Wheelchair Toronto & Niagara Falls 
By Ruth Hibbins-Butler © 2000

Bound for Toronto, Canada and Niagara Falls, Ruth Hibbins-Butler and her husband, Stephen, departed from London’s Heathrow Airport with her parents from Belfast, Ireland. Ruth’s father, Jack, uses a wheelchair due to his paraplegia. 

Toronto is truly a world-class city with a cosmopolitan mix of shopping, dining, nightlife and theatre that rivals any city on earth. Yet Toronto still retains the best features of the small town it once was, boasting safe, clean streets and warm, friendly people. 

Our travel agent was British Airways Holidays, and we flew Club Class with British Airways.  However, even though BA knew there was a wheelchair passenger they hadn't arranged for any ground staff to transfer my father from his wheelchair onto the airline chair and then into his seat. The cabin crew refused to do it, and so it ended up that we had to do it ourselves.  This happened both on arriving in Toronto and leaving. Obviously this was embarrassing for my father, and definitely worth stipulating precisely on any future booking.  We have never had this problem before; however, Canada doesn't seem to be able to grasp this issue!

The flight itself was, as one would expect from business class: Good food, wine, choice of movies/music, quite comfortable seats, and cabin crew attending to your every whim. Ahhhhh.

Car Hire was through Alamo. Insurance, gas, additional drivers, taxes, was all prepaid in the UK. First problem: BA Holidays failed to mention that the Alamo desk was not in the airport.  This tends to worry you when you see signs for other hire companies and none for your own. Only because my husband knew that Alamo were affiliated with National, did we approach the National desk. They phoned for Alamo to come pick us up.  Second problem:  They sent a van for four adults. Obviously the van was too high for my father to get into, so they had to send another car to transport us to the depot. They were extremely courteous though, and this placated us. Problem three: I had to ask the attendant who served me about speed limits, turning on traffic lights, parking restrictions, disabled parking etc., as none of this information was offered.  I also had to ask how to get to the Royal York as BA Holidays had not supplied this information, nor any directions on how to get to our next hotel. We flew Virgin Atlantic for our honeymoon, through Virgin Holidays, and they had every little bit of information you could possibly require in your holiday pack.  I wouldn't choose BA holidays again, and this is one of the reasons why - Virgin took time to explain - BA took your money!

In Toronto, we stayed at the Canadian Pacific Hotel, The Royal York, which personifies the best of Toronto. The picture of elegance, service and hospitality, the Royal York is the perfect location from which to enjoy everything Toronto has to offer. It is a First Class hotel with service to match. The lobby is spectacular with marble pillars, tasteful decoration, extravagant chandeliers, and the aroma of sweet smelling fresh flowers filling the air.

Disabled access is via the East Wing next to the Valet Parking (which I heartily recommend). The elevator transports you to the lobby level, where you will find an abundance of shops and restaurants, and, of course, reception. Check-in was swift and efficient, and a pleasurable end to an otherwise stressful journey. Particular praise must be given to the hotel's Concierge desk. The staff are extremely knowledgeable, and will go out of their way to attend to your desires. Excellent. We used it time and time again. They will make reservations for you, call a cab (Beck's taxis have a special fleet of wheelchair accessible cabs. They charge the same rate as a normal cab, and only ask that you request one a little in advance of your required time), book tickets... anything you wish them to do; and, of course, their information on Toronto is unmatched. The Royal York is friendly and welcoming, but it manages to add that personal touch which so many of the chain hotels fail to do. Considering the Royal York is mainly a business-oriented hotel, this is no mean feat.  The restaurants are excellent also and can be found on the Lobby Level, as well as on the Lower Level. Everything through from a quiet drink in seductive saloon surroundings, to Muffins on the Run, to Sushi, to buffets, to four-course dinners. The Lobby Bar actually serves some of the best steak that we tasted in Toronto. York's kitchen and deli deserve special mention (located on the lower level) for their efficient service and succulent food. Open for breakfasts through to dinners, well worth more than one visit...once tasted you will be returning for more! Don't miss out on the shops and restaurants on the lower level; they are just as excellent as the more frequented Lobby level ones.

The Royal York has specially adapted wheelchair rooms, which are very large indeed considering the age of the hotel (early 1900s).Their wheelchair accessible room was easily maneuverable. The bathroom wasn't huge, but a wheelchair could enter easily. It would have been a strain to turn though; however, there is no door to the actual bathroom. There is a little dressing area before the bathroom, and this has the door, which allows plenty of space. There were grab rails and lowered sinks, with taps that could be pushed on and off rather than turned. This would have been of great benefit I am sure to someone with arthritis. In this particular room, there wasn't a roll-in shower; however, I think the Royal York did have such in some rooms, but it would need to be a special request. There was no shower chair, but again we didn't need one, so didn't request it. There was a handheld shower (and a little holder for when you didn't want it handheld). The only criticism I have is that it didn't reach all the way to the sink, so washing my dad's hair was quite a wet experience!

The hotel's facilities are also excellent: the swimming pool, exercise room, Jacuzzi, steam rooms, saunas, fully qualified registered masseurs. The list goes on. Sorry but I don't know about facilities to get in and out of the pool and Jacuzzi. This is really the first time that I have involved myself so intensely in a hotel, and I was much the better for it. I highly recommend the massages... followed by a further soothing Jacuzzi. Bliss

Out and About

Toronto itself is relatively flat. Kerbs are lowered so much so that they are practically level with the road.  Pedestrian crossings bleep when the white man is showing as an indicator for blind people when it is safe to cross. People are courteous and most large shops and malls will have specially adapted automatic doors, which are operated by pushing a button. 

SkyDome

There are disabled seating areas, with one carer seat per wheelchair. Should anyone suffer from claustrophobia, then perhaps the SkyDome isn't the best place to be. Visitors can  watch a game from one of the restaurants like the Hard Rock Café or Renaissance Hotel. The Renaissance has a bar and also a restaurant, both of which overlook the field. Rooms are also available overlooking the field, but I would recommend staying at the Royal York, just because the experience was so pleasurable. 

Both restaurants have a minimum price for meals while games are being played. Unfortunately, there are two steps down to the window area, from where you receive the best views of the field; however, just ask for a table closest to the edge of the top of the steps, and staff will be most accommodating. I found that even though they don't take reservations, if you go in person and plead your case, they will, and then you are guaranteed a wonderful meal and a wonderful view! The only thing you need worry about is whether or not your team wins.

CN Tower

The CN is fully accessible to wheelchair travellers; however, the lookout level is very narrow, and I am not sure whether a wheelchair could navigate around. The Skypod, which is further up, I don't believe to be accessible; however, it is best to check in both instances with the CN Tower staff. My father didn't come up with us, so I don't have as much information on this as I could have had. The elevators are very small, and again, someone suffering from claustrophobia may not be able to withstand the 1 minute+ ride to the lookout level. However, the elevator attendee did take a wheelchair  traveller and carer/pusher up on their own. I am not sure as to whether or not this is standard practice. Well worth the view.

Shopping

The Royal York has direct indoor access to Toronto's underground PATH, which connects you to downtown's best shopping and services, and also to Union Station.  From Union Station, the wheelchair accessible carriages of the GO trains, the rest of Ontario is at your disposal! Car license plates all bear the motto "Ontario - Yours to Discover."  How true. Wheelchair access to the PATH is via the Royal Bank Building next door to the Royal York. Take the elevator down to MM (main mezzanine). Throughout the PATH there are wheelchair ramps, automatic doors and mini elevators to aid your journey. No part is inaccessible, although sometimes you need eagle eyes to spot the access ways. Always look for the disabled sign and let that guide you. If you are at a total loss, then just ask someone, and they will help. There are also numerous restrooms dotted around, which are very well maintained and clean. The PATH can lead you directly to the Eaton Centre, which is world-famous. Another area is Yorkville where the streets burst with boutiques. Bloor Street is where you will find the designers - Armani, Boss, CK, Gucci, Prada – However, we never made it there as it is a good 15  minutes car journey, and too far to walk with a wheelchair. There were almost too many shops, even without shopping on Bloor.  Designer names can be found in abundance in the smaller stores anyway. However, if you are a boutique buff who rates the success of a day on the number of designer bags you end up carrying... then Bloor's the place for you.

There are many malls a short drive from downtown and all with disabled access, and also the ability to rent wheelchair for the purposes of the shopping outing.  Car parking spaces are right outside the doors, just remember your badge.

Restaurants

One of the most famous steakhouses in Toronto is Harbour Sixty. It was also the closest to our hotel. We made reservations, and stipulated that there was a wheelchair guest in our party. When we pulled up at the back of the restaurant, the valet helped my father out of the car, brought him to the mini-elevator that they assemble especially for disabled guests, and transported him to the restaurant, before returning to take care of the car. Taking into account that it was raining quite hard, this was exceptional service. He enjoyed a well-deserved and generous tip. When we exited the restaurant after one of the most delicious and succulent steaks I have ever tasted, he repeated the procedure. Such courtesy is abundant in Toronto.

Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls itself is one of the most hilly places I have visited. The hills are incredibly steep, so it is quite an effort for the person pushing a wheelchair up the hills. BA neglected to mention this so it was quite a shock. As for Niagara itself, souvenir shops abound and there are many arcades and exhibitions to capture your time and attention. Casinos and nightclubs are in great demand and the supply is more than adequate to satisfy the interest. There is a train cut into the side of the hill, which descends the steep incline down to the Falls from the Fallsview hotels (Renaissance, Marriott, Sheraton); however, it is NOT wheelchair accessible. A car is a must in Niagara.

Maid of the Mist

The trip on the boat itself is wheelchair accessible, although no areas are particularly set aside within the boat. The Macs to protect from the spray do not cover the entire wheelchair, so the bottom of legs and feet tend to get soaked.  One can't help thinking that had this been America special wheelchair Macs would have been available. One warning, however:  although there is an elevator to transport you down to the level for the boat, there is an extremely long walk to the elevator from the ticket desk. Approximately 500 yards down an incline. For someone of limited mobility, this is quite a trek. Then once out of the elevator it is another 100 yards to the boat. Again, one can't help comparing that were this America, passengers needing assistance would be boarded first. The trip itself is spectacular bringing you right to the edge of the Canadian HorseShoe Falls, by far the more impressive. Anyone who tells you that you can see just as much from USA is lying! Once the trip is finished, everyone exits en masse, and the floor is extremely slippery due to the spray from the Falls. Extra care must be taken, as indeed the signs reiterate. There is a wheelchair ramp off to the left, which allows the wheelchair to be  pushed with the extra effort needed because now we have to go Uphill. This time though 100 yards seems longer.

The elevator surprisingly takes you into the gift shop, so you don't have to walk the 500 yards that you did on the way down. Again, users with limited mobility in America would have been taken this way in the beginning and not made to endure the distance on the way down.

All things considered though, a once in a lifetime trip, which should not be missed... got to be able to say "been there, took the misty photos, got soaked, bought the souvenir."

Shopping and Restaurants

Restaurants are easily found, and again, the choice seems endless.  Niagara is a real touristy town and the standard of shop is reflective of that.

Hotel

We stayed at the Renaissance Fallsview and had reserved Fallsview Rooms, one of which was wheelchair accessible and paid a premium for it. Upon arrival, we were informed that no such rooms existed and that the only wheelchair accessible rooms they offered had city views. After a heated discussion my parents were upgraded to a Club Room with a Fallsview; however, the bathroom was NOT wheelchair accessible. I expected better of a Renaissance hotel. The wheelchair couldn't even get into the bathroom. There was a shower grab rail, but a tiny bath. It also had a handheld shower. Should my father have been able to get into the bathroom, he would not have been able to get any further, as there was an immediate sharp turn, which prevented a wheelchair from turning. Fortunately, my dad had no need of those facilities, otherwise it would have been impossible and the extra money we paid for a Fallsview would have been wasted. When we arrived there were no wheelchair accessible rooms available. We were so disgusted with the Renaissance that we didn't even

The facilities in the rooms were appalling - no bathrobes (even in Club), no minibar, no tea and coffee making facilities. The decor was banal and uninteresting, and frankly, because it had a Fallsview, quality was sacrificed for price. You paid a lot and got not a lot!!  The Club Room was like a normal hotel room - absolutely nothing to set it apart from the rest - except the bill!  Overall extremely disappointing. The Renaissance is the furthest back of the hotels with Fallsview. We were on the 15th floor, and could see the spray. We went to the Marriott and from the 3rd floor could see right into the Falls. Definitely the better choice; however, they are supposed to the same standard and are owned by the Marriott Group of Hotels.

I wouldn't recommend the Renaissance in Niagara to my worst enemy. This is a great shame because I have stayed in many Renaissance around the world, and they have been mighty impressive hotels. This reputation was why I presumed the Renaissance Niagara would be of the same standard. I could not have been more wrong.

Niagara-On-The-Lake

One of the most beautiful lakeside towns I have ever had the fortune to encounter. Peaceful, tranquil, well-maintained, traditional-small-town-meets-Rodeo-Drive.... well not quite. The town itself is totally flat, and again lowered kerbs enable a smooth crossing of roads. The difference here to Niagara is startling. I think it is the sheer contrast to Niagara that makes this little town blossom and appeal so intensely.  Shopping is an enjoyable experience here, with a boutique-lined main street, and horse-drawn carriages should you wish to travel differently. There is a Christmas Shop, which is open all year round, and a delicious Fudge Factory, where you can watch them make the fudge while you mull over your choice at the counter. For those who don't like shopping, an afternoon choosing which flavours of fudge you will purchase to indulge in later, is a very pleasurable experience.  The street is also lined with seats where you can take the weight of your feet, and maybe break into your fudge indulgence, just in case you cannot bridle your taste buds any longer.

Try to discover NOTL via the lakeside route as opposed to the highway – the scenery is magnificent, the colours majestic, and several lookout points allow you to take it all in (and give you time to indulge in more fudge!).

Along the way to NOTL via the lakeside route, you discover the Floral Clock and the Butterfly Centre. Both of these are well worth a pause to take in the beauty. The Butterfly Centre can entertain a keen photographer for an entire afternoon. Chasing the butterflies and finally setting up the photo to perfection, and then... off they flutter, disturbed by a passer-by. Ahhhhh. ... patience needed!

Resources 

Royal York  

Renaissance 

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