If this photo doesn’t capture my love of amusement and theme parks, then I’m not sure what photo could…
Yours truly on the venerable (and sorely missed) Triple Wheel at Great America in Santa Clara, CA. Here’s hoping it brings as much joy to you as it did to me finding it in an old photo album.
For those wondering what the ride looked like that I’m pictured on, this great video from GreatAmericaParks.com should help you out – the sound ALONE should spark your memory:
The mid-nineties were awesome. Nickelodeon was just hitting its stride. The Soviet Union was no more. And a movie studio had just purchased the entire Kings Entertainment amusement park empire – with the intention of turning them into THEME parks.
With Paramount at the helm, the former Kings parks became valuable assets in terms of new shooting locations for films. Considering the advertising slogan at the time, “Where the magic of the movies meets the thrills of a lifetime” – it would only make sense that a feature film would eventually be made inside one of Paramount’s parks.
And in 1994, that’s exactly what happened at Great America. Coincidentally, a film was being pitched to the major L.A. studios at the same time. Essentially, it was “Die Hard,” but at an amusement park. Paramount looked to their stable of franchises to see if the concept would work, and they found their answer with, “Beverly Hills Cop 3.”
The film is all but forgettable when it comes to plot – and its effect on the cinema landscape is minimal at best. In fact, it only has a 10% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It was also a flop at the box office, losing $8 million domestically. It eventually made money after being released worldwide – but was still the least successful of the three “Beverly Hills Cop” films.
However, if you’re a fan of California’s Great America…it’s a literal time capsule into the Santa Clara park at the beginning of the Paramount-era. The scenic railway is still there, Vortex is still green! But arguably, the most memorable scene in the film features one of the most beloved attractions to ever grace the Great American skyline.
In it, Axel attempts to escape pursuing Wonder World security guards by jumping onto “the Spider” a large, three-armed Ferris Wheel that us locals know better as the “Triple Wheel.” (Gurnee fans know it as the “Sky Whirl”) However, one of the ride cabins begins to come loose, with two young children trapped inside.
Axel somehow exits his locked cabin, (through the magic of Hollywood) and slides down to the hub of the ride. From there, he ascends up the other arm, rescues the children and rappels down to the ground, just moments before the cabin smashes down.
Sharp eyed viewers will spot famous film director, George Lucas in this scene as well.
As for the Triple Wheel, the constant starts and stops required to get these exciting scenes may have contributed to the ride’s early demise. The attraction was designed to run continuously throughout the day – and the necessary re-takes and repositions were hard on both the hydraulics and motors. The Triple Wheel was dismantled after the 1997 season, to make way for Invertigo, which itself was removed after the 2011 season.
Currently, the site of the ride remains empty, however it is used for “Friday Night Flicks” during the summer.
While the rumor mill is always churning out stories about new attractions coming to this area – long-time fans of both Great Americas always hold out hope that someday, they’ll round Hometown Square and hear that unmistakable whine in the park once again:
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: