10 Tallest Observation Wheels in the USA
From the Pleasure wheel to the Ferris wheel to the Observation wheel… Who introduced them? What are the differences? Where are the tallest ones? How tall are they? And, where do we go from here?
These were some of the questions I had when I decided to research the 10 Tallest Observation Wheels in the USA … and it actually wasn’t as easy as you would think as I found a lot of incorrect outdated information on the Google.
The TL;DR (too-long-didn’t read) version so that you can jump down to the Top 10 list below is that while some Ferris wheels are marketed as observation wheels, any distinction between the two names being at the discretion of the operator. The wheels that are most commonly referred to as observation wheels are the ones that have passenger cars mounted to the rim and independently rotated by electric motors, as opposed to wheels with cars suspended from the rim and kept upright by gravity.
A History of Ferris-type Wheels
As far back as the 17th century (and possibly even the 13th century based on fictional accounts) passengers have enjoyed rides in suspended chairs on a large wheel. The first “Pleasure wheels” may have originated in Bulgaria where passengers rode in chairs suspended from large wooden rings and turned by strong men. Since the early 1600’s there have been accounts of “Great wheels” in the rest of the world; however, it wasn’t until 1848 that a Ferris-type wheel was introduced to America, when Frenchman Antonio Manguino constructed a wooden pleasure wheel to attract visitors to his start-up fair in Walton Spring, Georgia.
In 1892, William Somers installed three 50 foot wooden wheels at Asbury Park, NJ, Atlantic City, NJ, and Coney Island, NY. He was granted the first U.S. patent for a “Roundabout” the following year. George Washington Gale Ferris Jr., who went on to introduce the original Ferris wheel at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, actually rode on Somers’ wheel in Atlantic City prior to designing his wheel. Somers filed a lawsuit against Ferris for patent infringement; however, Ferris and his lawyers successfully argued that the Ferris Wheel and its technology differed greatly from Somers’ wheel, and the case was dismissed.
The Original Ferris Wheel
But, before I get to the list, I wanted to talk a little about the original Ferris wheel (pictured), which was designed and constructed by George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. The original Ferris Wheel, which Mr. Ferris actually called an “observation wheel”, was a 264-foot revolving steel wheel that was illuminated by 2,500 Edison incandescent lamps. It was a landmark for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The generic term Ferris wheel, named after George Ferris, is now used for all such structures, which have become the most common type of amusement ride at state fairs in the United States.
If this wheel were still around today, it would take the #3 position on this list!
Related Reading: The Life and Explosive Death of the World’s First Ferris Wheel
With that said, while nearly every amusement park and fair has a Ferris wheel, those aren’t usually considered “tourist attractions”; however, the huge stand-alone attractions that are popping up at destinations throughout the USA are definitely drawing large crowds… and they just keep getting taller.
“With the famous (450-foot) London Eye, a change has been initiated for the giant wheel business,” says the website of Dutch Wheels, the Netherlands-based company that built the new wheel for the Navy Pier in Chicago. “And a giant wheel is now more and more considered a stand-alone attraction.”
10 Tallest Observation Wheels in the USA
Here are the 10 Tallest Observation Wheels in the USA, ranked from “smallest to tallest”. We will update this list as more are built… and as the bar to entry into the top 10 becomes higher (literally).
Note: There is a tie for #8, in case you thought we missed #7, making the total list 10 wheels.
Anaheim, CA – 160 feet tall
Starting with #10 on our list of the 10 Tallest Observation Wheels in the USA is Mickey’s Fun Wheel in Anaheim, CA.
This 160-foot tall eccentric wheel at Disney California Adventure, at the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California, was inspired by the Wonder Wheel at Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park in Coney Island, NY. The Wonder Wheel also featured both sliding and fixed gondolas.
I looked up what was meant by an eccentric wheel, and it didn’t mean what I thought it did. Sometimes called a sliding wheel or a coaster wheel, an eccentric wheel differs from a conventional Ferris wheel in that some or all of its passenger cars are not fixed directly to the rim of the wheel, but instead slide on rails between the rim and the hub as the wheel rotates.
As you can see, Mickey’s Fun Wheel has a large Mickey Mouse face in the center of the wheel. It has 24 fully enclosed passenger cars, each able to carry 6 passengers and 16 of the cars slide inward and outward as the wheel rotates while the remainder are fixed to the rim. There are separate boarding lines so that passengers can choose whether they want to ride on a fixed or sliding car. (Which line do you bet is longer?)
In case you were wondering, Mickey’s Fun Wheel used to be called the Sun Wheel and it had a large sun in the center where Mickey Mouse is now.
Seattle, WA – 175 feet tall
The Seattle Great Wheel is #9 on our list of the 10 Tallest Observation Wheels in the USA. Located on Pier 57 on Elliott Bay in Seattle, Washington, the giant wheel has an overall height of 175 feet and was the tallest Ferris wheel on the West Coast when it opened on June 29, 2012. (Now you are starting to understand how quickly these giant wheels are going up to push it all the way back to #9 in just 4 years!)
The wheel is bolted so close to the end of the pier that it extends 40 feet over the bay. To hold the 170,000 lb wheel, the pilings that supported the pier had to be retrofitted, a process that took three years.
8. (Tie) Capital Wheel
National Harbor, MD – 180 feet tall
The Capital Wheel in National Harbor, Maryland, has an overall height of 180 feet, making it #8 on our list of the 10 Tallest Observation Wheels in the USA.
Sitting on a 770-foot long pier, the wheel extends into the Potomac River. Four 50-horsepower variable drive units rotate the wheel at a speed of 1.5 rotations per minute, with each passenger ride lasting between 12-15 minutes. The Capital Wheel has 1.6 million LED lights with a spectrum of 16,387,064 colors.
If you are looking for a unique wedding venue, a VIP gondola on the wheel can be rented for weddings or celebrations.
The 42 climate-controlled, glass-enclosed gondolas have an unobstructed view of the Washington Monument, the U.S. Capitol, the City of Alexandria in Virginia, and a view of Prince George’s County.
8. (Tie) Colossus
Eureka, MO – 180 feet tall
Tied for #8 on our list of the 10 Tallest Observation Wheels in the USA is the Colossus Wheel, which is located at the Six Flags St. Louis Theme Park in Eureka, Missouri. The Colossus wheel is also 180 feet tall (tied with the Capital Wheel) and originally debuted at the 1984 New Orleans World’s Fair.
As of 1992 Colossus was lit by 2200 lights which displayed a 24-pattern performance with a starburst finale. During the months that the park was closed, they displayed a giant clock face which was visible to those passing on nearby Interstate 44.
(Note, if anyone has any updated info on this wheel, please leave a comment below.)
Myrtle Beach, SC – 187 feet tall
Up next is #6 on our list of the 10 Tallest Observation Wheels in the USA (No, I didn’t miss #7… there was a tie for #8, remember?) is the SkyWheel in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
Located along the Myrtle Beach Boardwalk, the 187-foot tall SkyWheel offers incredible views of the “Grand Strand”.
As with all of the other tall observation wheels, the wheel features enclosed, climate-controlled cabins. The ride includes three revolutions, which takes about nine minutes.
While the wheel operates year-round and can withstand 135 mph winds, the gondolas need to be removed if high winds are predicted, which is an 8-10 hour process.
Chicago, IL – 196 feet tall
Standing 196 feet tall and coming in #5 on our list of the 10 Tallest Observation Wheel in the USA is the new Centennial Wheel (pictured above) which opened in 2016 in Chicago, IL.
The wheel was named in honor of Lake Michigan landmark’s 100th anniversary and is 48 feet taller than the structure it replaced, the old 150 foot Navy Pier Ferris Wheel that is now renamed The Branson Ferris Wheel (pictured below) in its new home in Branson, MO.
The new wheel occupies roughly the same footprint as the old one, which accommodated nearly 17 million riders from 1995 to 2015.
The old wheel is now relocated and renamed The Branson Ferris Wheel (pictured above). Standing “just” 150 feet tall, it does not make our top 10 list; however, The Branson Ferris Wheel boasts spectacular views of the famed entertainment corridor and the picturesque Ozark Mountains in Branson, Missouri, and is sure to delight riders for many years to come.
Pigeon Forge, TN – 200 feet tall
The Great Smoky Mountain Wheel in Pigeon Forge, TN, is 200 feet tall, making it #4 on our list of the 10 Tallest Observation Wheels in the USA.
Since June of 2013, the Great Smoky Mountain Wheel at the Island in Pigeon Forge has provided riders with an unparalleled view of the world famous Smoky Mountains.
Towering 200 feet tall the wheel is one of the tallest attractions in the Southeast. It sits at the foot of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, the most visited National Park in the United States.
At night, the wheel displays a spectacular 24,000 LED light show which can be seen for miles around.
3. Texas Star
Dallas, TX – 212 feet tall
They say everything is always bigger and better in Texas, and that includes the Texas Star in Dallas at 212 feet tall and taking the #3 position on our list of the 10 Tallest Observation Wheels in the USA.
While the rest of the large observation wheels in this list are open year round, the Texas Star only operates during the State Fair of Texas, an annual fall event. More than 2,402,199 people attended the 2016 Fair.
On a clear day, riders on the Texas Star can see the Downtown Fort Worth skyline, which is some 40 miles away.
Until 2007, the star was illuminated at night by 16,000 incandescent red, white, and blue turbolites; however, In 2008, the incandescent system was replaced with a longer-lasting, more energy-efficient LED system.
The Texas Star opened in 1985 and kept its title of the nation’s tallest wheel for many years. There are currently only two that are taller in the USA.
Orlando, FL – 400 feet tall
Taking the #2 spot on our list of the 10 Tallest Observation Wheels in the USA is the Coca-Cola Orlando Eye at an unbelievable height of 400 feet tall, nearly double the size of the Texas Star!
The recently rebranded Coca-Cola Orlando Eye (formerly known as simply the Orlando Eye) first opened in 2015 in Orlando, Fl. It is the largest observation wheel on the East Coast and offers 360-degree views of Central Florida, including views of Orlando’s skyline, and theme parks. On a clear day, riders can catch views of Cape Canaveral.
The ride consists of a single-revolution, which takes about 20 minutes to complete. The wheel spins so slowly that it doesn’t even need to stop to allow riders to exit or enter the capsules.
I actually rode the Orlando Eye in September 2015, soon after it opened. We decided to wait until sunset thinking it would be spectacular, but we got there a little late and it was dark by the time we got on the wheel. We really could not see much of anything at all. Based on my experience, I would recommend riding it on a clear day, rather than at night.
1. High Roller
Las Vegas, NV – 550 feet tall
Taking the #1 spot on our list of the 10 Tallest Observation Wheels in the USA is the High Roller in Las Vegas, NV.
At an astonishing height of 550 feet tall, this wheel is currently the tallest wheel in the world!
The High Roller has cabins that are so large, they can each hold 40 riders. The ride is one revolution, which takes about 30 minutes.
A 2,000-LED system illuminates the wheel at night and can display a single solid color, differently colored sections, multiple colors moving around the rim, and custom displays for special events and holidays. This experience is even better if you smoke a bit of cannabis first! And, since weed is legal in Las Vegas, you are in luck!
Pictured, the view, looking southwest towards the Las Vegas Strip, at the top of the High Roller ferris wheel in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Coming in 2018 to take the #1 spot…
Staten Island, NY – 630 feet tall
With a planned opening of 2018, AT AN INCREDIBLE HEIGHT OF 630 FEET TALL, the New York Wheel promises to become one of New York’s and indeed one of the world’s great landmark attractions. The New York Wheel will offer spectacular panoramic vistas of the Manhattan skyline as well as the rest of the city’s boroughs, New Jersey, and beyond. It will be located in St. George on the New York Harbor and is equipped with $7 million of LED lighting, creating the most vibrant visual canvas on the NY skyline. Developers are estimating that the slow-moving ride would take 38 minutes to complete one cycle, and that as many as 1,400 passengers could enjoy the attraction at a time.