The area surrounding the American side of Niagara Falls leaves a lot to be desired. It appears run down and poorly laid out. This became even more obvious the minute I crossed into Canada and saw the hotels, restaurants and entertainment options available.
With that said, I think the American side is still worth a visit. You can get much closer to water than you can from the Canadian side. On the American side they offer two popular tours, The Cave of the Winds, which allows you to climb a walkway right up next to the American Falls. I did not actually do this, but I have heard from those that have that on the platform closest to the falls, the wind feels like you are in a category one hurricane. Even though it is called The Cave of the Winds, you do not actually go into a cave behind the falls, instead it takes you to an area between the American and Canadian falls where you can climb a short stairway to stand next to the Bridal Veil Falls (which is a much smaller waterfall that can almost be mistaken for a part of the larger adjacent American Falls). This activity takes you so close to the waterfall that you will get wet, and the cascading water actually runs under the platform you are standing on. No change of clothes is needed though, they give you a poncho that covers you head to toe. This activity can only be done from the American side of Niagara Falls.
The other main attraction, Maid of the Mist, can be done on either the American or the Canadian side. Maid of the Mist is a boat tour that takes you into the giant cloud of mist at the base of Horseshoe Falls. This is a must-do at Niagara Falls! The boat ride itself is about 22 minutes, and it cost around $18.25 per adult and $10.65 per child under 12. Young kids under the age of five are free! (This is as of June 2016.) I would have probably felt comfortable taking my toddler on this boat ride, although I would have stayed on the lower level of the double decker boat and possibly avoided standing too close to the side of the boat. Once again, they give you a poncho that keeps your clothing dry, and they have smaller ones for the kids. Before going to Niagara Falls, I had heard the Maid of the Mist was a great experience but it far exceeded my expectations. It is truly the best way to experience this powerful wonder of water!
A side note, if you do the Maid of the Mist tour on the American side, once you exit the boat you can walk up a short staircase to stand next to the American Falls at no additional cost. It’s a great photo op, a quick climb, and if you aren’t going to do the Cave of the Winds, then this will be the closest you can actually stand to the falls. This option is not available on the Canadian side.