Big Wheel Keep on Turning

A dispatch from Vienna, site of the world's oldest working Ferris wheel

By / September 2012

Last summer, in the midst of a hurried 24 hours in Vienna, I took my kids–ages 9, 6, and 4–to ride the Riesenrad, the world’s oldest working Ferris wheel. Completed in 1897, just four years after George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. unveiled the archetype at the Chicago World’s Fair, the Riesenrad is a throwback to an era when fairground rides were less about intensity than suspension and charm.

In the daytime, with the hardware clearly visible, the complexity of the wheel staggers. The Riesenrad is a giant web of steel, around which dangle fifteen red, rectangular cabins, outfitted inside with benches and wide windows. At twilight, all but the lights along the outer ring fade, giving the Riesenrad, situated there at the entrance to the capacious Prater public park in Leopoldstadt, the feel of a bright chandelier. The Riesenrad ticks along at a dawdling 1.6 miles per hour, starting, stopping, restarting, more elevator than roller coaster. But inside, the lack of visual connection to the ground triggers no shortage of suspense.

A ticket to the Riesenrad affords unmatched views of Vienna. As if spinning on an antique film projector, patrons watch the city emerge frame by frame. First, in the foreground, the tree-carpeted park appears and then, farther up and out, apartments, office towers, and the signature spire of St. Stephens Cathedral.

The Riesenrad’s history has been marked by intermittent downturns. When its original builder, the Englishman Walter Bassett, died in 1907, he left his Ferris wheel manufacturing company nearly bankrupt. Following World War II, the wheel, like the Cathedral of St. Stephens, was essentially in ruins.

The 30 original cabins were lost but half were eventually restored to their former glory, and the wheel came back online in 1947. Two years later the Riesenrad featured prominently in “The Third Man,” the classic spy film written by Graham Greene and starring Orson Welles. In an unforgettable scene on the wheel, Welles and Joseph Cotten board an empty car and cast a passing judgment: “Kids used to ride this thing a lot in the old days, but they haven’t the money now.”

Perhaps buoyed by movie fame, perhaps sustained by nostalgia for the city’s glamorous past, the Riesenrad spins on. As much as any other structure, it is the face of Vienna, a favorite of locals and tourists alike. In recent decades, the wheel that Ferris popularized more than 100 years ago seems to be surging globally. Japan, London, China, and Singapore all now boast mammoth wheels, with the largest exceeding 500 feet in height. Plans are in place for a 550-foot Ferris wheel called the High Roller to open in Las Vegas in 2013.

When our cabin on the historic Riesenrad jerked to a halt, I was in no hurry to rush off. At the base of the wheel, I bought the kids foot-long bratwursts dressed in pungent mustard and watched the wheel take flight again, pleased to have had the chance to do what kids used to do.


Brian McKanna is a contributing writer for EthnoTraveler.