The Great Big Wheel will not be the fastest ride at the Minnesota State Fair. It won’t be the scariest. It won’t be the one most likely to make you lose your spare change, your car keys, your glasses or the Pronto Pup you ate earlier.
But it will be tall.
At 156 feet, or about 15 stories, adorned with more than a half-million colored LED lights, the new Ferris wheel will tower above the fair for the next seven seasons. It’s being constructed on the higher northern side of the fairgrounds, so riders will be treated to breathtaking views. In clear weather, sightlines may stretch up to 10 miles.
“You’re going to be able to see, obviously, beyond the fairgrounds and well out into the Twin Cities,” said the State Fair’s deputy general manager Jim Sinclair, who gathers rides from all over for the fair. By comparison, the existing Ferris wheel at the Mighty Midway is 90 feet high, he said.
The Great Big Wheel will be the second-highest structure on the fairgrounds. At 330 feet, the Space Tower is higher and offers magnificent views of its own. But it’s not a thrill ride, Sinclair pointed out.
The wheel, manufactured in the Netherlands, is one of North America’s largest traveling Ferris wheels, transported from one fair to another. It debuted in February at the Florida State Fair and visited the Wisconsin State Fair before arriving here for our Aug. 24-Sept. 4 fair. The structure goes by different names — Floridians called it the Midway Sky Eye; Wisconsinites took a spin on the WonderWheel.
The new wheel isn’t just tall; it’s huge by many measures. It’s 85 feet wide and 60 feet deep. It weighs 200 tons when fully assembled. It travels from fair to fair in pieces carried in 12 semi trucks.
It holds 36 gondolas, each of which seats six people, so at full capacity, the Great Big Wheel carries 216 people per ride cycle. Each ride cycle will last 10 minutes and cost $5.
Bright, if not the biggest
The wheel’s rim and spokes are decorated with 520,000 individually programmable LED lights that can change colors, creating vivid designs and patterns — more than 250 different color options on both sides — Sinclair said.
Now, the Great Big Wheel is far from the world’s tallest Ferris wheel. There are wheels so tall that Tom Cruise might hesitate to dangle from the top of them. Just kidding — in “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol,” the famously stunt-performing actor scrambled around 1,700 feet above ground on the world’s tallest structure, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. That city also happens to be the location of the world’s tallest Ferris wheel, the Dubai Eye. It’s 689 feet, so while Cruise might climb it for fun on his lunch break with a sandwich in one hand, most people would consider it pretty darn high.
There are other Ferris wheels topping 500 feet in Las Vegas and elsewhere around the world. But those behemoths are stationary wheels, not transportable from place to place.
The first Ferris wheel ever built was a tall, stationary wheel. Engineer George Ferris invented and constructed it for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, reportedly as a response to the Eiffel Tower featured at the 1889 world’s fair in Paris. Engineers had been encouraged by the World’s Fair manager to “build something unique,” said Betsy Harvey Kraft, author of “The Fantastic Ferris Wheel: The Story of Inventor George Ferris,” in an e-mail.
Ferris’ Ferris wheel stood 264 feet high and carried 36 cars — the same number as the Great Big Wheel, except that each of Ferris’ cars held 60 people. So it could spin 2,160 people at a time, or 10 times the capacity of the Great Big Wheel.
Although preceded by the merry-go-round, Ferris’ wheel was the first real thrill ride, Sinclair said. “So it was kind of the beginning of things” for amusement park rides.
By the close of the six-month Chicago World’s Fair, more than 2 million people had ridden Ferris’ invention, according to Kraft. If the Great Big Wheel runs at capacity for the duration of our State Fair, some 216,000 Minnesotans could get to take a spin this year. So step right up.
The Great Big Wheel
Where: Randall Av. & Cooper St., across from Family Fair at Baldwin Park.
Height: 156 feet.
Number of gondolas: 36.
Rider capacity: 216.
Lighting: More than a half-million programmable LEDs.
Ride length: 10 minutes.
Hours: 9 a.m.-11 p.m. daily.
More new features at the fair
The Veranda: Boutique-style shopping, artisan food and craft drinks on the west side of the grandstand’s upper level.
The Great Minnesota Knit-Together: The state’s largest yarnbomb, a form of knitted street art, will cover topiaries on the grandstand ramp.
Swine Barn renovation: Annex removed for more space and improved ventilation and air quality.
Relax & Recharge Station: Rocking chairs, phone charging, free water and daily entertainment in Ramberg Senior Center.
We Are Water MN: A new Eco Experience exhibit highlighting our pivotal role in the national water supply.
New food vendors: See story, page 8.