NIAGARA FALLS, Ontario — With the squawk of seagulls and the roar of the crashing waters as a backdrop, the first Maid of the Mist boat was gently lowered into the Niagara River on Friday, a giant symbol for another tourist season that is about to begin.

“Right around the time the Maid of the Mist boats go into the water things start happening on both sides of the border,” said Tim Ruddy, a spokesman for the boat company. “People start traveling, and the weather starts getting nicer.

For those who watched the slow process of the impeccably tended boat being slid from a ramp into the water at three feet a minute, it was a bit like being backstage just before the curtain rises on a big production.

Staffers were assembling gates that will shepherd visitors to the docks, ship hands were attending to the last minute details of getting the four Maid of the Mist boats into the water.

All the boats will be put into the water and inspected by the Coast Guard before the rides open officially Thursday.

With the challenging economy hovering over the season like a rain cloud, Maid officials share the concerns of area businesses about the upcoming season.

“We hoping that anybody in Western New York and Southern Ontario will take shorter trips and stay close to home,” said Ruddy, anticipating such decisions might include taking the Maid of the Mist ride.

This year, visitors to the American side will step on to a new $1.5 million floating dock before boarding the boats, the first of three new docks planned for both sides of the border over the next few years.

The company, which has been in existence since 1846, carries about 2 million visitors to the brink of the falls each season in an experience that feels impossibly daring to some first timers.

“You have to have a great deal of local knowledge,” said Captain Mal Bunting, a veteran Maid skipper, who said it takes new hires a while to get comfortable steering the big boats into the mist, but that once the captains get familiar with the currents they know exactly where they can safely travel.

Bunting said that he’s ready to get his boat back on the river. “It’s very rewarding when a family comes up and says this is absolutely the best thing we’ve ever done,” he said. “It makes your whole day.”

Contact reporter Michele DeLuca

at 282-2311, ext. 2263.