In 1893, Chicago was in need of a pièce de résistance. The city was hosting the World’s Columbian Exposition (a.k.a. the Chicago World's Fair) and wanted a showpiece that would rival Paris' Eiffel Tower from the 1889 fair. After a number of outrageous ideas were nixed, 33-year-old Pittsburgh engineer George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. suggested a giant revolving wheel.
The world's first Ferris wheel was unveiled on June 21 of that year. It measured 250 feet in diameter and held 60 people in each of its 36 cars. Ferris didn't invent the wheel, but his version (into which he put $25,000 of his own money) was a huge success, welcoming 1.4 million people over the following 19 weeks.
The engineer never had the chance to build another wheel, as he succumbed to typhoid fever just three years later. The original wheel was dismantled in the early 1900s. But in the century since, many notable Ferris wheels have sprung up around the world. Here are some that are worth the trek.
1. NAVY PIER FERRIS WHEEL // CHICAGO, ILLINOIS
The birthplace of the Ferris wheel is still garnering attention for its rides. Up until 2015, there was one that stood around 100 feet lower than Mr. Ferris' original 264-foot-tall creation. It must have been comfy enough however, because in 2013, it served as the site of the world's longest Ferris wheel ride (over 48 hours). A new version opened in 2016 to coincide with the Navy Pier's centennial. Its 42 enclosed gondolas, which each seat 10, are not only temperature controlled—for year-round enjoyment—but they also include plush seats and television systems.
2. WIENER RIESENRAD // VIENNA, AUSTRIA
Chicago might not be delivering on height, but that doesn't mean there aren't some impressively tall wheels out there. The world's oldest-running Ferris wheel—and the only surviving iteration built in the 19th century—held the title of tallest longer than any other Ferris wheel. The 212-foot-tall Wiener Riesenrad was built in 1897, and while it didn't earn World's Tallest honors until 1920, it held the top spot until 1985. Japan's Technostar eventually dethroned the attraction, but Riesenrad continued to do all right for itself, making a cameo in a number of different movies, including a memorable first kiss in Before Sunrise.
3. PACIFIC WHEEL // SANTA MONICA, CALIFORNIA
California’s Pacific Coast is well-known for bright, beautiful weather—and the Ferris wheel at the Santa Monica Pier makes good use of it as the world’s first and only solar-powered Ferris wheel. First installed in 1996, the original wheel was sold on eBay for over $130,000 when a new one was erected in 2008. The original solar panels are still in place, however, generating up to 71,000 kilowatt-hours of photovoltaic power—which is enough to power the 160,000 LED lights and rides for 800 passengers an hour.
4. WONDER WHEEL // BROOKLYN, NEW YORK
Completed in 1920, this Coney Island classic is one of, if not the, first so-called eccentric Ferris wheel—a dizzying distinction that refers to the way 16 of the 24 cars on the 150-foot-tall wheel swing back and forth during the ride. The original architect, a Romanian-born engineer named Charles Hermann, designed it as such to capitalize on the popularity of both Ferris wheels and roller coasters. During the course of a rotation, the red and blue cars slide in toward the axle and back out toward the perimeter.
It's estimated that more 30 million people have taken a ride on the Wonder Wheel in its 100-year history, and the landmark runs much like it did when it first premiered. It's operated without any major mishaps aside from when it—along with the city—stopped during the Great New York City Blackout on July 13, 1977. Second-generation owner Fred Garms hand-cranked the wheel to bring all the passengers back down to safety.
5. THE HIGH ROLLER // LAS VEGAS, NEVADA
Much like the London Eye, the High Roller isn't exactly a Ferris wheel. Technically, it's an “observation wheel,” which means rather than provide thrill to amusement park goers, it's designed to provide tourists with 360-degree views of the city. In Vegas, this means 28 glass pods that can each hold up to 40 people rotating at one foot per second—or 30 minutes for a full rotation. The High Roller, which opened in 2014, warrants a mention for the fact that at 550 feet high, it's among the tallest rotating wheel experiences you can find anywhere in the world.
6. Ain Dubai // Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Dubai spent years constructing the world's largest observation wheel. It's nearly twice as tall as the London Eye; fits 1400 passengers; and even includes a private bar. The observation wheel was scheduled to open in 2020, but its big debut has been pushed back due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
7. BIG O // TOKYO, JAPAN
For a slightly different superlative, there's Tokyo's Big O. Located in the middle of the bustling, ultramodern capital, is the first and largest center-less Ferris wheel. To emphasize the strikingly empty middle, the Dome City Complex attraction has a roller coaster rushing through it at 81 mph.
8. TIANJIN EYE // TIANJIN, CHINA
Completed in 2008, this observation wheel is noteworthy for its unique placement: It's directly above a river and straddling a commuter bridge. Its highest point is 400 feet above the river Hai with cars on the Yongle Bridge rushing by underneath riders in one of 50 passenger compartments.
A version of this article originally ran in 2015; it has been updated for 2021.