's Believe It or Not museums, various aquariums, Haunted Adventures, mini-golf and arcades, movie theaters, sight-seeing trains, Louis Tussaud's Wax Works, and the worldwide rights to the Guinness Book of Records.

Also among the 13 bidders, William M. Windsor of Atlanta deserves honorable mention. A former top executive for a Goldman Sachs company, and a project developer, Windsor has launched more than 50 companies. More significantly, Windsor has done immense service to the people of Ontario by repeatedly exposing evidence of what appears to be shady dealings between the Canadians and Glynn, and making it public. He has also spent tens of thousands of his own money pursuing lawsuits challenging the process that led to Glynn getting monopoly rights to the public docks. But for Windsor, it is possible that none of the other bidders would be here today.

The likelihood of Glynn losing his Ontario lease may have a tremendous impact on this side of the river as well, since the fact he had the Canadian concession was central to the state Parks Commission decision to award him an unprecedented 40-year pact in 2002. Angela Berti, spokeswoman for Niagara Falls State Park, told the Buffalo News in 2008 that "no bids were taken and no public hearing was held because the Canadian agreement gives the company exclusive access to the river below the falls, making it a 'sole source' provider."

That excuse, as poor as it was at the time, becomes absolutely meaningless in the face of competitive bidding by the Canadians.

Certainly, should a company with the glitz and glamour of Disney, Ripley's, Circle Line or Hornblower win the bid, it will provide yet another reason for millions of tourists from around the world to skip New York and head straight into Canada when visiting the falls.

Why would anyone stand in line for two hours for a 15-minute ride aboard a tawdry and antiquated tour boat when, only a few hundred yards across the river, they could enjoy the world-class attraction from reserved seats purchased online or over the phone before they even left home?

In head-to-head competition with an actual hospitality cruise line, Glynn's tacky attraction will wind up catering to the bleacher bums of the tourism world from his American base. Niagara Falls, Canada, will become even more attractive, while its New York counterpart will remain desperately clinging to a past that fewer and fewer people can even remember.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com March 30, 2010