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Wheel Works with ICON Park: The Ferris Story (Part 1)

I know what you’re thinking. “That’s not THE Wheel that I know and love!” While we at ICON Park don’t make a habit of spotlighting other wheels (Because our big guy is obviously the handsomest one out there), it turns out that Orlando’s star attraction has some pretty distinguished DNA in its gears. Since The Wheel at ICON Park is (literally) turning five-years-old this month, we’re excited to share a little bit of the heritage and science behind this mechanical marvel in a four-part series we call “Wheel Works with ICON Park.”

If you’re seeking some safe-at-home fun, we’ll be sharing some mind-blowing secrets behind The Wheel and its ancestors over the next three weeks. At the end of each blog, we’ve included step-by-step instructions to construct your OWN Ferris wheel over the course of the series. Be sure to share your progress with us on social media using #iconwheelworks. We’ll spotlight our favorite creations in the final blog, so don’t miss out on your chance to become a bona fide Wheel Wizard!

Now that your down with how this works, let’s turn back the clock a skosh, shall we?

How the Wheel Was Won

Our story begins all the way back in the Nineties. Sorry Smalls, not the 1990s. I’m talking way back in the Naughty 1890s. Before the days of big-name theme parks, merrymakers used to look forward to World’s Fairs to feature the most cutting-edge attractions around. These temporary exhibitions were hosted every 3-4 years by a different city. Today, similar events called World Expos still take place all over the globe.

In 1889, Paris’ Exposition Universelle wowed the world with a thousand-foot iron giant called the Eiffel Tower. Maybe you’ve heard of it? While it may not have been prettiest piece of architecture, fairgoers were blown away by elevated lifts that afforded unprecedented vistas of the City of Lights. This was a tough act to follow for the Windy City of Chicago, set to host the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. In a city-wide effort of one-upmanship, Chicagoans sent out the call to architects across the nation for a design that would top Paris’ tower of power.

One bizarre response came from a native son of Illinois named George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. (Try saying that five times fast). Educated as a Civil Engineer, the 33-year-old Ferris was the proprietor of a successful railroad and bridge inspection firm when he submitted his proposal for an attraction he called the “Chicago Wheel.” Originally, Ferris’ design was rejected as “too fragile” and extremely dangerous. In the spirit of American ingenuity, the mustachioed engineer persisted, refining his design with insight from other engineers. After over a year of development, the Chicago Wheel got the thumbs up for construction.

Ferris’ final design called for a cast-iron wheel that was 250 ft. in diameter and turned on a 70-ton axle. The wheel carried 36 cabins converted from railroad cars, each furnished with comfortable seating for a 60-person capacity. Steam boilers powered the thousand horsepower engines that rotated this 400-ton hunk of metal at 25 stories over a course of 20 minutes. After an anxiety-riddled bout of testing, the world’s first Ferris wheel was rolled out to the public in June of 1893.

Soon, Ferris’ gargantuan innovation was the toast of the town. Droves of the curious thrill-seekers lined up for the 50-cent flight above the Chicago streets. In total, over 1.4 million people experienced the sky-scraping phenomenon at the World’s Columbian Exposition. The Ferris Wheel had achieved every ounce the success of Eiffel Tower, if not the same permanence.

 After operating in Chicago a decade after the closure of the fair, the Ferris Wheel was moved to St. Louis for the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition. Two years later, the wheel went out with a bang when the Gateway City dynamited Ferris’ innovation for scrap metal. Fortunately, by the time the original Ferris Wheel met its demise several copycat attractions had sprung up at other Worlds Fairs, keeping Ferris’ ingenuity alive and inspiring future innovators to take his idea to new heights! Speaking of which…

Wheel Works at Home: The Wheel Itself

It’s time to exercise your own inventiveness and build your very own Ferris wheel! First, we’re going to build the wheel itself! Here’s what you’ll need:

  • Popsicle Sticks
  • Cardboard
  • Scissors
  • Superglue
  • Pencil
  • Colored Markers/ Crayons
  • Ruler/ Tape Measure
  • Phillips screwdriver

Of course, there are lots of different materials you could use to construct your own Ferris wheel, and we encourage you to use your imagination. So, let’s get started!

Step 1: Draw a circle about 2-inches in diameter on a sheet of cardboard and cut it out. Then, use the tip of your pencil to puncture the circle with a small hole.


Step 2: Take 4 popsicle sticks. Arrange each stick like one of the cardinal points of compass (North, South, East, West) around the circle. Then, take 4 more popsicle sticks and arrange them between the first four like the ordinal points of a compass (Northwest, Northeast, Southwest, Southeast)


Step 3: Line the surface of one side of the circle with several rings of glue. Then adhere one end of each popsicle stick to the cardboard. The result should look something like an eight-blade windmill. These are your wheel’s spokes.


Step 4: Take another popsicle stick and lay it horizontally across any of the two spokes. It should be placed about a half-inch below the ends OPPOSITE the glued ones. Trace the outline of the horizontal stick’s points of intersection onto the spokes.


Step 5: Next, a diagonal line on the horizontal stick at the two points of intersection. Each line should run perpendicular to length of the stick and run parallel to the imagined centers of the intersecting spokes.


Step 6: Remove the horizontal stick and cut off the ends at the traced lines.


Step 7: Glue the newly cut stick between the outlines you traced across the two spokes, connecting them.


Step 8: Repeat steps 4-7 until you have connected all eight spokes with an outer rim.


Step 9: Get creative and color your Ferris wheel using markers or crayons!

Step 10: Take a Phillips screwdriver and drill small holes in the outer ends of the spokes, past the outer rim. These will eventually support the connections for your wheel’s capsules!

Step 11: Repeat steps 1-10. This should give two identical sections (depending on your color choices of course).

Next time, we’ll show you how to attach your two wheel sections and get started on building your axle. In the meantime, don’t forget to share your wheels-in-the-making with #iconwheelworks on social media.

Watch for Wheel Works with ICON Park Part 2 for an inside look at the science behind these rotating wonders. Until then, spin ya later!