Thanks for the ride.
Like an iconic Chicago athlete taking a victory lap at the end of a two-decade career, Navy Pier’s Ferris wheel performed one last spin on Sunday night, while a full moon weaved and bobbed behind the clouds and the confetti and fireworks stood ready to dance in the sky the moment the last person exited Gondola No. 23.
That would be me. Coming full circle, so to speak.
When I boarded Navy Pier’s brand-new Ferris wheel on a Thursday evening in June of 1995 and enjoyed a seven-minute spin that included breathtaking views of the Chicago skyline and Lake Michigan from some 150 feet in the air, I predicted that within 10 years, it would be “hard to remember what the lakefront was like when the Ferris wheel wasn’t a key part of the scene. It’ll be an institution.”
Since then, more than 10 million people have taken a ride in one of the 40 gondolas nestled within the spokes of the wheel, which glimmers and pops at night with more than 16,000 light bulbs.
A few weeks after the wheel debuted, a couple got married in a gondola. There have been numerous marriage proposals. (And let’s be real here, probably one or two amorous adventures that extended beyond kissing.) Recently a company conducted job interviews on the Ferris wheel. A deliberately weathered and ominous-looking Ferris wheel was the centerpiece of the “Capture the Flag” scene in last year’s hit movie “Divergent.” Earlier this year, during the Stanley Cup Final, the gondola boxes were painted with the names and numbers of Chicago Blackhawks players.
Untold thousands of selfies and Insta-pics have been snapped aboard and around the Ferris wheel. When you’re flying home or visiting Chicago, or cruising Lake Shore Drive, or looking out the window of myriad apartments and businesses, you can’t avoid it. Whether you bemoan the Ferris wheel as a regrettable monstrosity of modern kitsch or it puts a smile on your face every time you see it, there’s no denying its prominence on the modern face of Chicago.
On Sunday night, it was time to come full circle and pull a reverse Neil Armstrong (because of course it’s not hyperbole to compare an amusement park experience to walking on the moon). On Saturday, hundreds lined up to take free rides on the wheel; a friend of mine who was out there was told it would be a four-hour wait. We always want to give one last embrace to a familiar part of our lives when we know it’s going away forever.
Twenty years and change since I was the first journalist to ride the Ferris wheel, I was the final human to “deboard” the wheel, which will be dismantled and replaced by new, taller ride in time for the Pier’s 2016 centennial.
Boarding the gondola on a warm, almost sticky early autumn night, I was reminded of what it was like to take a ride on the wheel more than 20 years ago. The first view of Lake Michigan and the skyline from the high point of the ride; the slight sway to the gondola in the wind; the feeling you could reach out and almost touch the buildings along Lake Shore Drive.
The city’s physical profile as viewed from the Ferris wheel has changed quite a bit since 1995. So many more residential buildings. New hotels. Old hotels with new names. Chicago is a living thing, never sitting stagnant for 20 days, let alone 20 years.
Chicago’s 1995-2015 Ferris wheel was never the biggest in the world. The 394-foot London Eye and the 550-foot High Roller that opened in Las Vegas last year would dwarf our wheel. (Even the original Ferris wheel, built for the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, was 68 feet taller than the ’95 wheel.)
The new Ferris wheel will cost $26.5 million. (Public funds will not be used.) It will feature blue, temperature-controlled gondolas with padded seats and TV monitors, and it will crest at nearly 200 feet.
Two decades ago, the Ferris wheel was the centerpiece of a major renovation of Navy Pier. Now the Pier is undergoing another transformation, reportedly morphing from a bustling tourist attraction with far too many borderline tacky features to more sublime, classical integration into the lakefront personality. We’ll see how the giant spinning wheel plays into all of that.
And I’ll still tell the young and the newly visiting that the big Ferris wheel on Navy Pier was of course named after “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”
Because it’s a Ferris wheel, after all, and it’s all in good fun.