13 High and Mighty Ferris Wheels

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Awe-inspiring

Photo: Marcin Wichary [CC by 2.0]/Flickr

The observation wheel – perhaps better known as the Ferris wheel – isn't evocative of cities. Instead, many of us think of these towering structures as the rickety and slightly nausea-inducing centerpiece of state fairs and seaside resort towns. Beloved by tots and necking teenagers, Ferris wheels are largely ephemeral. That is, they see the most action June through September, but then they're shuttered or dismantled only to start spinning again the following summer.

But with the age of the giant observation wheel, the humble Ferris wheel is no longer seasonal or relegated to the amusement park. Since 2000, when the London Eye debuted on the South Bank of the Thames, super-sized observation wheels, each more soaring than its predecessor, have emerged as the newest status symbol for cities. Acting as both tourist magnet and razzle-dazzle skyline addition, next-gen Ferris wheels aren't simply rides – they're experiences, a kind of contemporary take on the space age observation towers that sprang up in cities during the 1950s and '60s.

With a brand-spanking new observation wheel now rotating in Orlando and a mega-tall wheel in the works for Dubai, there's never been a better time to recognize 13 of the most spectacular, soaring and historically significant Ferris wheels in the world.

Let's take an armchair ride in the sky, shall we?

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The Ferris Wheel (1893–1906)

Wikimedia Commons.

Thanks to strong associations with rural fairgrounds, you might be inclined to think that the Ferris wheel originated on such a landscape. But, in fact, the original Ferris wheel is a product of the city – a true Chicago original. Erected for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, engineer George Ferris Jr.'s 264-foot-tall creation was a striking – and at the time, completely novel – addition to Chicago's nascent skyline. Viewed as more as a proper monument than as an amusement, the Ferris Wheel was designed with upstaging in-mind: Exposition planners were banking on the structure to steal the world's attention away from the Eiffel Tower, unveiled just four years earlier at the Paris Exhibition.

While Paris ultimately decided to keep the Eiffel Tower around, the Ferris Wheel was deconstructed and rebuilt at a Chicago amusement park in 1895. The structure was dismantled and erected yet again, this time in St. Louis, for the 1904 World's Fair. In 1906, the Ferris Wheel was loaded with dynamite and demolished. In 1995, a landmark observation wheel returned to the Windy City in the form of the Navy Pier Ferris Wheel (seen on the previous slide), a faithful – albeit shorter at 150-feet-tall – replica of George Ferris Jr.'s game-changing 1893 design.

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Wiener Riesenrad (1897)

John Menard/flickr.

Four years after George Ferris Jr.'s attention-grabbing giant wheel debuted in Chicago, Austria's capital city cut the das band on its own. Towering 212 feet over the Wurstelprater amusement park, the Wiener Riesenrad ("Viennese Big Wheel") has been spinning strong since 1897 when it was built as a Golden Jubilee showstopper for Emperor Joseph I. In fact, the 19th century marvel, which was extensively damaged during World War II but reconstructed and reopened in 1947 minus many of its original cars, is the world's oldest surviving Ferris wheel. And from 1920 until 1985, the Riesenrad enjoyed an impressive run as the world's tallest extant Ferris wheel.

Joining Schoenbrunn Palace, St. Stephen's Cathedral and the Vienna State Opera as one of the most iconic structures in a rather buttoned-up city best known for its imposing – and non-rotating – edifices, the Riesenrad is a singular spot in which to indulge in a romantic, candlelit dinner...or channel your inner 007. And in addition to its Bond cameo, classic film buffs will recognize the landmark giant wheel from 1949's moody Orson Wells-starring masterpiece, "The Third Man."

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Grand Roue de Paris (1900 – 1920)

Wikimedia Commons.

Think about it: a très grand Parisian monument capable of stealing the spotlight away from the très grand-est Parisian monument of them all, the Eiffel Tower. Sacrebleu, you say?

For a solid 20 years, a just-as-show-stopping structure dominated the Paris skyline along with a certain iron lattice landmark. While said structure, the 328-foot-tall Grand Roue de Paris, didn't reach the same dizzying heights as the 1,063-foot-tall Eiffel Tower, no other observation wheel managed to soar quite as high until Japan's Cosmo Clock 21 came along nearly 90 years later. (For much of this period, the Wiener Riesenrad ruled as tallest extant Ferris wheel in the world). Erected on the Champs de Mar for the 1900 Exposition Universalle – the same world's fair that introduced early 20th century society to newfangled innovations such as escalators and matryoshka dolls – the Grand Roue de Paris was dismantled in 1920. In 2000, the transportable Roue de Paris, a smaller contemporary take on the original big wheel, enjoyed a two-year stint at Place de la Concorde and has since been erected in numerous cities across the world including Amsterdam, Antwerp and Bangkok.

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The Wonder Wheel (1920)

Guru Sno Studios/flickr.

Until the much-anticipated day when Staten Island's 630-foot-tall (!) New York Wheel starts attracting thrill-seekers by the ferry-load, the Wonder Wheel – soaring grand dame of Coney Island that it is – remains the most popular rotating wheel-shaped structure in the five boroughs.

Opened on Memorial Day 1920, the 150-foot-tall Wonder Wheel is a Brooklyn icon and bona fide New York City historic landmark – when the 200-ton wheel starts a-spinnin, you know that summertime in the city has officially arrived. The Wonder Wheel is also the only eccentric Ferris wheel on our list. Built by the, you guessed it, the Eccentric Ferris Wheel Company, the Wonder Wheel sports 16 passenger cars that aren't affixed to the rim of the wheel like those found on standard Ferris wheels. Rather, the cars slide on a track towards and away from the wheel's hub as the wheel itself rotates. Those who'd rather not swing/slide 150 feet in the air (for first-timers, the sensation can be just a wee bit barf-y), eight of the Wonder Wheel's 24 cars are stationary. And although you can't beat the original, a slightly taller replica of the Wonder Wheel, Mickey's Fun Wheel, can be found at the Disneyland California Adventure in Anaheim, California.

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Seattle Great Wheel (2012)

Rachel Samanyi/flickr.

Some giant Ferris wheels, including the Singapore Flyer and Melbourne Star, could be considered "troubled" due to financial woes, construction setbacks, structural issues and unexpected shutdowns. Meanwhile, their more petite contemporaries such as Maryland's Capital Wheel (2014), the Myrtle Beach SkyWheel (2011) and the Niagara SkyWheel (2006) have experienced smoother sailing.

And then there's the Seattle Great Wheel, which falls in the latter category. Perhaps the most dramatically situated Ferris wheel to appear on our list – it juts 40 feet over Seattle's Pier 57, directly above Elliot Bay and is one of only a handful of Ferris wheels to be built over water – the Seattle Great Wheel is another constantly revolving tourism machine that's gone off largely without a hitch. Soaring 175 feet above the Seattle waterfront, the landmark features 42 fully enclosed gondolas designed for primo bird's eye city-peeping. Translation: the city's trademark drizzle is never an issue. (But don't expect knockout mountain views on rainy days). Car number 42 is a private "luxury gondola" equipped with leather bucket seats, a stereo system and a don't-look-down glass bottom floor. The privilege of soaring about the Puget Sound in a tricked-out VIP bucket, however, doesn't come cheap: tickets are $50 compared to the $13 it costs to take a roughly 12-minute ride in one of the wheel's other 41 cars.

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Texas Star (1985)

Luis Tamayo/flickr.

It just wouldn't be right to compile a list of the world's most breathtaking modes in which to experience centripetal acceleration and not include at least one from a state fair. So here you are, a super-tall wheel – from 1985 and for nearly three decades onward, it was the tallest in North America – that hails from a place where everything is just a smidge bigger: Texas. (If you want to get technical, the Reggio Emilia-manufactured wheel is actually of Italian distraction).

The LED-bedecked crown jewel of the Texas State Fair in Dallas, the Texas Star is one of the only Ferris wheels on this list that's not open year-round. If it's not fair time – the end of September through most of October – then you're out of luck, partner. But when the Texas State Fair is happening, the Texas Star is set into motion. A gentle 12-minute ride – there's no getting as scared as a sinner in cyclone on this popular fairground attraction – on the Texas Star is a must. Because really, what better place to scarf a corndog and deep-fried Coke than from 212-feet in the sky?

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Cosmo Clock 21 (1989)

asuka/flickr.

It should come as no surprise that Japan is lousy with crazy-tall Ferris wheels including Tokyo's 377-foot Daikanransha (1999), Osaka's 369-foot Tempozan Ferris Wheel (1997) and the late, great Sky Dream Fukuoka (2002) which positively soared at 394 feet. Only one Japanese Ferris wheel, however, also holds bragging rights as the world's largest clock. Yes, clock.

A flashy fixture of Cosmo World amusement park in the port city of Yokohama, Cosmo Clock 21, isn't just a spectacularly large (digital) timepiece. While not the first of Japan's giants to be erected, Cosmo Clock 21 reigned throughout much of the 1990s as the tallest Ferris wheel in the world at 353 feet. (In 1997, it was dismantled and resituated on a taller base adding roughly 16 feet to its total height). Cosmo Clock 21 is also noted for its generous capacity: with 60 cars each able to accommodate eight people, as many as 480 passengers can take the 15-minute ride at once. On New Year's Eve, Cosmo World puts on a killer fireworks show with its Ferris wheel, naturally, providing the countdown.

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Eurowheel (1999)

Jeremy Thompson/flickr.

The 300-foot-tall Eurowheel's reign as Europe's tallest extant observation wheel was a rather short-lived one. Less than a year after this slender and graceful ruota panoramica made its first full rotation at the Mirabilandia amusement park outside of Ravenna, the next giant wheel on our list, the London Eye, opened and immediately dwarfed all of the European – and global – competition.

Still, the second tallest observation wheel in Europe is certainly nothing to scoff at and this (Russian-built) Italian beauty, clad in over 50,000 individual light bulbs, is marketed as one of the world's brightest. And since this is Italy that we're talking about, it's worth mentioning the amorous appeal of Eurowheel, which offers stunning views of Ravenna's ancient skyline and, beyond that, the Adriatic Sea. If anything, it's the best place to snuggle up and canoodle in a park where other popular draws include Europe's most terrifying inverted rollercoaster, a traumatic-looking attraction simply called "Phobia," and a ride that travels through "the ruins of a post-apocalyptic New York."

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Pacific Wheel (1996/2008)

red.dahlia/flickr.

Jutting over the Pacific Ocean on Santa Monica's landmark pier, the Pacific Wheel isn't the tallest or oldest Ferris wheel on our list. And while it puts on quite the impressive computer-generated light show, it isn't necessarily the flashiest. The 135-foot-tall wheel is, however, arguably the greenest given that its spin (2.5 revolutions per minute) is made possible by the power of the sun. In fact, according to operator Pacific Park, the wheel is the world's only solar-powered observation wheel.

A total of 650 PV panels capable of generating 71,0000 kilowatt-hours of clean energy aren't the only green feature of the 20-gondola wheel: the Pacific Wheel's 160,000 lights are energy-efficient LEDs. It's also worth noting that the Pacific Wheel has a history of do-gooding. The Ferris wheel currently standing on the Santa Monica Pier has only been around since 2008 – after a 12-year run, its predecessor, also solar-powered, was dismantled and put up for auction on eBay with a minimum bid of $50,000 (base not included). Half of the winning bid was earmarked for donation to Special Olympics Southern California. The winning bid of $132,400 came from a developer who is still planning to erect the old Pacific Wheel in a place where the views from the top are as different as you can get from coastal Southern California: Oklahoma City.

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The Singapore Flyer (2008)

Vibin JK/flickr.

It was a big year for giant observation wheels in 2008, a year when several really tall structures spun into action across the globe. The tallest of that year's sky-high crop was the Singapore Flyer, a 541-foot-tall behemoth that enjoyed a several-year run as the tallest observation wheel in the world.

In addition to encountering bumps in its planning stages, the Singapore Flyer has experienced difficulties, both financial- and operations-related, since opening including an air pollution-induced shutdown in 2013 (ugh) and a December 2008 breakdown in which 173 riders were trapped inside the wheel's capsules for six hours (double ugh). Despite these hiccups, the Singapore Flyer remains a must-visit attraction in the Garden City. And acrophobics needn't feel left out as their friends and family take to the sky. The Singapore Flyer's terminal doubles as an entertainment complex with shops, restaurants, an indoor rainforest and a spa where fish, yes fish, perform the pedicures. And for those on the fence about boarding one of the wheel's 28 air-conditioned capsules – each holding 28 passengers for extra-good feng shui – there's always liquid courage in the form of an authentic Singapore Sling served onboard during the 32-minute rotation.

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London Eye (2000)

Anna & Michal/flickr.

While the London Eye isn't the first observation wheel to hit the British capital city (that title belongs to Great Wheel, a close facsimile of Chicago's original Ferris Wheel that towered over Earls Court from 1895 to 1907), it is the tallest at a staggering 443 feet. The London Eye, with its constantly shifting corporate branding and impossible-to-miss riverfront position on the South Bank of the Thames, is also the tallest Ferris wheel – "cantilevered observation wheel" if you want to get technical – in all of Europe and, from 2000 until 2006, was the tallest in the world. Fifteen years on, it's still in the top five.

An insta-landmark in a city already chock-full of towering icons, the London Eye is also largely responsible for sparking the giant observation wheel trend, a trend in which has elevated the modern Ferris wheel from amusement park staple to urban status symbol. Capable of accommodating 25 passengers in each of its 32 air-conditioned motorized capsules per leisurely 30-minute revolution, the London Eye is the top paid tourist attraction in the U.K. And ever since the London Eye's first "blink," once-formidable tourist hotspots such as the London Bridge have been forced to up their game. A ride on the London Eye is no doubt a brilliant, as they natives might say, experience but be prepared to cough up some serious pound-age. These expansive – and expensive – city views set adults back £29.95 – about $46 – per head.

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Tianjin Eye (2008)

Roman Tsisyk/flickr.

Another inaugurated-in-2008 giant observation wheel, the 394-foot-tall Tianjin Eye, isn't China's tallest. That would be the 525-foot-tall Star of Nanchang. In fact, when it comes to height, the Tianjin Eye is rather unexceptional as there are currently three – yes, three – other Chinese observation wheels of the exact same height: the Zhengzhou Ferris Wheel (2003), the Changsa Ferris Wheel (2004) and the Suzhou Ferris Wheel (2009). So, if not height, what makes this sky-high attraction stand out from the pack?

That would be the 48-cabin Tianjin Eye's singular positioning. Completing a full rotation in about 30 minutes, the giant wheel itself is built directly above the Yongle Bridge, a bridge that carries a six-lane highway across the Hai River. The sensation of floating above the bustling port city of Tianjin, home to 15 million people, in a bridge-straddling Ferris wheel as both boats and cars pass beneath may not be everyone’s proverbial cup of oolong. (We imagine that it would be mighty disorienting to drive on the bridge, as well, with that thing overhead). But to experience the unlikely marriage of public infrastructure and amusement park wow first-hand, there's nothing else in the world quite like a ride on the Tianjin Eye.

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The High Roller (2014)

Robert Pernett/flickr.

Leave it to Las Vegas to pretty much upstage everything that came before it.

The LED-studded centerpiece of LINQ, Caesars Entertainment's newest casino mega-development on the Las Vegas Strip, the High Roller is, you guessed it, the tallest observation wheel in the entire world as of publication. At 550-feet-tall, it beats out previous record-holder, the Singapore Flyer, by a mere 9 feet. However, the High Roller is not the most fabulous or the most stomach-churning of LINQ's many attractions. Those honors go to Frank Marino's Divas Las Vegas drag show and Guy Fieri's Vegas Kitchen & Bar, respectively. And, yes, you can indeed get hitched within one of the High Roller's 28 motorized, 40-person capsules. Just be warned, these are "quickie" ceremonies that only last a full rotation of the wheel. Once you hit the ground and emerge from your private car 30 minutes later – voila! You're now a married person. Wedding packages start at $2,145; having a full bar at the disposal for you and your wedding guests costs an extra grand. Regular admission tickets that don't involve the exchange of rings start at $26.95 for adults. A spin on the High Roller during the evening hours, when Sin City truly shines, is $10 more.