Big Wheels Keep On Turnin’

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Original Ferris Wheel

1893: Chicago Ferris Wheel (Source: Wikipedia)

I was talking to Pam the other day and she mentioned that today (February 14th) was National Ferris Wheel Day. She asked, “You don’t happen to have a Ferris Wheel story, do you?” to which I replied, “A Ferris Wheel story? Of course!”

In the summer of 1980, my family went on vacation with two other families, a trend that would continue all the way through high school for me. I was 12 at the time, and had never heard of Lake George, NY, but was excited because the previous year, I had become a New York Islanders fan after attending my first hockey game. Since Lake George was near Lake Placid—where our boys had beaten the mighty Russians in the Miracle On Ice game—I couldn’t wait to get up there. Maybe we’d even get to see the rink. So, thirteen of us drove upstate, on a merry adventure of rental cabins, sightseeing, crazy locals and the kinds of things you just can’t believe really happened when you look back on them later.

Once we got up there, we decided we’d spend a day at a theme park called Storytown USA. Sometime later, I believe the name was changed to The Great Escape, but when we drove through the gates and into the lot, we were officially in Storytown.

There are many things I’ll never forget about that trip, including the Storytown USA plastic beer mugs which we brought home in significant quantities, and drank out of well beyond the red ink had been worn away. I’m pretty sure the last one I had finally gave up the ghost sometime during the summer of 1996, ten years after I’d graduated high school.

Storytown USA

Anyway, back to Ferris Wheels. We’re walking the park, and one of our friends’ moms needed to use the rest room. Since we were traveling pretty much as a group, and were right by the Ferris Wheel, my Dad figured we might as well take a spin, as otherwise we probably would’ve passed it up. I can’t remember the name of it now, but it might have just been called the Giant Wheel. It wasn’t a thrill ride, but it was pretty big to a twelve year old, so I was more than happy to hop on. My Mom? Not a thrill ride fan. Not much of a regular ride fan, to be honest. Certainly not a heights fan. She, along with some of the other parents, sat down to have a soda and watch.

Oh, did I mention bad weather? It had threatened all day, and we’d been sprinkled on earlier in the morning. But this was the early afternoon, and so far, so good. Only one ride had been closed, and we were planning on hitting it before heading back to our cars. Dad, my nine year old sister and I got into our gondola and were whisked up into the sky.  On the second circuit, I could see that Dad was looking at something over my shoulder. On the third circuit, I looked back to see what it was. And, it was unpleasant to say the least. Thunderheads. Big, black, ominous thunderheads. The kinds of clouds where you can see lightning, real bolts, flickering from cloud to cloud. They looked far off, but they were coming, and coming fast. Only, no one down below knew it. They didn’t have the view we did from the top of the Giant Wheel.

Then, the thunder started. Booming, explosion-like concussions. Unsettling? Uh, you could say so. But that wasn’t the worst of it. No, the worst of it came on about the sixth or seventh circuit, when we were at the very top, and the entire park lost power. I don’t know how tall the Giant Wheel was. I only know we were way up there. And, I don’t know how far the human voice carries in severe weather conditions and rain. But I can tell you this. We heard, quite clearly, my Mom screaming at the helpless ride attendant,

“Get them down from there! Get them down right now!”

I’m not sure what she expected the poor kid to do, but leaving her husband and kids stranded in a car suspended god-knows-how-many feet off the ground while lightning began flashing was not on her list of options. I remember Dad looking down out of the car, the rain falling, and just shrugging his shoulders. He, after all, had more experience with things like this—and my Mom., unfortunately for the ride attendant, he was on his own.

So, we waited. We kept our hands inside the car, watched the lightning from the best vantage point in the park, and rode it out. Dry, for the most part. Hair a little wind-blown, but otherwise? We were fine.

Whole thing took about a half hour. The storm blew through, from up  top we saw lights gradually begin to glow on other rides, and finally, the gears on the Giant Wheel began to hum. We disembarked from our gondola, dry, smiling, and excited about our bird’s-eye view of the storm. My Mom, soaked to the skin and furious at the ride attendant? Well, not so much.

The Ferris Wheel has been around since 1893, when the man it was named after, George Washington Gale Ferris, built the first one as a landmark for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. A hundred and twenty-one years later, it’s the single most common carnival ride at state fairs and amusement parks. Since the 1893 Expo, eight different wheels have subsequently been crowned the world’s tallest, the most recent being the mammoth 541 foot Singapore Flyer, which made its historic first spin in 2008.

My Mom would tell you, even now, that the Giant Wheel at Storytown USA was bigger, and we were stranded a mile off the ground. Which is why the story still gets told around the holidays, or when one of the family talks about going on vacation. “Remember when we were trapped on the Ferris Wheel up in Lake George?” always gets Mom going.

World's Tallest Ferris Wheel

The world’s tallest Ferris Wheel as of 2014 is the Singapore Flyer. Instead of standard seats, the 165 meter high wheel houses 28 capsules that can hold 28 passengers each.

How ’bout you? Been on one of the world’s tallest wheels? Got a favorite? Remember stealing a first kiss on one? There are, quite literally, thousands of Ferris Wheels all over the country. One of you lost your glasses on one, don’t deny it. One of you may have even proposed on one. What’s your favorite ferris wheel story?

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Last updated: Feb 14, 2014
Filed under: Retro Memories Tagged with: National Days, theme parks