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Observation wheels: a history (and a new lease of life for the 21st century)

A classic attraction gets brought up to date for the modern day

Ever since it opened in 2000, attraction operators across the world have looked on with envy at the London Eye. But what are the ingredients for observation wheel success, and do any other sky-high attractions have the same potential?

Observation wheels are nothing new. Civil engineer George WG Ferris’ eponymous construction was famously built for the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago back in 1893. Its height, 264 feet (80 metres), was impressive for the time.

Similar looking and lofty attractions opened soon after in Paris, London and Vienna. The latter still stands to this day at the city’s Prater amusement park.

The 'Wiener Riesenrad' at the Prater in Vienna
The ‘Wiener Riesenrad’ at the Prater in Vienna

With its large, enclosed cabins, Ferris’ original wheel took 20 minutes to complete a full rotation. In that sense, the experience it offered was more in keeping with modern-day observation wheels, like the London Eye and Singapore Flyer, than the smaller but faster carnival wheels that followed.

Yet when it ushered in the new millennium on the banks of the River Thames, the Eye was successful in reinventing the observation wheel for the 21st Century. With their enclosed gondolas or pods, observation wheels are surely the ultimate socially distanced attraction. A bubble for your bubble, if you like.

The London Eye: the observation wheel that reignited a trend

David Marks and Julia Barfield, the forward-thinking architects who co-designed the London Eye, wanted something which stood out from the rest of the South Bank, but with a clean and modern look,” says Sunny Jouhal, General Manager of The lastminute.com London Eye.

Sponsored at launch by British Airways, passengers were sold ‘flight’ rather than ‘ride’ tickets, a term that has stuck. The attraction has been part of the Merlin Entertainments portfolio since 2007 when Merlin acquired former operator The Tussauds Group.

London Eye
The London Eye

The 135m (443ft) high construction, originally to be called the Millennium Wheel, was intended only as a temporary attraction. It became such a success that it was granted permanent status in 2002. To date, it has ridden over 70 million passengers – roughly one for every pound it cost to build.

The Eye is now a London landmark and has become a selfie hotspot for visitors to the capital.

Giving observation wheels a sleek look for the 21st Century

The London Eye’s aesthetics have been hugely influential. Its sleek appearance, with bicycle wheel-like spokes and glass pods mounted to the outside of the wheel that are kept horizontal by motors, has inspired most of the record-breaking rides that followed.

This includes the Singapore Flyer (165m high) High Roller in Las Vegas (550ft/167.5m) and Ain Dubai. The latter, opening later this year, will comfortably smash the record for the world’s tallest observation wheel with its stated height of “over 250 metres”.

Singapore Flyer observation wheel
The Singapore Flyer

However, the London wheel remains unique for its cantilevered design. With supporting beams on just one side, it is arguably more elegant than other constructions. Whilst it may look spindly, this is one solid structure. Thanks to its conveyor loading system, the wheel never stops. And yet it turns so steadily, you can barely see it move.

“The London Eye has it all,” says Jouhal. “World-class views, the neighbouring iconic landmarks, the beautiful architecture of the structure, and the fact you can experience all of this in a pod which is a really serene environment.”

“The structure fits perfectly into the skyline. The fact it is white also allows us to showcase a wide array of creative light-ups. We are proud that the Eye has gone on to inspire other wheels around the world.”

Success lies in the Eye of the operator

A type of ride that previously served as a brightly lit beacon on a fairground is now just as likely to be a city centre attraction. One that simultaneously combines significant height with minimal styling.

“The look of the London Eye is associated with success,” says Sascha Czilbulka, Executive Vice President at Intamin, which has been building giant wheels for years. One of its latest is a 140m project in Moscow that is set to become the tallest in Europe.

“The colour white has proven to be the least disturbing when it comes to large structures,” says Czilbulka. “This is important when it comes to standalone structures, especially in city areas.”

The Wheel at ICON Park, Orlando
The Wheel at ICON Park, Orlando

Yet when it comes to the observation wheel, ‘build it and they will come’ is no guaranteed recipe for success.  

“Observation decks and wheels are intercept rather than destination attractions,” says Edward Shaw, Principal at Entertainment + Culture Advisors (ECA). He and his colleagues have consulted on wheels including the London Eye, Singapore Flyer, Orlando Eye and High Roller in Las Vegas.

A better location equals more rotation

“The London Eye has benefited massively from its location,” says Shaw. “While it has been hugely successful, other wheels have had more mixed success. Maybe that’s like comparing Disneyland or Universal to other places, but it can be challenging to replicate all the factors that make it a success.”

https://www.instagram.com/p/CLwSNLPDwPd/

“With larger wheels, you have to look at the bigger picture,” says Jeroen Holman, Director of Marketing & Sales at Dutch Wheels. “Which other experiences can be found around the wheel? The wheel functions as an anchor that draws visitors to a cluster of attractions or activities.”

The ride that snatched the ‘world’s tallest’ title from the London Eye, in 2006, was the Star of Nanchang in China. Towering 160m above an amusement park of the same name, it is more conventional both in design and location. It lasted just two years before its bragging rights were taken by the Singapore Flyer.

At the foot of the Flyer, visitors can discover an attraction called the Time Capsule, which takes them on a multi-sensory tour of Singapore. A flight simulator is also offered, together with several food and drink options.

Observation wheels as anchor attractions

“I think most observation wheels would have difficulty operating as standalone attractions,” says Edmond Chih, Director at ECA. “The London Eye is really the standout example.”

The proposed Whey Aye in Newcastle upon Tyne is part of a wider mixed use development
The proposed Whey Aye in Newcastle upon Tyne is part of a wider mixed use development

Whilst the Eye is profitable in its own right, Merlin has also developed a cluster of ‘Midway’ attractions in the adjacent County Hall building. These include the London Dungeon, Sea Life London Aquarium and Shrek’s Adventure.

In the city of Newcastle upon Tyne, a project called the Whey Aye is proposed on top of a mixed-use facility called ‘Giants on the Quayside’. This would give the wheel a total height of 140m, matching the upcoming wheel in Moscow as the tallest in Europe. The opening is projected for 2024.

Launched in 2014, the High Roller in Las Vegas is part of The Linq hotel complex by Caesars, where it is complemented by other attractions including a zip line, ice bar and light show.

Ziplining towards the High Roller at The Linq, Las Vegas
Ziplining towards the High Roller at The Linq, Las Vegas

All eyes on Dubai

Ain Dubai - Infographic

Set for an official opening later this year, construction of Ain Dubai (Ain meaning Eye in Arabic) is already complete. The attraction more than just snatches the world record from the High Roller. It takes it to such lofty heights it seems unlikely anyone else will beat it for the foreseeable future.

Its height of over 250 metres makes the construction around one-third bigger than the former record holder in Las Vegas. Its legs alone are only 9 metres shorter than the London Eye.

Each of the wheel’s 48 capsules, supplied by the French ski lift manufacturer Poma, will accommodate up to 40 passengers. The project’s main contractor is Hyundai Engineering & Construction.

Ain Dubai: a world-beating observation wheel 

The attraction has been developed by Meeras as the centrepiece of the Bluewaters lifestyle destination close to Dubai Marina. Yet it is only once people get up close to the wheel on Bluewater’s manmade island that they will fully appreciate its size.

So will Ain Dubai’s stature be enough to blow other attractions out of the water?

“Ultimately it will be subject to the same market factors as any other attraction,” says Chih. “How many people are available to go there, what is the competition in the market, how do they operate it, and all those things. Certainly, the height and scale will help. But that doesn’t afford it the opportunity to outstrip those other factors. And if you’re looking for a view out over Dubai, the Burj Khalifa is still higher.”

Able to accommodate almost 2,000 people per cycle, it seems unlikely the wheel will ride full every time. But Meeras will surely be hoping for an uplift in visitors to other facilities nearby at Bluewaters. At present these include a Caesars Palace hotel, dining and shopping.

Size matters (sometimes)

So how much does size contribute to an observation wheel’s success?

“I think size is important,” says Shaw. “But more important than height are location and what you are looking at. Being able to say you are the tallest attraction has some marketing appeal. But after a while, that wears off and someone else will build a bigger one.”

Chih agrees. “Looking at the London Eye, you have a pretty magnificent view looking over the river and all the old architecture of London. Whereas if you take the view from the top of the High Roller in Vegas, once you look beyond the casino hotels, you see a lot of desert. You think, ‘I could get that same view standing in a hotel room on the Strip.’”

High Roller, Las Vegas observation wheels
High Roller, Las Vegas

“In a lot of cases, clients look for higher and higher,” says Holman. “The key question should be: ‘What do I see at different heights?’ Beyond that, obviously sufficient traffic is needed to make the business case work.

“Another challenge with observation wheels is that cost increases exponentially when the size grows. A 200-metre wheel does not cost two times the price of a 100-metre wheel. So large wheels like the London Eye or Singapore Flyer need more visitors to cover the investment. Attractions such as this are usually custom-designed, so that adds to the development cost too.”

New wheels in New York and New Jersey

In the USA, a project that developers once hoped would become the world’s tallest observation wheel has so far failed to get off the ground.

Around $200 million was spent on infrastructure for the New York Wheel at Staten Island. This was originally proposed as a 630ft tall (192m) tall structure. But it has since been scaled back to 420ft, according to local reports. 

An observation wheel is part of future plans for the American Dream mall in New Jersey
An observation wheel is part of future plans for the American Dream mall in New Jersey

If ever it is built, the long-stalled project certainly won’t enjoy world (or even US) record-breaking status. And neither does it seem likely to become a people magnet on the scale of the London Eye given its location off the well-trodden tourist path. (To reach Staten Island from Manhattan, those without a car must take a 25-minute ferry ride).

Views of the New York City skyline are also promised from the 300ft observation wheel planned at the American Dream mall in New Jersey.

Spotting a gap in the market

In addition to the projects already highlighted, a secondary market has developed for smaller observation wheels. This might be as part of events like a Christmas market or music festival, or as standalone city centre attractions.

Ranging from 40 to 60 metres in height, rides from Dutch Wheels can be found in 16 cities worldwide. The ride manufacturers Mondial and Technical Park are also prolific.

The 60m-tall Hong Kong Observation Wheel, by Dutch Wheels
The 60m-tall Hong Kong Observation Wheel, by Dutch Wheels

“After the launch of the London Eye, many cities were interested in the idea of an observation wheel,” says John Lowery of Events by Cynosure. “However, a ride of such scale and cost clearly wasn’t suitable for all locations.” 

Now an organiser of balloon festivals and indoor funfairs in the UK, Lowery previously managed operations for a company World Tourist Attractions/Great City Attractions. From 2004 to 2014, it operated observation wheels in several European cities. This included Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow and Seville, as well as London’s Hyde Park Winter Wonderland. Typically these would be 50 to 60m in height, sited for several months or years at a time. 

“We found a gap in the market for smaller but still impressive structures that complemented their urban surroundings, presented to standards that elevated the experience beyond that of the giant wheels people may have experienced previously at fairgrounds or theme parks. Our typical guest would-be tourists, however when the wheels initially opened they did attract a lot of local interest.”

Wheel today, gone tomorrow

Looking to diversify from the traditional fairground circuit, several smaller observation wheels are now operated by travelling showmen.

Trailer-mounted rides can usually be moved in a matter of days. This obviously gives operators great flexibility in when and where they can site their attractions. And any construction that does not require foundations has obvious advantages when it comes to talking to landowners.

Hyde Park Winter Wonderland 2019 observation wheels
An 80m Mondial wheel, as seen at Hyde Park Winter Wonderland in 2019

Although they might be based on a more traditional design, the finish of these portable wheels gives a nod to the London Eye. The UK alone now has more than 20 mobile observation wheels. Most are between 30 and 40m. And all of them are white.

“The country has become saturated with medium size wheels,” says Lowery. “I believe 52m and above is the most attractive size for major cities and beneficial for attracting tourists.”

Cocktails, yoga and saunas in the sky

By their very nature, all Ferris wheels are repetitive. They just keep on turning. But keeping passengers coming back is an art.

“Observation attractions tend to have daily patterns of attendance,” says Chih. “Often they are popular during sunset. To try and increase utilisation during quieter periods, operators might use the facility as a sort of event space.”

One of the pod makeovers produced for the London Eye's 20th anniversary in 2020 observation wheels
One of the pod makeovers produced for the London Eye’s 20th anniversary in 2020

“From the introduction of our 4D cinema experience to the prestigious Eye Lounge Champagne Bar, the London Eye experience has been ever-evolving,” says Jouhal. “We’ve also offered a range of seasonal events. Such as Spooky Storytime at Halloween, or relaxing yoga sessions on the summer solstice.

“To mark our 20th birthday, we took over 20 pods with a range of different immersive experiences, from a royal throne room to a West End theatre and even a pub in a pod!”

On the Hong Kong Observation Wheel, guests can enhance the experience with an AR app. The SkyWheel in Helsinki even boasts a gondola fitted out as a sauna.

Even without the added extras, no London Eye experience is ever the same, says Jouhal. “Summer is different to winter, day is different to night. And every time you take flight 135m over the capital, you spot something new on the skyline.”

When one Eye is better than two

Merlin has attempted several ‘Eye’ brand extensions, but only ever one other observation wheel. The 119m (400ft) ride launched in 2015 was supplied by Intamin. Merlin’s management came to an end in 2018. However, the attractions giant continues to operate a Madame Tussauds wax museum and SEA LIFE aquarium in the building at the base of the structure.

The Wheel and StarFlyer light up the sky at ICON Park, Orlando observation wheels
The Wheel and StarFlyer light up the sky at ICON Park, Orlando

Now rebranded as The Wheel at ICON Park, the sight-seeing attraction forms part of what is fast becoming a ‘one-stop shop’ for seekers of not just views from above, but also sky-high thrills.

The mixed-use development on International Drive also includes a 137m-tall Star Flyer. The chain ride will be joined later this year by a 133m-high drop tower and the world’s tallest Slingshot, propelling passengers to heights of 130m. All three come courtesy of Austrian manufacturer Funtime. They will be operated by the Slingshot Group of Companies, which has similar attractions at sites throughout Florida.

Observation wheels, views and thrills

ICON Park President and CEO Chris Jaskiewicz does not believe this combination of iconic attractions can easily be replicated. “Primarily because the centrepiece is our 400ft observation wheel. This engineering marvel cannot be built in every location. 

“If a suitable site was found, it would take a visionary developer with a deep commitment to create another entertainment district like ICON Park, which cost $250 million to build.”

With its Coaster Wheel concept, Intamin has combined a Ferris wheel and a thrill ride into one. Similar to the historic Wonder Wheel at Coney Island in New York, passengers take their choice of either gondolas mounted to the rim of the wheel or sliding along a track. Seen in action above is the version at Hello Kitty Park in China. This is one of four built by Intamin.

Other unusual ‘wheels’ from Intamin include rides mounted to buildings. For example, the Golden Reel at Studio City in Macau, which has a figure 8 track. A nice touch for the casino operator given the lucky status of the number in Chinese culture.

The Golden Reel at Studio City, Macau
The Golden Reel at Studio City, Macau

Or instead of a coaster on a wheel, how about an observation deck on a roller coaster?

Observation decks on buildings

Observation decks on skyscrapers, TV towers and purpose-built structures like the Eiffel Tower often feature in tourist itineraries.

Some offer added experiences like the Skywalk operated by Merlin on the Sydney Tower Eye in Australia, or the collection of “iconic and holy sh*t” attractions atop The Strat (Stratosphere Tower) in Las Vegas. All of course exploit their height to full advantage.

“Each of the ‘Eye’ brand sites are different operationally and in what they offer our guests,” says Jouhal on behalf of Merlin, which also operates the Blackpool Tower Eye in the UK. “They of course all offer outstanding views and breath-taking experiences.”

Sydney Tower Eye
Sydney Tower Eye

It’s not uncommon, says Chih, to see developers of tall buildings plan the visitor experience from the very beginning. “That’s the smart thing to do. You don’t want it to be an afterthought.”

Market it right, and the observation deck can be as aspirational as the building itself. Half an hour’s walk from the London Eye, The View from The Shard charges an online price of £25 ($35) – about the same as the Eye – for access to its open-air sky deck 244m (800 feet) above the British capital. Service is delivered in the manner of an upscale hotel. There’s even a pre-show.

Visit at peak (sunset) hours and you will pay around $60 to access At The Top. This 456m high observation deck is partway up the world’s tallest building, Dubai’s 828m high Burj Khalifa.

Burj Khalifa sunset
Burj Khalifa

i360: reinventing the observation tower for the 21st Century

When it comes to sight-seeing rides, can anything match the Ferris wheel’s popularity? A few years ago, the husband and wife team that conceived the London Eye updated another attraction. David Marks and Julia Barfield even granted the naming rights to the same sponsor when they launched the British Airways i360 in the English seaside resort of Brighton in 2016.

The observation tower’s 162m column rises from the site of the former West Pier. Its huge glass-skinned pod travels 138m up the tower. As many as 175 passengers at a time can enjoy the 25-minute experience. Sunset flights accompanied by a glass of English sparkling wine are popular. After its launch, i360 Director Eleanor Harris spoke of a “party atmosphere” and the tower acting as a catalyst for regeneration.

British Airways i360 in Brighton, England
British Airways i360 in Brighton, England

Manufacturers such as Intamin and Huss Park Attractions will build you a tower with a more conventional gondola for considerably less than i360’s £46m ($64m) price tag. Meanwhile, Interlink has attempted to update the concept by combining an observation tower with a balloon ride.

However, after five years, there has not been a flurry of new observation towers around the world, in the way the same way the London Eye fuelled a Ferris wheel Renaissance.

Czilbulka says he has seen increased demand for another sightseeing attraction. The flying island is also manufactured by Vekoma and various Chinese companies. With a lifting arm rather than a static pole, it offers aerial views from more than one vantage point.

But there’s only one observation ride that has truly stood the test of time.

Observation wheels are an all time classic

George Ferris really hit on something when he created his famous wheel back in 1893. After being given a new lease of life or the 21st Century by a pair of architects, attraction operators around the world – with rides of all sizes – have benefitted from the observation wheel revival. The classics never really go out of fashion.

The Centennial Wheel at Navy Pier in Chicago, the city where the Ferris wheel was born
The Centennial Wheel at Navy Pier in Chicago, the city where the Ferris wheel was born

Top image: The London Eye in its current lastminute.com branding, courtesy of Merlin Entertainments. Other images courtesy of featured attractions or manufacturers, unless stated otherwise.

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Owen Ralph

Owen Ralph

As a Lead Features Writer for blooloop, Owen brings with him two decades of experience covering the amusement and attractions industry for trade publications, including World’s Fair, Coinslot International, Kirmes & Park Revue and Park World, where he spent 15 years as Editor. He is currently a member of the IAAPA EMEA Education Subcommittee.

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