As a structural engineer, Richard Weingardt has worked on projects including Harrah’s New Orleans Casino, the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum and the terminals at Denver International Airport.
But if you ask him to name some of his favorite structures, he’ll likely cite a childhood passion that’s alive and well six decades later. “I grew up with Ferris wheels,” he said. “That’s what you did when you went to the state fair or when the carnival came to town.”
Since then, he’s not only traveled the world to ride some of the planet’s most iconic observation wheels, he’s also authored “Circles in the Sky,” a 2006 biography of George Ferris, the innovative engineer who created the first such wheel for Chicago’s Columbian Exposition back in 1893.
Not surprisingly, Weingardt is excited about the two wheel projects currently in the works in Las Vegas. While waiting for one or both of those to open, he shared his thoughts on other great places to take a spin.
Wong Maye-E / AP
A capsule carrying tourists on the Singapore Flyer with the financial district's skyline in the background is seen Aug. 16, 2011, in Singapore.
The current world champion rises 541 feet above Singapore’s Marina Centre complex. “It offers the best panoramic view of any wheel out there,” said Weingardt. “From the top you can see across the water to Indonesia and Malaysia.” Enjoy a Singapore Sling along the way and the wheel won’t be the only thing that’s spinning.
Suzanne Plunkett / Reuters
Fireworks explode in front of the London Eye on the River Thames Jan. 1, 2010, during New Year celebrations in London.
The Singapore Flyer and China’s Star of Nanching are both taller, but Weingardt credits London’s 443-foot wheel with reviving the world’s interest in such attractions. Supported from one side only, “it’s like a giant pinwheel,” he said, adding that “it wouldn’t seem to fit with the historic fabric of the area, but it comes off well.”
Courtesy Wiener Riesenrad
Wiener Riesenrad in Vienna, Austria, is the world's oldest continually operating Ferris wheel.
The oldest (1897) continually operating Ferris wheel in the world, this ride looms over the entrance of Vienna’s Prater amusement park. “It’s become one of the wonders of Vienna,” said Weingardt. “It’s like riding history.” At 212 feet, it’s hardly the tallest, but it’s almost certainly the only one on which you can enjoy a candlelight dinner for two in a Swarovski-designed capsule.
Courtesy State Fair of Texas
At 212 feet, the Texas Star is the tallest Ferris wheel in the U.S., but it only operates for less than one month a year during the State Fair of Texas.
Located in Dallas’ Fair Park, the Texas Star (212 feet) is the tallest Ferris wheel in the U.S. “On a clear day you can see Fort Worth,” Weingardt said. “It’s one every American should ride.” Don’t dawdle, though; the Star only operates during the Texas State Fair, which runs Sept. 30–Oct. 23 this year.
HOCO Entertainment and Resorts
The Niagara SkyWheel overlooks both the American and Horseshoe falls.
When you’ve had enough of celebrities in wax and two-headed lambs, the Niagara SkyWheel offers a welcome respite from the crowds and clamor of Clifton Hill. The view overlooks both the American and Horseshoe falls and is especially dramatic at night when the falls are bathed in colors from 21 xenon lights. “It’s only 175 feet tall,” said Weingardt, “but it’s still worth the ride.”
David Mcnew / Getty Images
The Pacific Wheel on the Santa Monica Pier has appeared in countless television shows, feature films and commercials.
At 85 feet high, the signature attraction on the Santa Monica Pier is nowhere near the world’s tallest Ferris wheel, but it may be the most blinged-out thanks to 160,000 LEDs that can be configured in endless color combinations. “It’s very impressive at night,” said Weingardt — and even more so when you realize the lights and the wheel itself are solar-powered.
Want to combine your ride with a little shopping? Head to the Hankyu Entertainment Park (HEP) in Osaka, Japan, and you can hit more than 100 stores, then climb on board the mall’s rooftop observation wheel (246 feet above the roof, 348 feet above the ground). Unlike many wheels, said Weingardt, the capsules dangle from protruding ribs, making the view even more breathtaking.
Beijing Great Wheel
At 682 feet, the Beijing Great Wheel was set to become the new world champion in time for the 2008 Summer Olympics. Alas, after several delays, it appears the project is on indefinite hold, leaving wheel-aficionados to, well, spin their wheels. “If they build it, it’ll be the one to chase,” Weingardt said. “I’ll be among the first to ride it.”
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Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.