Remember when riding Ferris wheels meant sitting on an open-air bench, feet swinging in the breeze? Well, big wheels have come a long way, baby, and they just keep on getting bigger.
The first Ferris wheel debuted in Chicago in June 1893; at 264 feet it was the largest attraction at the World’s Columbian Exposition. Since then, there’ve been countless versions of this amusement park favorite. But on New Year’s Eve 1999, Tony Blair pressed the button to start the London Eye. At 441 feet it became the tallest observation wheel in Europe, capable of carrying hundreds of people upward to an unprecedented view of the city.
That Eye sparked a global race to the top, with cities scrambling to out-wheel each other. Because as much as we like to joke about size, it definitely matters — at least when it comes to tourist attractions.
The Eye’s height was soon overshadowed by wheels in China and Singapore. Opened in 2006, the Star of Nanchang came in at 525 feet. Two years later in 2008, the Singapore Flyer made its spinning debut. The $180-million, 42-storey wheel is still the record-holder at 541 feet.
Things settled down for a while, but now there are no fewer than four big observation wheels in the works in Las Vegas, Dubai, New York and Japan.
All of these observation wheels have certain things in common: the Ferris-wheel look, glass-enclosed cabins that accommodate about 40 people each and an average 30-minute round-trip ticket for $30. Where they differ are the bells and whistles — and, of course, the size.
The first of the behemoths is the much-hyped High Roller in Las Vegas. Scheduled to open in 2014, this wheel offers flat screen TVs and cocktails to accompany the trip high above the glitzy city. This ain’t your average carnival ride.
”It’s going to be an icon. It’s going to be a part of your visit to Las Vegas if you ride it or not,” project director David Codiga said recently. At 550 feet, it’s going to be hard to miss, even in Vegas. On the website — which includes a live webcam — it’s currently billing itself as the world’s tallest.
That title might be short lived. The recently approved New York Wheel is aiming even higher. This new addition to Staten Island, part of the city’s urban waterfront renewal effort, is expected to be 630 feet (about half the size of the Empire State Building), which would make it the world’s tallest. But height has never been the goal, says Rich Marin, president and CEO of New York Wheel LLC.
What’s the deal with the wheel size?
There is no shortage of psychology studies that tell us that humans tend to perceive bigger as better. Therefore biggest observation wheel = strongest, sexiest, sturdiest, thrilling-est ride. Right?
Or maybe it’s the more prosaic marketing and revenue potential. One of the most popular tourist attractions in Europe (up there with the Eiffel Tower and Disneyland Paris), the London Eye sees 3.75 million visitors annually, and in 2009, it racked up record profits of more than $40 million. In 2011, London’s spinning-est tourist attraction was rebranded (again), this time as the EDF Energy London Eye.
”It has never been about building the world’s tallest observation wheel. It’s about building an iconic attraction on the greatest harbor, New York Harbor, in the world.” Scheduled to open in the fall of 2016, the big ride is expected to attract 4 million visitors a year.
Which leaves two more observation wheels: one that is trumpeting its height and one that’s guarding its super-size secret like Fort Knox.
The Dubai Eye is not shy about its plans for a 689-foot structure near the city center. The Eye will surpass the New York Wheel by almost 60 feet. One of the big appeals: the opportunity for quality eyeballing. The spinning monolith will allow riders to take in Dubai’s ”Manhattan-style skyline rather than just desert,” Mario Volpi of Cluttons, a property management firm, told the National earlier this year.
Lastly there’s the mysterious Nippon Moon in Japan. Designer UNStudio has dropped just enough hints to make the project sound mind-blowing, including the potential use of smartphone apps or augmented reality to heighten the experience, different types of capsules and other futuristic enhancements. And guess what? This one is going to be the tallest too. UNStudio designer Ben van Berkel recently told Wired that the Nippon Moon will be ”almost twice the scale of the wheel in London.”
So what happens when observation wheels hit the height ceiling, when being the tallest just doesn’t cut it anymore? Like the Nippon Moon, some observation wheel designs are incorporating other unique features. In Changzhou, China, for example, a huge spokeless wheel called Lai Shi Yun Zhuan, or Wheel/Turn of Fortune, is nearing completion.
Who’s going to measure up? Only time — and then perhaps a broomstick and measuring tape — will tell. But you can bet that when one wheel is giving its gushing acceptance speech for World’s Tallest, there will be another wheel in the wings, waiting to snatch the crown.
Why you should care
Well, let’s put it like this: How big is your wheel, baby?