Roeper: First ride on Navy Pier’s bigger, smoother Ferris wheel

SHARE Roeper: First ride on Navy Pier’s bigger, smoother Ferris wheel

Navy Pier’s new Centennial Wheel is larger than the Ferris wheel it replaces at 196 feet high and features 42 gondolas. | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

What goes around comes around — and around, and around one more time.

If you took a ride on the “old” Navy Pier Ferris wheel during its illustrious 20-year run, you got one rotation and one rotation only, lasting about seven minutes.

With the new, improved, bigger, faster, more comfortable and, yes, more expensive Centennial Wheel, you’ll get three go-rounds and about 12-15 total minutes of airtime.

Rest in peace (well, actually in Branson, Mo.), former Ferris wheel. No doubt the 2.0 version will surpass the original in popularity and become a signature part of Chicago’s skyline, a go-to destination for locals and tourists alike — and a fixture in countless TV shows and movies with sweeping shots of the city’s skyline.

The Centennial Wheel (named for the 100th anniversary of Navy Pier) will spin for the public for the first time on Friday, and the official media preview is Thursday afternoon — but as was the case with the first and the last rides on the previous Big Wheel, yours truly was the first gondola correspondent to experience the adventure.

And a pretty cool adventure it is.

Just as it was a kick to ride the Ferris wheel in 1995 and be treated to a moving (in more ways than one) view of Chicago, it was big fun to take a fresh trip.

It was the Ferris wheel equivalent of trading in a beloved used car for a newer model.

Standing nearly 200 feet high, the Centennial Wheel is about 50 feet taller than its predecessor. There are 42 enclosed gondolas, all fully enclosed and temperature controlled, and all featuring much more comfortable seating as well as two small video screens with information about the Pier.

But here’s an idea: Turn off the screens and enjoy the ride.

I took a number of spins on the Centennial Wheel last Tuesday afternoon — and the ride was noticeably smoother, the view even more breathtaking than before. Unless you’re taking a helicopter ride that skirts along Lake Michigan, you’ll not find a more amazing view of the skyline facing west.

A single ride on the Centennial Wheel is $15 for adults and $12 for military and children 3-11.

If you can afford the pricey $50-per-person fee for the private, glass-bottom, four-person gondola, go for it. I’m not sure how they’ll be able to keep that glass as pristine as it was during my ride, but on my three rotations in the VIP gondola, looking down from the apex of the journey was akin to floating some 20 stories above the ground.

Built by Dutch Wheels, the Netherlands company considered the gold standard of the Ferris wheel industry, the Centennial Wheel isn’t even half as tall as the London Eye Ferris wheel (443 feet), let alone “observation wheels” (with gondolas mounted on the outside of the rim, and interiors so large you can walk around during the spin) such as the Singapore Flyer (541 feet) or the Las Vegas High Roller (550 feet). It’s not even as dominant as George Ferris’ 264-foot wheel from Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.

That’s a good move. Bigger isn’t always better. Even at 196 feet, the Centennial Wheel is unavoidable and massive and mechanically muscular, but not particularly beautiful. No doubt some Lake Shore Drive high-rise residents miss the pre-1995 days, when a giant wheel that lights up at night wasn’t a part of their view of the lake.

From the summer of 1995 until the autumn of 2015, some 10 million people rode the Navy Pier Ferris Wheel. Over the course of 20 years, some 1,600 marriage proposals were proffered in one gondola or another.

The Centennial Wheel hasn’t even officially opened, and already there are at least 10 marriage proposals in the offing — including at least one this weekend.

Navy Pier is in the midst of a massive makeover that will include a more aesthetically pleasing entranceway, numerous additional dining options, a luxury hotel and many more upgrades.

Towering above all of it: the Wheel.

The previous one lasted 20 years. I wouldn’t be surprised if this one doubled that longevity.



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