By BRUCE SMITH
MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. - The tallest Ferris wheel in the eastern United States, a 200-foot-tall, $12 million wheel with a million LED lights and 42 air-conditioned gondolas, started spinning Friday in this beach resort on the South Carolina coast.
The SkyWheel is expected to help draw visitors to center of the downtown Myrtle Beach where a new 1.2-mile oceanfront boardwalk opened last year but which five years ago lost the oceanfront Pavilion amusement park.
The wheel takes riders for a 12-minute spin above the beach and each night will feature a computerized light show.
"This really going to be an icon for our city and I think we're going to be able to use it as a tremendous commercial tool," said Myrtle Beach Mayor John Rhodes.
The Myrtle Beach attraction is of the same design as a wheel on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls and dominates the skyline along the beach district in a resort that is the heart of South Carolina's $18.4 billion tourism industry.
"Myrtle Beach was the right audience for the attraction," said David Busker, the president of Koch Development, which developed the wheel along with Pacific Development. "Niagara Falls has a similar profile to Myrtle Beach, 14 million visitors, natural attractions - they have the falls and we have the beach - and they have been very successful."
One of the first riders on the wheel was 10-year-old Tad McCord of North Myrtle Beach, S.C. He's not scared of heights, having been much higher - his dad is an airline pilot and also flies smaller planes.
"I loved it. I liked the going-around part," Tad said, and, asked to compare it to an airplane ride, added, "I think they're both equally as fun."
The wheel is 12 feet shorter than the Ferris wheel at the Texas State Fair in Dallas, the tallest wheel in the nation, and smaller the first world's first Ferris wheel, a 264-foot wheel built for the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago.
The 541-foot Singapore Flyer remains the world's tallest, said Norman Anderson, of Raleigh, N.C., a retired North Carolina State University professor who has written a history of Ferris wheels and writes a monthly newsletter dealing largely with the rides.
At one point, interest in Ferris wheels had declined for many years, he said.
"Roller coasters went through this in the '60s and '70s," he said. "Then with the advent of steel roller coasters with corkscrews and helixes, they made a real strong comeback."
When the Millennium Wheel - also known as the London Eye - was built in in London more than a decade ago, bigger Ferris wheels started being built overseas. The Great Recession delayed construction on several large wheels, including one in Beijing planned to rise 682 feet.
In the United States, he said, there has always been more interest in roller coasters.
"In America I always say that with the young people, if they go to an amusement park and don't have four near-death experiences in a day, they are not happy," Anderson said.
Anderson estimates there are a couple of thousand Ferris wheels worldwide. They seem to be more popular in Asia because rides seem to be more of a family affair there and "while they have roller coasters, they haven't dominated the theme parks as they have in this country."
Ferris wheels also stand so tall, they advertise themselves.
"You can see those things from a country mile and they light up at night," he said. Still, he added, they aren't that popular at theme parks because it's hard to attach a theme to a wheel, the way you can with a roller coaster like Space Mountain at Walt Disney World. In addition, the process of loading and unloading Ferris wheel passengers takes a long time.
Still, there's something romantic about a Ferris wheel, perhaps because it evokes simpler times.
"Older people might go to a park or a fair and before they go, they ride a Ferris wheel because that's what they did when they were younger," he said.
If You Go...
SKYWHEEL MYRTLE BEACH: New Ferris wheel located in downtown Myrtle Beach on the boardwalk; http:/www.skywheelusa.com. Tickets: adults, $12; children 3 to 11, $8; $4 discount for seniors and military. Children under 2, free. Open daily; check seasonal operating hours at 843-839-9200.