One hundred twenty years after George Ferris’s invention first wowed crowds at the Chicago World’s Fair, the Ferris wheel has reappeared as part of several new projects. Developers around the world are including Ferris wheels as centerpieces for mixed-use developments, making this something of a golden age for big wheel construction.
In October, the New York City Council approved a 625-foot Ferris wheel for Staten Island, which would be the largest in the world. It would surpass a 550-foot wheel set to open by the end of the first quarter of 2014 in Las Vegas. Both would be surpassed by a 688-foot-tall wheel under development in Dubai.
All the new projects will dwarf the world’s current largest wheel, the 541-foot Singapore Flyer, which opened only five years ago.
No longer relegated to amusement park sideshows, big wheels are seen as a way to create a defining element for destination projects. Cities in China, Japan, and even Iraq are discussing wheel projects as they look for skyline-defining attractions.
“There are cities all over the world that have an interest in something that is iconic,” says Wil Armstrong, president of Starneth, an engineering and construction firm working on the New York and Dubai wheels.
The wave of new construction represents a dramatic turnaround for the fate of George Ferris’s invention. Although they maintain a nostalgic niche in entertainment centers from Santa Monica, California, to Paris, Ferris wheels long ago fell out of favor in the amusement park industry, as visitors demanded more exciting, faster, higher-tech rides.
“If you were building an amusement park, it wouldn’t be in the top five rides you would put in,” says Owen Ralph, editor of U.K.-based Park World magazine, which tracks the industry.
The “London Eye” is widely credited with changing the image of big wheels. Opened as a temporary attraction in 2000, the 443-foot-tall wheel created a new landmark and tourist attraction for the capital. Rather than blight the landscape, the sleek Eye is now grudgingly accepted as part of the skyline, an icon alongside the Tower of London and the Gherkin, attracting more than 3.5 million visitors a year.
“The Eye in London proved that [a wheel] could be an every-day-of-the-week attraction,” says Greg Miller, senior vice president of development for Caesars Entertainment, which is building the Las Vegas wheel. The “High Roller” is the most prominent feature of the Linq, a $550 million open-air retail and entertainment district on the Las Vegas Strip.
Caesars considered an arena or a roller coaster as an anchor for the project—traditional staples of Las Vegas developments—but ultimately decided that a big wheel was a more visible and widely popular attraction, Miller says. (Construction has slowed on another wheel planned for the Vegas Strip, the 500-foot SkyVue observation wheel, which would include the “largest outdoor advertising LED screen in the world.”)
“Roller coasters are very popular, but it’s a narrow popularity,” Miller says. “More people feel comfortable going [on a wheel] than a rollercoaster.”
Modern Ferris wheels—designers prefer to call them “observation wheels”—adhere to the basic concepts of the Ferris wheel, but they benefit from advances in materials, engineering, and technology. Instead of hanging open-air bench seats, modern wheels feature ten-ton, enclosed, pill-shaped pods, which remain level throughout the turn of the wheel. The pods also allow for a more sophisticated experience, including multimedia presentations highlighting elements of the surrounding vistas.
The cost of engineering and building a wheel taller than 400 feet starts at about $100 million, says Starneth’s Armstrong. But a wheel requires far less land than, say, a roller coaster. And, once built, wheels can operate relatively efficiently with only a few technicians and regular maintenance costs. Operators can also charge a premium for the wheel experience; London Eye tickets start at £19.20 (about $31), although there are deals for groups and events.
The 60-story New York wheel is part of an effort to redevelop land around the Staten Island Ferry terminal, which is primarily used for commuter parking. The wheel was pitched as a stand-alone project, but approved simultaneously with a 1 million-square-foot mixed-use development designed by SHoP Architects on the neighboring land, including an outlet shopping mall and hotel.
The New York wheel will feature 36 capsules, each capable of carrying 40 passengers, and offer views of lower Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty.
“Views are important,” says Navid Maqami, principal of Perkins Eastman Architects, which is designing the facilities around the New York wheel. “That is what attracts people to Ferris wheels.”
While Dubai may eventually grab the title of the world’s largest wheel from New York, the competition will likely continue. From an engineering perspective, much bigger wheels are possible, Armstrong says. “We haven’t found the limit,” he says. But the bigger wheels will be much more expensive and may not be as slim and aesthetic as the current generation of wheels.
“There is a trade-off,” Armstrong says. “Bigger wheels may not be as beautiful and transparent.”
Other projects are including smaller wheels, including the 175-foot wheel planned for the Washington, D.C.- area National Harbor. (See video below)