March 18, 2013 at 9:35 AM ET
Imagine a ride that could charge more than $6,000 per entry on its opening weekend. That’s the level of excitement the Singapore Flyer generated in 2008, when it became the world’s tallest Ferris wheel at 541 feet—and helped set in motion a new race to the top.
For ambitious cities, a soaring Ferris wheel has become the latest status symbol. The Las Vegas Strip is buzzing with construction on the High Roller wheel, which will set a new height record in late 2013. That is, until New York or Dubai catch up: both have unveiled plans for flashy waterfront Ferris wheels. They’re betting on the kind of success seen in Singapore and in London, where 3.5 million people line up annually for their turns on the London Eye.
Some of these cool recent versions put a high-tech spin on the Ferris wheel concept. Santa Monica’s Pacific Wheel, for instance, uses a solar-powered design and glows in neon by night, while Tokyo’s Big O Wheel is an engineering marvel that operates without a center axel. Instead, a roller coaster zooms through the wheel’s hollow center.
Still, we’re drawn to Ferris wheels new and historic for much the same reason: the sheer pleasure of going along for the ride and gazing at spectacular views far below. The rides can recall childhood memories and even kindle romance. In the film Before Sunrise, the lead couple shares a first kiss on a charming 19th-century Ferris wheel high above Vienna.
The very first wheel debuted just a few years prior to Vienna’s in June 1893 at the Chicago World’s Fair—and it also grew out of a competitive urge. George Washington Gale Ferris wanted to create a landmark as noteworthy as the iron tower Gustave Eiffel debuted at the Paris World’s Fair.
“No one had ever built such a gigantic wheel. No structure ever had been subjected to the unique stresses that would come to bear upon and within the wheel once in motion,“ explains Erik Larson, whose book The Devil in the White City captures the intrigue that surrounded the Chicago World’s Fair.
Fast-forward 110 years, and Ferris wheels continue to surprise and delight us.
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