What is a Ferris Wheel?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

A Ferris wheel is a ride typically found at fairs and amusement parks, and is composed of a large wheel standing upright, with passenger cars or seats attached at intervals around the wheel. The earliest Ferris wheel type was a hand-cranked model called Ups and Downs, used in the 16th century. It was no doubt influenced by the Medieval and Renaissance concepts of Fortune’s wheel.

Two young boys
Two young boys

George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr., designed the first mechanized Ferris wheel for the World’s Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Unlike most modern Ferris wheels, Ferris’ design was impressively large, and could hold over 200 passengers at a time. It was slow; a single revolution took about 10 minutes.

Ferris’ design soon had rivals. In 1895 in London, a copy of the Ferris wheel designed by Ferris operated for eleven years. In Vienna in 1897, Hubert Cecil Booth created a slightly smaller wheel. The Paris Exposition of 1900 prompted the building of the Grande Roue, which operated until 1937.

Though designers continued to build impressively large rides, emphasis of the Ferris wheel gradually focused on smaller and lighter constructions that could be moved to different town or country fairs. It is quite common to see this Ferris wheel all over the country at local fairs or carnivals. The rides of this type can have between 12-16 two-seater cars, and remains one of the most enjoyed carnival rides.

However, other types of wheels also became popular. The two-wheel, or sky wheel, is two round wheels, which when not moving, form an oblong, one wheel above the other. The sky wheel provides extra thrills, because the whole structure rotates in an elliptical pattern, and each wheel moves independently. The sky wheel is also twice as tall as the lighter portable Ferris wheel, offering a better vantage point for riders.

A three wheel ride also became a popular design in the 1970s. Three wheels on a tripod arm spun independently of each other. Seating was often caged gondolas, allowing a party of 4-6 people to sit together.

Though the gondolas on the Ferris wheel tend to move only slightly as the wheel turns, there are several rides with sliding gondolas, which can move toward the center of the wheel as it spins. These are called coaster wheels and two can be found in the US, in Disneyland’s California Adventure Park and on Coney Island. Not all of the gondolas are on tracks, so the person who prefers a stationary gondola can choose to ride on one instead.

Interest in recapturing the early Ferris design, and especially its size, has led to several new Ferris wheels being built in the past few years. Some surpass the 264 foot (about 80 m) height of Ferris’ original wheel. The London Eye, constructed in 1999 stands 442 feet (135 m) high, and was until recently, the largest Ferris wheel on the planet. The Star of Nachang, in China, now surpasses the London Eye, and is 525 feet (about 160 m) tall. The Singapore Flyer, when finished, will be slightly taller than the Star of Nachang.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


@Markerrag -- Put me in the "Ferris wheels" are relaxing camp. I love those things at the county fair. The Ferris wheel is the best ride in the park that allows you to get a good overview of the fair and see across the entire town. In that sense, it is a great ride for sightseers.

Anyone who is afraid of heights is missing out on a great view when they don't use a Ferris wheel. That is a shame.


@Vincenzo -- But wouldn't someone afraid of heights know to keep off of a Ferris wheel? There's facing your fears and then there is just being ridiculous. You would think someone with a fear of heights would look up at a Ferris wheel and decide right then and there to avoid it.

The strange thing about people being afraid of Ferris wheels is that those are considered among the tamest rides out there. They are more relaxing than terrifying.


If someone is afraid of heights, they don't need to get anywhere near a Ferris wheel because those are some of the scariest rides on the planet for people with that particular phobia.

Why? For one thing, Ferris wheel operators rotate the wheel to add passengers, meaning everyone gets to set at the top of the wheel and dangle for what seems like a long time as new passengers are added.

Second, you look straight down and see the ground from your seat in most Ferris wheels. That will drive someone with a fear of heights nuts.

As odd as it may seems, some rides that go high into the air are fine for people with a fear of heights. Those rides don't dangle you in the air for long periods of time and you can look down and see the floor in the car in which you are riding without seeing the ground. Ferris wheels just seem to hit on the worst parts of the "fear of heights" phobia.

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