A nostalgic case for a Seattle 'observation wheel'

Manchester, London, and Singapore have world-renowned versions of the old-style Ferris wheel. Will Seattle get its own?

The Wheel of Manchester in England

The Wheel of Manchester in England Sue Frause

The Singapore Flyer, the world's largest 'observation wheel' at 541 feet.

The Singapore Flyer, the world's largest 'observation wheel' at 541 feet. Sue Frause

The 442-foot London Eye opened in 2000 as the Millennium Wheel.

The 442-foot London Eye opened in 2000 as the Millennium Wheel. Sue Frause

The view from the London Eye

The view from the London Eye Sue Frause

I was bummed when I read in The Seattle Times earlier this spring that a 200-ft. observation wheel planned for Seattle Center was looking like a no-show. According to the article, Britain's Great City Attractions, which planned to move, build and operate the wheel, hasn't been able to secure liability insurance.

The gigantic wheel was to be part of The Next Fifty celebration at Seattle Center, marking the 50th anniversary of the Seattle World’s Fair that opened on April 21, 1962. It would have been located on the site of the former Fun Forest.

As a kid hooked on carnival rides, I loved the Ferris wheel. Every Fourth of July when the carnival came to my hometown of Arlington, I’d break into my piggy bank and run down to Olympic Avenue where I’d stand in line for “the big ride.” Oh sure, there was the merry-go-round and those silly little kiddie cars, but the Ferris wheel was the real deal — and not quite as scary as the hammer or the zipper.

When I was really young, I’d hang on oh-so-tight to my dad’s hand, and we’d see our town spread out before us from high in the sky. There was nothing better than reaching the peak and trying to spot the house my dad built at 225 North Dunham. As I got older, I ditched the father-daughter routine, and would pile into the swinging seats with a couple of girlfriends. The best part was rocking it at the top, our tanned legs dangling, which usually resulted in glares from the greasy carnies running the behemoth wheel below.

The original Ferris wheel was designed and constructed by George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr., for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Over the years, the term Ferris wheel has been used for these structures, also known as observation wheels and big wheels. Admittedly, my infatuation with Ferris wheels has somewhat waned since my wonder years. These days, it’s not so much about riding in them, as looking at them and photographing them.

I saw my first big wheel while attending a conference in Manchester, England. The Wheel of Manchester is one of Great City Attractions’ seven observation wheels. Three others are located in the UK (Liverpool, Plymouth, and Weston-super-mare) and there are also wheels in Dublin, Brisbane, and Singapore. The Singapore Flyer is the world’s largest, towering 541 feet above the city in the splashy new development of Marina Bay. During the 30-minute flight, passengers are enclosed in one of 28 air-conditioned capsules that carry up to 28 people. On a clear day, you can see all the way to Malaysia and Indonesia.

The only big wheel I’ve been on is the London Eye, which opened in 2000 as the Millennium Wheel. Today, the 442-ft. wheel is one of London’s iconic modern landmarks, and the UK’s most popular paid-for visitor attraction. More than 3.5 million people visit the London Eye each year. A similar attraction is in the works for Las Vegas, and will be known as the Skyvue Las Vegas Superwheel. That 500-ft. observation wheel is part of a planned development scheduled to open on the Las Vegas Strip in 2013.

But Seattle wheel lovers, take heart. Back in 2010, Hal Griffiths, owner of Pier 57, announced plans to bring a 175-ft. observation wheel to the waterfront. With the Seattle Center wheel deal now kaput, the waterfront wheel could become a reality.

Sue Frause is a Whidbey Island freelance writer and photographer. You can reach her at sue@suefrause.com.


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