For most people, today is a holiday about love. For others, it’s about the over commercialization of a natural human emotion.
For me, it’s cause to celebrate – to hold my hat up high and say, happy 154th birthday to George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr.!
One of the most recognizable names in the amusement industry – maybe only behind Walt Disney – Ferris is responsible for the engineering and building of his namesake, the Ferris wheel.
Debuting at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Ferris’ wheel was steam driven and used 36 cars the size of train cars to take 60 passengers EACH as moving observation decks.
The ride was never designed to be thrilling (the ride lasted about 30 minutes with loading) but rather, to be an observation attraction. The wheel was beefy in construction and simply dwarfed all other structures at the fair. It was meant to be an answer to the Eiffel Tower – and it delivered. The construction methods and engineering is strikingly familiar to the Parisian icon.
Even by modern standards – Ferris’ first wheel was massive. While most wheels today are transported via trailer and rarely break the 100-foot mark, Ferris’ observation wheel in Chicago was 264 feet tall. (That’s over 25 stories!) To this day, only a small number of wheels have eclipsed this number.
Sans the occasional upgrade to the passenger compartments, or the frightening concept of the eccentric wheel (Mickey’s Fun Wheel, Wonder Wheel) or the ultramodern spoke-less wheel (Big O) the general concept of the ride has not changed much in over 100 years.
It’s a true blast from the past that is in quite the renaissance – and we’re not talking carnival wheels, here. You see, the large wheel is making a huge comeback that would make Ferris proud.
Attractions such as the London Eye and Singapore Flyer have brought back the original concept – large, observation attractions. Four, count ‘em FOUR wheels over 500’ tall are either under construction or currently proposed in the United States alone, including a proposed 625’ wheel on Staten Island. Makes you wonder why no one out here in the Bay Area has called to build one yet. (Talk about scenery to see!)
Sadly, Ferris’ legacy is somewhat tainted these days – it’s become more fashionable to call them “observation wheels,” rather than the name which was connected to them. A “Ferris Wheel” it would seem, should only be found at a fair – an “observation wheel” is more likely to be found in a trendy metropolis.
His wheel met an unfortunate end as well. After being packed and shipped to the St. Louis Exposition of 1904, it was simply blown up – not popular enough to turn a profit. Ferris met an equally untimely death – he died of
tuberculosis at age 37.
So the next time you’re at your local amusement park and see a Ferris wheel, look skyward, and thank Mr. Ferris – for creating one of the most prolific amusement attractions in human history.
And maybe, just maybe – it IS appropriate that Ferris was born on what would become Valentines Day – what other ride allows you to make out with your sweetie in public – without almost anyone knowing?*
*Except the person sitting behind you…
A wonderful video collage of the Great Wheel while in Chicago:
The BEST Great America site on the planet, featuring the Sky Whirl triple Ferris wheel:
Anyone up to see some test footage from our latest shoot? Look forward to the final product to debut soon on our YouTube channel as well as here!
This has been a long time coming – but I’m proud to introduce the first in a series of videos on the lost amusement parks of Northern California.
Special thanks to Nick Laschkewitsch for his excellent camera work on this intro.
After observing and working in this industry for over 15 years, I’ve found there to be two types of people that enjoy amusement / theme parks in this country: those who visit to enjoy themselves with their friends and families; and those who visit the park to criticize every facet of the park or people who enjoy attractions that they do not.
I’ve dubbed them, “enthusiasts and enthusi-asses,” respectably.
I bring this up because there is an event occurring over the next few weekends along the Jersey shore that highlights this disparity within the ranks of those who consider themselves as “fans” of amusement parks – and has re-affirmed my belief in humanity.
First, a little background –
Hurricane Sandy devastated the East Coast, with millions affected. Some of the most visible victims were the traditional, seaside amusement parks of New Jersey. When the first photos of the damage came in, the striking photo of a pleasure pier – with rides partially submerged in the surf – became one of the many iconic photos of the disaster. Several other seaside amusement parks, including Keansburg Amusement Park fell victim to the same fate along the East Coast’s shore.
It was a dark time for the owners of these traditional parks, many of which have been in the family for generations. With the storm still wreaking havoc, some people took to the internet to thank the hurricane for destroying certain rides, as if they somehow deserved this fate.
They never seemed to post anything about the families who had invested so much of their personal savings to purchase and install the rides; Let alone the incredible financial burden that was sure to follow.
A person who “enjoys” a specific hobby and who seems to only care about themselves and not others – I’d describe that person as an “enthusi-ass,” wouldn’t you?
So now, we come to the other side of the spectrum, to the “enthusiast.” Once the damage was fully accounted for and insurance issues resolved – the New Jersey region of the American Coaster Enthusiasts (ACE) decided that they were not going to stand for stupidity. They took to the internet, not to flame, troll or degrade an already bad situation…
No – they sprang into action.
The region created a repeating event they dubbed, “Dig out the Wildcat.” Its purpose: to assist the family owned Keansburg Amusement Park in removing deposited sand around their Wildcat roller coaster.
People helping people. Via the internet. Not yelling or flaming one another.
What a novel concept.
What will happen in the small, family owned amusement park on the Keansburg shore over the next few weekends is proof-positive that there still are good people in this world. Over 20 people have expressed interest in the event.
Even better, that group of people – who share the common bond of enjoying amusement parks – can unite to help out the very people that allow them to enjoy life to the fullest.
They know that there’s no opportunities for rides, or the coveted “exclusive ride time,” no – they simply want to help out their fellow human beings.
True “enthusiasts” in every sense of the word. True enthusiasts talk with action. In this case, it’s with buckets and shovels.
At least now we can see the true enthusiasts use their hands for good.
I only wish that I could get out there myself and assist them.
Being a lifelong devotee of the amusement park,* I have always been fascinated with the historical aspects of the parks my family visited – especially while we were there.
Correction: I was not made AWARE of the incredible, historical aspects of the parks, until 1993.
For a wide-eyed ten year old, it was an ethereal moment to discover from your father that “the Demon” at Great America used to be sans loops. Or, that a ride could be called “Whizzer” and not have to do with a bodily function.
Even as I close in on the big three-oh, it always gives me a giddy feeling when I discover something new about the amusement parks I grew up with as a child.
In a way, it’s like an oral tradition that someday, God willing, I could pass along to my children.
Fast forward a decade and change, and the company I was working for was part of a battle for historic preservation. In that battle, the passion and spark for yearning to know more about how we all got here was re-ignited.
It certainly helped the project along when the company went under suddenly, too…
So in this new series, I hope to bring all of you on a journey – a journey back in time; to a place where time went by just a little bit slower; where people didn’t run into you on the sidewalk as they were texting on their cell phones; where the family outing to an amusement park was much more than just flashing your season pass – it was an adventure in and of itself.
Join me, as I try to seek out and re-discover the “lost” amusement parks of the San Francisco Bay Area and in the process, reclaim our colorful, amusement history. “Let’s ride!”
*Lifelong fan since my father forced me on the Tidal Wave at Great America in July of 1993.