The steel rides, invented by a bridge engineer for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, are seeing a resurgence now that they’ve morphed into what are often called observation wheels. But they’re not being built at amusement parks, because they’re considered to be too tame by the thrill seekers who flock to Kings Island and other similar locations.
“Big wheels are seen as a way to create a defining element for destination projects,” reported Urban Land, the magazine of the Urban Land Institute, in 2014. “There are cities all over the world that have an interest in something that is iconic,” Wil Armstrong, president of Starneth, an engineering and construction firm working on wheels in New York City and Dubai, told the magazine.
Interest in the big wheels was sparked by the London Eye, which opened in 2000.
Newport on the Levee officials and the Price Group, the Levee’s owner, said earlier this week they have a letter of intent to build an observatory/Ferris wheel on the riverfront to offer views of Downtown and Northern Kentucky.
If completed, Newport would be one of a growing number of cities, both in the United States and throughout the world, to offer an observation wheel keep tourists engaged with the city. Some have become solid attractions, while others have fallen short of ridership expectations.
Construction began last month on the world’s tallest observation wheel, standing at 630 feet. The New York Wheel will cost more than $500 million, all of it private money, said chief marketing officer Travis Noyes.
Projected to open in May 2017, the wheel will be able to hold 1,440 people in 36 gondolas. It is estimated the wheel could have as many as 30,000 visitors per day and more than 4 million each year.
By comparison, the Levee gets 3.5 million visitors each year. The wheel being discussed for Newport would be 180 feet tall.
Ryan Marnell, a manager at the Newport Hofbrauhaus, said he isn’t sold on the idea yet.
“It’s a unique and aggressive take on helping the tri-state area, but it’s also kind of terrifying, the amount of money a project like this will take,” Marnell said. “I don’t think an observation wheel would be my first, second or third choice as a project to bring to the area.
“It would be really cool to have that and it’s going to trickle down to all the businesses here eventually, but at what cost?” he said.
Bill Lawson, 49, of Bethel, has already seen and heard enough of the project to know he wants it.
“It’ll be quite a spectacle, and it’ll cost plenty, but I wish it was already here, to tell you the truth,” Lawson said. “It’ll be great for everyone here. It’ll look great on the river. It’s a good thing.”
In New York, ride the ferry and a wheel?
Noyes, the New York Wheel marketing director, said developers have been trying to get a wheel into New York City for many years. Staten Island is a good location because it has a great view of the Manhattan skyline and many tourists are already taking the Staten Island Ferry.
“These two things together made an ideal location for a wheel,” Noyes said.
But many tourists will take the ferry and head right back to Manhattan, so Noyes believes the wheel will give them a reason to stay and spend money on the island. Each ticket is estimated to cost $35.
Not every observation wheel has been a surefire success.