What Happens When Every City Has a Giant Ferris Wheel?

Observation wheels are reaching the point of ubiquity in tourist capitals. Is this trend ever going to slow down? 

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(Flickr/peterhellberg/Mark Byrnes)

Dozens of new Ferris wheels have been constructed in major cities across the globe over the past decade, with several more planned to open in the near future in places like Jerusalem, New York, and Rome.

Why the sudden ubiquity of Ferris wheels? Blame Ronald Bussink.

Bussink has been the leading designer of modern-day Ferris wheels, also known as observation wheels, for more than a generation. He first entered the wheel-building business back in 1985, and has since erected more than 100 wheels around the world.

He got the idea to modernize the amusement park standard after designing a wheel for Paris in 2000, as part of a celebration of the new millennium. Bussink recognized the potential to turn the wheels into a standalone attraction and soon began selling to governments and developers looking for a lucrative landmark.

The sales pitch is a relatively simple one: Can the wheel be seen by the public? Is there a great view? Is it easy to get to? Is there a lot of foot traffic in the area?

A handful of companies have since followed in Bussink's footsteps, successfully peddling observation wheels in tourist-rich urban areas like London, Las Vegas, Dubai, New York, Munich and Washington, D.C.. But will there come a point—or are we perhaps even already there—when so many cities have Ferris wheels that they’re no longer special or unique?

For cities that have gone ahead and taken the Ferris wheel plunge, the selling points are easy enough to enumerate.

For one, Ferris wheels often come cheaper than other major landmarks—around $15 million to $20 million, compared to say, an iconic skyscraper or a shiny new arts center, which can cost in the hundreds of millions. (There are exceptions: The New York Wheel, scheduled to open on Staten Island next summer, will cost a whopping $230 million.) And developers generally expect to make their money back within the first two years. The $15 million Capital Wheel at National Harbor, just outside of Washington, D.C., boasted 25,000 visitors in its opening weekend. 

Left: The original Ferris wheel in Chicago, built in 1893. Right: The London Eye, which debuted in 2000. (Wikimedia Commons)

Wheels are also admittedly a great blend of nostalgia, romance, and the modern age of social media. A search of the hashtag #londoneye yields more than 595,000 hits on Instagram, most featuring shots with friends and family against striking views from the British capital’s observation wheel, which opened in 2000 and is the country’s most popular paid tourist attraction. Several wheels also offer romantic packages including champagne and chocolates and are popular sites for marriage proposals.

Then there’s the (relatively) instant gratification factor. Ferris wheels take about a year to build from start to finish—a lot quicker than some other attractions—and take up less of a footprint (think parking lot-sized), which means they can be dropped in among other tourism draws, like an outlet mall, convention center, museums, or piers.

And it’s not like cities have stopped building museums or ballparks just because everyone has one. Then again, the Louvre isn’t the MoMa. Yankee Stadium, Camden Yards and Fenway Park all have their own identities. Though the wheels may be the same in design and perks, it’s the experience of seeing each city from a unique perspective that makes them different.

So don’t expect the Ferris wheel trend to slow down anytime soon. Chance Rides, which has already sold wheels to Niagara Falls, Seattle, Myrtle Beach, Pigeon Forge and National Harbor, is in talks with interested developers in several cities. The company declined to say which ones, but at this point, it hardly matters. 

 

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