“Ride the Wonder Wheel, the highest Ferris wheel in the world! From its top you can see the Eiffel Tower in Paris.” Gary Kyriazi, The Great American Amusement Parks, 78-79.
During its heyday Coney Island was the place where the biggest and best of everything was built. Therefore, when designer Charles Herman designed his 150-foot tall Ferris wheel it was no surprise he picked the beach at Coney as its home. Construction began in 1918 and was finished in 1920 by Herald J. Garms and the Eccentric Ferris Wheel Company. All of the Bethlehem Steel was forged on site and raised onto the ride’s structure where it was attached. The wheel opened to rave reviews and became one of the island’s icons. Herald’s son, Freddie, ran the wheel until 1983. One of the current owners, Dennis Vourderis, said “This ride did not come with a manual, as some of the newer, more advanced rides, today. This ride came with the knowledge that was passed down from Freddie Garms…he acquired it from his father, who built it and passed it on to our father Deno, who passed it on to Steve and I.” Yes, the Wonder Wheel has the look of old Coney, but what makes this Ferris wheel so special? It is all in the cars.
If you listen to the Wonder Wheel turn one is likely to hear screams, something unusual for a wheel. That is the devilish charm of this ride. The Wonder Wheel is unlike most Ferris wheels in that it has eight stationery cars and sixteen that roll along tracks within the wheel’s structure. In his book The Outdoor Amusement Industry William Mangels said, “In its revolving structure are built-in curved tracks on which small passenger cars operate. When the wheel is in motion these tracks incline, causing the cars to roll back and forth.” Each car has two rows of two seats, both facing the same direction. As the motor turns the wheel the swinging cars stay stationery until they are a little above the wheel’s axis and then quickly fly down about twenty feet of track until they swing to a stop.
The wheel itself stands 150 feet high, has a diameter of 135 feet and holds 144 people at once. According to Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park the ride has only stopped once during a major power outage in 1977. But, the owners cranked the wheel around so everyone disembarked safely. The ride was named a New York City Landmark in 1989. The park dismantles the cars every year and overhauls them. It also works on the motor and superstructure of the wheel to ensure that it keeps the fantastic safety record the ride has had since it first opened.