MYRTLE BEACH — When Myrtle Beach’s $12 million SkyWheel opened as an anchor attraction of the city’s new oceanfront boardwalk in May 2011 it stood head and shoulders above others in the nation, hailed as the tallest of its kind on the East Coast. The attraction’s owners had better enjoy that claim to fame while they still can.
Orlando, Fla., developers are planning a wheel of their own as part of a new 19-acre tourism project. And Florida’s 425-foot wheel, planned for summer 2014, will easily make Myrtle Beach’s 187-foot version the small kid on the block. Local tourism officials aren’t exactly quaking in their boots, however.
“The SkyWheel, along with many other unique attractions in the Myrtle Beach area, are very important when it comes to both attracting and entertaining visitors,” said Nora Battle, spokeswoman for the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce.
But she’s not worried about a little competition. “I doubt that any new additions will harm the iconic status the Myrtle Beach SkyWheel has gained, however, since we’ve had it. It’s incredibly popular with the many visitors (and travel journalists) we host annually, and I think that will be true even if others are constructed.”
Myrtle Beach City Councilman Randal Wallace agreed.
“I think it has been a huge boost to downtown since it opened,” he said on Saturday. “I think it attracts people to the Boulevard, due to its size and light show. It is an attraction that is located in an area that needed some help, and between it and the boardwalk we have seen it boost that area in the past two years. I think that will continue regardless of it losing its status as the tallest in the East Coast because, at the end of the day, most people just saw or heard about it and came down to see it.”
Wallace isn’t convinced that riders really care if it’s the biggest or not.
“I figure most people won't know about its rankings with other SkyWheels at other venues,” he said. “They just see it, or hear about it, and want to ride it.”
Developers across the nation are banking on that same desire to go for a ride. Ferris wheels have become the popular tourism attraction of the moment, and several companies have colossal constructions in the works. When it comes to height, Orlando’s wheel probably won’t hold the tallest title for long.
In Las Vegas, dueling observation wheels are being planned for either side of the famed strip, both taller than Orlando’s and with projected opening dates in late 2013 and early 2014. Last month, New York City topped them all, saying it wants to build the world’s tallest wheel on the Staten Island waterfront. At 625 feet, that attraction will offer views of the Manhattan skyline.
Smaller wheels already exist across the country, but many are in the 200-foot range, closer to Myrtle Beach’s SkyWheel. Those attractions will be dwarfed by what developers have planned.
“Right now, it is the icon du jour,” said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Service Inc. in Cincinnati.
Ferris wheels, as they’re more commonly known, were simply out of vogue for the past 35 to 45 years, Speigel said. Most of the amusement parks that had them took them out, but the massive London Eye brought them back into fashion. At 443 feet, it is hundreds of feet taller than a standard Ferris wheel, which used to measure about 36 to 50 feet tall, Speigel said.
The modern versions have large, enclosed capsules that hold up to 40 people and in some cases serve food and drinks.
“You can have a party. You can have an event,” said David Codiga, executive project director for The Linq, a project by Caesars Entertainment that will include the 550-foot-tall High Roller observation wheel, which expects to begin operating in early 2014.
“The wheel is an attraction for all demographics. Anybody can ride, from the youngest to the oldest,” Codiga said.
The High Roller’s primary competition will be the Skyvue Las Vegas, across from Mandalay Bay on the Las Vegas Strip. The 500-foot-tall wheel is slated to have a 50,000-square-foot LED screen on each side.
In New York, officials are hoping 4.5 million people a year will eventually take a ride on the New York Wheel, slated to open by the end of 2015.
Local business owners have credited the SkyWheel and other improvements with helping to breathe new life into Myrtle Beach’s downtown over the past couple of years.
Erez Sukarchi, who owns Surf’s Up beachwear shop and several other businesses in downtown Myrtle Beach credited it with boosting traffic.
“On Ocean Boulevard, we are seeing big improvements,” Sukarchi said in May, “and we are making a lot more money since the city built the boardwalk and since the SkyWheel went up.”
The Orlando Sentinel contributed to this report.