The London Eye Ferris wheel, inaugurated on Dec. 31, 1999, was meant to stay only a few years. But almost immediately, it was clear that the 443-foot Eye would be a keeper.
Its success, in turn, has reinvigorated demand for Ferris wheels. Similar "observation wheels," a name that has come back into vogue, have recently opened or are being built in Malaysia; Manchester, England; Singapore; and Melbourne, Australia; with others planned for Berlin; Beijing; Dubai, United Arab Emirates; and Orlando.
And as with skyscrapers, a heated competition is under way for the world's tallest. Last year, China's 525-foot Star of Nanchang took that distinction from the London Eye. The 541-foot Singapore Flyer will eclipse the other two in early 2008, followed soon after - in time for the 2008 Summer Olympics - by the 682-foot Great Beijing Wheel.
The big wheels are also big business. On average, about 3.5-million people a year, or 10,000 a day, pay $30 or more for a half-hour spin on the London Eye. The Singapore Flyer will be able to carry 27,000 passengers a day, with each ride costing about $20.
Cities also love the wheels. They bring in tourists and create jobs, and offer an easy way to stand out. "These wheels are becoming their icon de jour," said Dennis L. Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services, a consultant in Cincinnati. "And success breeds the development of other wheels in other cities."
The sponsorship possibilities are also rich. In June, the British Airways London Eye, as it is officially known, was used to promote the movie Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. A 100-foot likeness of the surfer was affixed to the center of the Eye, as the film's stars did their interviews in the wheel's capsules.
Unlike the seating in their older counterparts, the observation wheels feature climate-controlled, rotating capsules that can hold up to 40 people, and can be reserved for business meetings, birthdays and weddings. Capsule amenities include leather seats, plasma screens, refrigerators and bars.
The new wheels also spin more slowly, allowing passengers to board without the wheel's being stopped. The London Eye, for example, revolves at a leisurely 0.6 mph.
While the race to make the biggest wheel continues, relatively smaller (and often portable) observation wheels are also quietly rising in cities like York, England, and Belfast, Northern Ireland.