Navy Pier’s Ferris wheel, an icon of the Chicago lakefront, will be dismantled this fall and replaced by a taller ride featuring temperature-controlled gondolas that will be ready in time for the pier’s 2016 centennial.
Pier officials and Mayor Rahm Emanuel were set to announce Tuesday that the new wheel will rise to a height of 196 feet, almost 50 feet taller than the current wheel. Still, the new wheel will be 68 feet shorter than the original Ferris wheel, which was built for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
Navy Pier transformation offers more open space, lake views
The Ferris wheel will cost $26.5 million, which includes construction and landscaping, said Nick Shields, a spokesman for Navy Pier Inc. Pier officials said public funds were not used to purchase the Ferris wheel, which has been privately financed by a loan from Fifth Third Bank to Navy Pier Inc. Shields declined to specify the terms of the loan.
The pier’s new Ferris wheel also will not compete height-wise with others that have sprung up worldwide in recent years — such as the 550-foot-tall High Roller that opened last year in Las Vegas.
Navy Pier Inc. is talking to some firms to sponsor the wheel, but none has committed, said Marilynn Gardner, CEO of Navy Pier Inc.
The existing wheel at Navy Pier, erected as part of the 1995 renovation of the pier, will come down in September, a spokeswoman said. The new one is expected to be in place in May, giving the pier — the state’s top tourist attraction — a new look.
The construction of a new wheel comes amid a game of “Can you top this?” among cities putting up spectacular observation wheels to attract tourists.
The best-known of those wheels, the London Eye, which stands at almost 450 feet tall, has become a symbol of the revitalized British capital.
New York plans to open a new wheel near Staten Island next fall that will be 630 feet tall.
Construction on the 690-foot tall Dubai Eye broke ground around the same time as the one in New York.
Those who manage the pier, however, said they are not trying to keep up with cities’ attempts to outdo each other.
“I wouldn’t say that bigger is always better,” said Brian Murphy, chief operating officer of Navy Pier Inc., the private nonprofit that was created in 2011 to manage the pier and oversee its redevelopment. “It’s more about the experience and elevating the experience with our guests with the year-round use of the wheel.”
Murphy said the height of the Ferris wheel on Navy Pier is limited by space because of its location. The new wheel was chosen to fit the current wheel’s configuration.
The new wheel, designed and manufactured by Dutch Wheels in the Netherlands, will have fully enclosed gondolas that are both heated and air-conditioned, which officials hope will draw tourists year-round. The gondolas in the current wheel are open-air.
The 42 new, blue gondolas will also seat up to 10 passengers versus the six that the current wheel’s cars can hold. The gondolas will feature padded seats, TV screens and speakers, and a condensation system that will keep the windows from fogging up as the wheel makes its rounds.
The wheel’s rim and spokes will light up with various colors and will be programmed for special occasions. The lights on the current wheel are white.
“We will have nightly light shows,” Murphy said. “We expect to have a lot of fun with it.”
Ticket prices, now $8 per ride, could rise, Shields said, although that has yet to be determined.
Ride times will increase from seven to 12 minutes, with three revolutions per ride as opposed to the current one, Murphy said. By comparison, a full-revolution of the High Roller in Las Vegas takes 30 minutes, and each gondola can hold up to 40 people.
The original Ferris wheel, built by George Washington Gale Ferris Jr., was a marvel in its day and a smash hit at the 1893 World’s Fair on Chicago’s South Side. Its moving wheel, which reached a height of 264 feet, was meant to rival the spectacle of the 1,063-foot Eiffel Tower, of the 1889 Paris Exposition.
The new Ferris wheel is part of an effort to reinvigorate Navy Pier, which has seen attendance slip. Estimated attendance last year was 8.5 million, down from a peak of 9.2 million in 2012, Shields said.
Last year, the Ferris wheel drew about 760,000 people, Shields said. That’s a drop of about 25 percent from the 1 million people who rode it in 1998, three years after the pier’s renovation.
The wheel will be a symbol of the changes Navy Pier is making in time for its centennial — from a garish tourist trap to a space that focuses on the meeting of Lake Michigan, Chicago’s lakefront parks and the city’s skyline. The pier has been renovating the promenade on its southern side, once known as Dock Street, with trees, a herringbone pattern of concrete and benches. Interior spaces are also being redone.
“We’re implementing our centennial vision, and this has always been a part of it,” Gardner said. “We’re thrilled overall. This really gives us a world-class attraction. It gives a contemporary identity to a historic wheel.”
( Chicago Tribune )