The New York Wheel, now in planning
Washington has a brand new attraction. The new, 180-foot-tall Capital Wheel just opened in the DC area.
If it wanted to corner the market on DC views, it's five days late. The Washington Monument just re-opened this week after being repaired from damage from the unexpected 2011 earthquake.
Actually, it's about 15 years late.
London was the first to make observational wheels a modern tourism necessity. Its London Eye started going up in 1999, in the last century.
The London Eye makes for a tempting role model. Although it was supposed to come down after a few years, it became an icon for the city. Every day, there's a line to get on, and the adult walk-up price is £29.50, or US$50. It can carry up to 800 passengers per revolution, so if full of adults, it rakes in $40,000 every half-hour before souvenirs. No wonder developers are salivating at the idea of replicating its blockbuster success!
More importantly, there's a lot to see from it. The London Eye is right across the Thames from Parliament and the Elizabeth Tower, which contains Big Ben.
All good Ferris wheels have seminal views. The very first one, the one made by the guy named Ferris, revolved over the Midway of the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. It was at the center of one of the greatest exhibitions ever mounted, and its novelty was one of the things that made it great.
In 2014, though, a wheel is just an accessory to tourism, something a city needs if you want to make other cities believe you're a player, like business cards or a catchy slogan. But if developers are going to be so late to take the wheel, the least they could do is make sure they build them in prime locations to justify their existences.
DC's Capital Wheel isn't in the middle of Washington. It's not even at the edge of Washington. Its modestly sized gondolas soar over the Potomac and National Harbor, a development of chain restaurants and a gargantuan convention hotel that's actually in Maryland, seven miles from the District.
The press reaction has been quizzical. "No one in our car was able to spot the Capitol dome," griped the Washington Post.
Yahoo! posted an unintentionally hilarious video of the opening day's riders. "Basically my husband forced me to go," confessed one of them (who ended up enjoying it). Another rider expressed muted enthusiasm that she was able to see ... clouds and planes.
In one painful moment in the video, the developer somewhat optimistically tries to convince a terrified passenger that she can see the sights from it. "Oh my God," she's exclaiming in alarm, gripping the gondola as he attempts to point out the landmarks of Washington in the very far distance. "We're looking at the Washington Monument. See it? See? See? Take a slow turn. See it? The white-- up in the air. The white monument there? There you go."
A decade and a half late, building observational wheels is the copycat tourism trend, and suddenly one city skyline looks much like the next--with a de rigeur wheel looping over it. Vegas got its wheel, the High Roller, in March, and it's the world's tallest (for now). Seattle has one now, so does Myrtle Beach, and Chicago has had one on Navy Pier for years.
Orlando's will open for business early next year (beating out a rival company's aborted attempt to build its own). Like DC's, it's perhaps a little too far from the marquee sights, in this case Disney World or Universal, to make either out distinctly. So why would a tourist want to go? For one, it anchors a chain-filled development that depends on mass visitation, just like the Capital Wheel.
And second, well, it's there and it's tall. Going to the top of tall things is one of the keystones of mass tourism.
New York City announced its own, 625-foot-tall New York Wheel (taller than Vegas') for the northern end of Staten Island, another placement that offers views that are more distant than truly bird's eye. Few tourists will want to trek across the harbor to Staten Island to ride a wheel—yet one more wheel, that is—let alone in the brutal depths of winter. By the time they ride the ferry to get to it, they'll have already seen the one thing it has a decent view of, the Statue of Liberty. Nonetheless, it's pressing ahead with construction plans.
Wheels have also been announced for Cape Town, Cleveland, Cambodia... When even Baghdad has one, and it does, perhaps that's a sign a tourism trend has crested.
As Eyes become as common as petting zoos and tour buses, it's no longer possible for a city to be distinguished by its addition in the skyline. Instead, they get an expensive monument too big to ignore. It's also likely that in the near future, as they cease to become special, many cities will find their versions ultimately becoming grotty and ignored.
At this rate, it won't take long for most of these new wheels to become Eyesores.
Is building tourism Eyes a wheely good idea anymore? Do you care to go round on these new wheels?