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Will Seattle's new wheel keep things turning on the waterfront?

With tunnel construction bearing down on downtown, will the newly-opened Ferris wheel be enough of a waterfront porch light to draw Seattle's tourist swarms?
Seattle's waterfront Ferris wheel

Seattle's waterfront Ferris wheel Michael B.

As incredible as it might sound, until 3:30 p.m. this last Friday I had never ridden a Ferris wheel in my life. They always seemed like a perfectly awful convergence of three favorite phobias: claustro, acro and whatever the phobia is that involves being flung about inside an insubstantial metal object. My last encounter with this triad was soaring above the harbor of Barcelona in what felt like a large lunch pail with holes cut into its sides. With every creak and quiver I was convinced we were about to tumble into the black water below.  Oh, did I mention a phobia of black water?

So, equipped with these aforementioned fears, I took on the Seattle Great Wheel. As the preview crowd pressed towards the stair-stepped platforms leading to the bubble-like gondolas, I had a last second urge to bolt back through the line to the safety of the sidewalk. But after getting a searing sunburn while listening to a seemingly endless sequence of cheerleaders, flag-bearers, speechmakers and ribbon cutters, the least I could do was to do my journalistic duty and board the big machine of almost certain death.

It turned out not to be so bad, after all. (At least I didn’t land the cabin with the glass floor.)

I was certain the thing would rock precariously. It did not. The ride was smooth and jostle-free. No creaks, no groans, no sound of scraping metal or sharp pings of stressed-out cables. Silently, I felt myself lifted into the sky with three strangers who seemed to have a similar mix of childlike amusement and adult trepidation. The cabins are completely enclosed, roomy, and air-conditioned, even sporting adjustable air deflectors. Narrow windows at the top open to catch breezes. Arching out over the open water by forty feet, the gondola gracefully descended down towards the bay below. I just had to force myself to look out and not down.  

My mental impression of Ferris wheels has been largely formed by the movies. Romantic scenes of, say, a relentlessly plucky Mickey Rooney and an irrepressibly perky Judy Garland, canoodling in an open chair as it rotated and swung to and fro, its occupants held in only by a slender steel lap bar. I think Hitchcock had at least one scene involving a Ferris wheel as an accessory to a murderous act. And Steven Spielberg made a big wheel tumble off its moorings into Santa Monica Bay in his film 1941. In the latter case, a demented puppet riding the chair only added to the freakishness.

In his fascinating historical novel, Devil in the White City, Seattle author Erik Larsen used the original wheel designed by engineer George W. Ferris and erected for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago almost as a living character. Young women coming to the fair would, soon after riding it, fall into the clutches of America’s first serial killer with his horrifically constructed mansion.
See what I’m getting at? Ferris wheels have been linked with disasters of all manner.

Seriously though, the Seattle Great Wheel is a marvelous addition to our waterfront. We’ve had them before on our shores, as Seattle's early twentieth century amusement park, Luna Park, included them as a basic staple of recreational amusement. And we have good company, as it happens. The London Eye is now a symbol of that city, along with Big Ben and St. Paul’s Cathedral. For years, Paris had one planted in the Tuileries Garden. There is a virtual twin of ours on the Navy Pier in Chicago, albeit somewhat smaller in diameter.

In Seattle's case, Hal Griffith, his wife Joan and their two sons, Kyle and Troy, guided a huge team of engineers, designers, contractors, attorneys and massive floating cranes to bring the wheel to Pier 57. Hal attempted to do it decades ago but was rebuffed by the city at the time. This time, the city was an eager and willing participant; the whole process of permitting and construction occurred in less than two years. While the exact cost is not known, it is reported to be in excess of $5 million. No public funds have been involved; the whole deal was privately financed.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Jul 3, 9:37 a.m. Inappropriate

You failed to mention Orson Welles's dark masterpiece,"The Third Man," in which a huge Ferris wheel in Vienna figures prominently. Or the closer to home connection, Erik Larson's book about the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 (where the Ferris wheel made its debut), "The Devil in the White City."

arizonan

Posted Wed, Jul 4, 10:54 p.m. Inappropriate

You obviously didn't read the article, since Larsen's book is mentioned.

sarah90

Posted Tue, Jul 3, 9:45 a.m. Inappropriate

Besides the (de)construction on the waterfront, the removal of the trolleys has made it nearly impossible for anyone (including the zillions of tourists coming in and going out on the large cruise ships) to get down to Pioneer Square. In retrospect, it seems to have been a very poor idea (put forth most actively by those behind the building of the Sculpture Park) to remove the trolley barn there. Once the barn was gone, the trolleys went out of service. The disappearance of the trolleys has been one of the reasons why Pioneer Sq is dying, its a long walk to get there on foot along the waterfront, and all those tourists don't go there.

Let's hope that the wheel does much better for Griffith than it did for Ferris himself, who despite his engineering and organizational genius, died penniless and alone.

thoughts

Posted Tue, Jul 3, 10 a.m. Inappropriate

George Benson must be rolling in his grave.

arizonan

Posted Tue, Jul 3, 10:32 a.m. Inappropriate

From Maximilien's veranda in the Pike Place Market I watched the cars drive in confusion around the Ferris Wheel looking for parking. These have got to be the out-of-towners who haven't been to the deconstructed Seattle waterfront in a while. With all the ferry detours, Mariners game days, special events and summer traffic the area can be a ball of confusion. Pioneer Square and its lack of pedestrian traffic is a blight that may work its way up Western Avenue, the Waterfront, and (already blighted by transit construction and never recovered) 3rd Avenue. The immediate question is whether the new Target store at the site of the old Penny's store-2nd and Pike- can help turn the tide.

chapala21

Posted Tue, Jul 3, 10:58 a.m. Inappropriate

A draw to the waterfront??? Who, besides the tourists, and journalists, apparently, will want to venture into that hell? Not I. If I want ticky tacky ferris wheels, I can do the Puyallup; I don't need it on my waterfront.

So this is going to part of our civic "front yard." Wow! It seems to me that all the talk about coming up with new ideas has kind of fallen to just what I expected, at least so far. More for tourists to do and see because locals will not be visiting more than once, if that.

I've seen figures, the correctness of which I don't warrant, saying that this wheel has 41 cars with all but one (?) carrying 6 people on 3 minute rides. That other one, I've read, is a "VIP" car, oh my! that carries 8 and has the glass floor. Excluding the VIP car, my math makes that about $3198 every 3 minutes assuming 41 cars carrying 6 people each. The builders should make up their $5 million pretty quickly at that rate.

I see this thing a white elephant in winter when the weather sucks and the tourists have mostly all gone home. And yet we'll have our copy cat ferris wheel just like X, Y, and Z. How world class!

mspat

Posted Tue, Jul 3, 11:48 a.m. Inappropriate

Remember this is what the movers and shakers, stakeholders, Discovery Institute soothsayers, political retreads and the Governor sacrificed the viaduct for.
It's pretty clear now that the last thing anyone cared about this most expensive waterfront transportation project was the "transportation" part.

I think the wheel is the perfect metaphor...it will "keep things turning" but you won't be able to actually go anywhere.

jmrolls

Posted Tue, Jul 3, 11:56 a.m. Inappropriate

I wish the wheel great success. It has more appeal than anything I saw coming out of the Great Waterfront Plan and does not cost taxpayers anything. Furthermore if it adds some tiny bit of impetus to restoring the trolley that's also a plus. A big thanks to the Griffiths.

kieth

Posted Tue, Jul 3, 11:56 a.m. Inappropriate

Talk about a blight on the waterfront. That wheel is huge and enormously ugly.

You can get about the same views for free driving on the top deck of the viaduct.

Or, you can get much better views for about the same price, but for much longer than 3 minutes, from the observation deck of the space needle.

This is along the same lines as the new Glass Museum, EMP and Sculpture Park -- cheap tourist traps that add nothing to our city.

Lincoln

Posted Tue, Jul 3, 12:48 p.m. Inappropriate

I'd love to ride the new Ferris Wheel, but it is getting so difficult to get to the Seattle waterfront that I'm not sure it's worth the effort. (Frequently, the best way to get to a sporting event is to park in Bremerton and walk from the ferry to the venue.)


Ferris wheels are a beautiful addition to any city, but like most Puget Sound residents, I got my first exposure to them at the Puyallup Fair. There was a little kiddie wheel maybe 10 feet in diameter, but one of the first steps on the path to adulthood was when you dared to ride one of the (seemingly) immense twin Eli Bridge Model 16 wheels that sat behind an electric sign that read BIG ELI WHEEL. The operator moved a long tiller that activated a clutch that connected a big faded red motor (which looked like a farm tractor with its wheels removed) to a cable that ran around the wheel to turn it. The sound of the engine as its throttle opened to start the wheel, the glow of the hundreds of incandescent lights, and the view from the top were exhilarating. Now that was a Ferris wheel! Sadly, the last time I attended the fair, the Eli 16s were gone. I hope they went to a good home. I'd give just about anything to have one in my yard.

dbreneman

Posted Tue, Jul 3, 6:48 p.m. Inappropriate

Have not yet ridden the wheel, but I heartily approve of it. I like Chicago's Navy Pier and the wheel there offers a great ride and view. Best thing since the Fun Forest.

Posted Tue, Jul 3, 7:26 p.m. Inappropriate

This won't get any better after the viaduct is finished. This mayor and city council despise cars and the people who drive them, so they will make it just as hard to get there as it is right now. In fact, that's pretty much the case with all of downtown. I can only wonder how long it will take for the premier retailers to clear out.

NotFan

Posted Tue, Jul 3, 10:47 p.m. Inappropriate

"Maybe we can make a big real life game out of it. Anyone wanna play Find the Ferris Wheel?"

The big real life game is "Find the Parking Spot."

But I don't care to play.

Do the Puyallup!

Posted Wed, Jul 4, 8:43 a.m. Inappropriate

"The Third Man" was indeed a dark masterpiece, but it was not Orson Welles's. Welles and Joseph Cotten were both brilliant as actors, but the director was Carol Reed.

gabowker

Posted Wed, Jul 4, 10:54 p.m. Inappropriate

It was quite a mob scene today along with the waterfront overall. No cruise ships today, but lots of tourists. My guess is 150 waiting in line for the ferris wheel.

Hopefully mspat has realized it's a much longer ride than 3 minutes...

As for Pioneer Square, better transit would be great, but there's also a method involving using your legs that some people use nowadays...

mhays

Posted Thu, Jul 5, 9:44 a.m. Inappropriate

Honestly, I don't get it and can't fathom how the City Council allowed it, especially in the middle of a longer term view of the future of our waterfront and all that is possible. I guess the haranguing of waterfront business owners about the mess/traffic/parking got too much and the ticket revenue was just too appealing. Our skyline is changed forever with the addition of this amusement park ride - can't wait for the flashing lights and colors. Another good reason why DPD needs to change their notification processes!

MissRuby

Posted Wed, Jul 11, 6:31 a.m. Inappropriate

Though intended to create a a positive impression of the Waterfront, the construction rerouted traffic and the lost parking along with the Ferry detours will have the opposite effect. Out of town visitors will tell everyone back at the general store how impossible the Waterfront has become to access, probably best to wait a decade til the dust settles before visiting.

chapala21

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