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Navy Pier Ferris wheel has a name: Centennial Wheel

Navy Pier's Centennial Wheel will open to the public at noon on May 27. | Stefano Esposito/Sun-Times

Brian Murphy admits he’ll be on edge when the machine he’s fretted over for months finally opens to the public May 27 — even though the basic technology behind it dates back to the 1890s.

“There’s absolutely some nerves — there always is when you’re going to open and unveil something new,” said Murphy, Navy Pier’s chief operating officer.

The 196-foot-tall Centennial Wheel he’s talking about isn’t your great-great-great-grandfather’s wheel.

The soon-to-be-opened wheel will have temperature-controlled gondolas, flat-screen TVs and — gliding across the center hub, rim and spokes — an ever-changing light show, Murphy told a gathering at the Pier Tuesday. Its new name, announced Tuesday, plays off Navy Pier being 100 years old this year.

“We’re going to use the wheel as a canvas,” Murphy said. “We’ve asked our development team to design something different than just blinking lights [that] you could see at any wheel in any city.”

The wheel is about 50 feet taller than its predecessor and weighs twice as much — one million pounds. Each gondola holds eight to 10 passengers, except for a special “VIP” version, which has a glass bottom and accommodates four people (that one costs $50 a person).

Work continues on the Centennial Wheel, slated to open at noon on May 27, though tickets go on sale a week earlier. | Stefano Esposito/Sun-Times
Work continues on the Centennial Wheel, slated to open at noon on May 27, though tickets go on sale a week earlier. | Stefano Esposito/Sun-Times

Passengers will experience three rotations on the new wheel. The old one offered only a single rotation.

If you start to get bored up there, TV monitors with touch-screen technology will provide a distraction. But after the initial welcome video, passengers can choose to have the screens remain silent.

“No advertising,” Murphy insisted.

Regular fares are $15 for adults and $12 for children ages 3-11. Children younger than 3 ride free, and everybody rides free on June 14, June 28, Aug. 9 and Aug. 23 – but that’s on a first-come, first-served basis until the passes run out.

There’s also a $35 ticket that lets you ride all Navy Pier attractions all day, and slightly cheaper tickets for Illinois residents from November through March.

As he spoke to reporters and other invited guests Tuesday, Murphy outlined — with the kind of detail worthy of the launch of a new space rocket — the safety checks and testing that has been done. That includes loading up each gondola with 1,650 pounds of water in vinyl bags.

But as he gets ready for the big day, to what does Murphy attribute the Ferris wheel’s enduring appeal?

“People just seem to love them,” he said. “To be able to go up, especially at a point in the city out into Lake Michigan and looking back either at the city or along the water’s edge … it’s just a spectacular view.”

The new 196-foot Centennial Wheel is 49 feet taller than Navy Pier’s old Ferris wheel, and can hold up to 180 more passengers per ride, using enclosed gondolas. The previous attraction, which opened in 1995 and was removed in January, had smaller, open go
The new 196-foot Centennial Wheel is 49 feet taller than Navy Pier’s old Ferris wheel, and can hold up to 180 more passengers per ride, using enclosed gondolas. The previous attraction, which opened in 1995 and was removed in January, had smaller, open gondolas. | Stefano Esposito/Sun-Times
The gondolas on the new Centennial Wheel will be enclosed, with room for up to 10 people. | Provided
The gondolas on the new Centennial Wheel will be enclosed, with room for up to 10 people. | Provided