The London Eye Ferris wheel, inaugurated on Dec. 31, 1999, was only meant to stay a few years. But almost immediately, it was clear that the 443-foot Eye would be a keeper. Its success, in turn, has reinvigorated demand for Ferris wheels. Similar “observation wheels,” a name that has come back into vogue, have recently opened or are being built in Malaysia; Manchester, England; Singapore; and Melbourne, Australia, with others planned for Berlin, Dubai, Beijing and Orlando, Fla.
And as with skyscrapers, a heated competition is under way for the world’s tallest. Last year, China’s 525-foot Star of Nanchang took that distinction from the London Eye. The 541-foot Singapore Flyer will eclipse the other two in early 2008, followed soon after — in time for the 2008 Summer Olympics — by the 682-foot Great Beijing Wheel.
The big wheels are also big business. On average, about 3.5 million people a year, or 10,000 a day, pay $30 or more for a half-hour spin on the London Eye. The Singapore Flyer will be able to carry 27,000 passengers a day, with each ride costing about $20, or more for options like express boarding or Champagne. Although the Flyer is not scheduled to open until March, its first three months are already fully booked.
Cities also love the wheels. They bring in tourists and create jobs, and offer an easy way to stand out. “These wheels are becoming their icon de jour,” said Dennis L. Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services, a consultant in Cincinnati. “And success breeds the development of other wheels in other cities.”
The newest observation wheels frequently form part of a larger development project. Visitors to the wheels in Singapore and Melbourne, for example, will be able to meander though shops, restaurants and other entertainment as they wait for their “flight,” a contrast to the glacially slow queue that snakes outside the London Eye.
The sponsorship possibilities are also rich. Last month, the British Airways London Eye, as it is officially known, was used to promote the movie “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer.” A 100-foot likeness of the surfer was affixed to the center of the Eye, as the film’s stars did their interviews in the wheel’s capsules. And the pods on the new wheel that spins atop the Dream Mall, a huge shopping complex that opened this spring in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, are decorated with images of the popular cartoon character Hello Kitty.
Unlike the seating in their older counterparts, the observation wheels feature climate-controlled, rotating capsules that can hold up to 40 people, and can be reserved for business meetings, birthdays and weddings. Capsule amenities include leather seats, plasma screens, refrigerators and bars.
The new wheels also spin more slowly, allowing passengers to board without the wheel’s being stopped. The London Eye, for example, revolves at a leisurely 0.6 mile an hour. The 394-foot Sky Dream Fukuoka in Japan even advertises this lazy pace as a selling point — it helps ensure “maximum kissing time.”
In fact, slow speeds have long been the norm in Japan, where Ferris wheels have enjoyed a unique popularity. “After World War II, they were a symbol of our economic recovery,” said Yuko Fukui, who wrote a book on the history of Ferris wheels. “In Western countries, they’re more thrilling, like a roller coaster. However, in Japan, they’ve always been more like the new observation wheels.”
Structurally, the wheels rising up today still bear much in common with the original, designed by the civil engineer George W. Ferris for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. It was presented as America’s answer to the Eiffel Tower (which opened in 1889 and, like the London Eye, was meant as a temporary structure).
Even by modern standards, Ferris’s original was no slouch: for 50 cents apiece, nearly 1,500 passengers at a time could ascend to 264 feet. The biggest wheel in the United States today is the comparatively modest Texas Star at the State Fair of Texas, in Dallas. At 212 feet, it fails to top even the Riesenrad in Vienna, which was made famous in the 1949 film “The Third Man” and is still operating 110 years after its construction.
Before the recent renaissance, times were tough on Ferris wheels, especially in the United States and Europe. According to Norman Anderson, a retired professor at North Carolina State University who wrote the book “Ferris Wheels: An Illustrated History,” neither Disneyland (which opened in 1955) nor Walt Disney World (1971) deigned to include one. And as increasingly spectacular theme park rides set the tone in the 1970s and ’80s, traditional attractions like Ferris wheels and carousels fell out of favor.
“Almost every carnival and state fair, even the church bazaars, had a Ferris wheel,” Mr. Anderson said. “But the problem is that the things are so well-built they last forever, so there wasn’t a lot of economic encouragement to build new ones.”
Mr. Speigel, of the International Theme Park Services, agreed. “They became somewhat passé in the mid-70s,” he said. “Nobody was putting them in anymore, and we didn’t see any activity there until really the success of the London Eye.” Since then, he said, the boom has been “similar to what happened in the roller coaster industry, when steel roller coasters started getting higher and higher. Now the wheels are getting larger and larger in diameter, and I’m not sure where it’s going to end.”
In that respect, the sky is the limit. According to several engineers, the wheels could theoretically get as tall as any building. “Technically there are ways,” said Roy Vocking, vice president of Ride Trade International, a company based in Liechtenstein that builds amusement rides. “You can build it in concrete, and it can be any height you want,” he said.
But bigger is not always better. “These very big wheels of over 120 meters are costing around a hundred to two hundred million dollars,” he said. “So if you’re not going to get millions of people through a year, it doesn’t make economic sense to build them.”
The call of nature is another barrier to height. “The biggest constraint is the amount of time people need to be away from the toilet,” Mr. Vocking said. A spokesman for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, another builder of giant wheels, said studies indicate 35 to 45 minutes is the longest people are willing to wait.
Indeed, “half an hour is a good time to experience a good view,” said Florian Bollen, the chairman of the Great Wheel Corporation, a company developing many of the newest wheels. “Everything beyond that gets kind of repetitive.”
“I think we are now already stretching toward the limits,” he added. “I think that the 208 meters in Beijing is not going to be topped very quickly.”
So now some wheels are competing on novelty, rather than size. The Tianjin Eye, a wheel planned in China for next year, will be built on a traffic bridge, with cars passing on either side. Big wheels on the roofs of department stores have become a fixture in Japan and Korea, and in 2005 Ride Trade built an oval wheel on the facade of a gambling parlor in Osaka.
“The developers want something to make their particular attraction stand out,” Mr. Vocking said, adding that Ride Trade had even received a recent request for a figure-8 shaped wheel.
At the same time, relatively smaller (and often portable) observation wheels are also quietly rising in cities like York, England, and Belfast, Northern Ireland. In North America, the first next-generation observation wheel is the 175-foot Niagara SkyWheel, which opened last summer on the Canadian side of the Niagara Falls.
“At the end of the day, it all comes down to location,” Mr. Vocking said. “If you have the location and an interesting iconic attraction which will enable you to have a bird’s-eye view of the area, success is almost guaranteed.”
(Originally published in The New York Times in June 2007)