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

Seattle's waterfront Ferris wheel Credit: 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.

More than just fulfilling a personal dream of Griffith’s, the Great Wheel is intended to create a highly visible draw to the waterfront during the chaos and confusion that will certainly ensue during the imminent deconstruction of the viaduct, the reconstruction of the seawall and the development of numerous public spaces that will stretch over many years. Let’s hope someone is already figuring out a clear system of signs to reach the Great Wheel.

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

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