DOWNTOWN WEST – It is the newest addition to the St. Louis skyline, and the St. Louis Wheel, in its 200 feet of glory (which, by the way, is taller than the Ferris wheel in Chicago) is now up and running.
To be a “first passenger,” you had to carry some pretty serious St. Louis clout. Mayor Lyda Krewson was among the first to board. St. Louis Cardinals President Bill DeWitt III was in the gondola next to the mayor’s party. And the car that looked to be the center of the fun, and drew all the photographers, was a sort of “Mascots on Parade,” with Fredbird of the Cardinals, Louie from the St. Louis Blues, and TheBilliken from St. Louis University all piled in for a look.
The most notable thing from those who took the ride, without question, was what they saw from the top.
“It was awesome,” Kewson said effusively when she returned from her ride. “It was so incredible. The view is beautiful. It’s fabulous.”
“It’s a lovely view of the city, and I’m looking forward to trying it at night, too,” Eighth Ward Alderwoman Annie Rice said.
From the beginning of the midday ceremony, the bragging rights belonged to what you see from up top.
“A completely new view of twenty stories high in the air,” radio personality Guy Phillips bellowed to the crowd of guests. “That’s fifty feet taller than the Statue of Liberty.”
The ride itself offers something you don’t often get to experience: a brand-new view of a city you may have lived in all your life. You make it to a peak elevation of 200 feet, about a third the height of the Gateway Arch, and are rewarded with a view of that gleaming structure over the roof of Union Station. Each gondola can seat up to eight people, holds more than 1300 pounds, and is equipped with climate control to handle whatever St. Louis weather wants to throw at guests on a given day.
But to those who have been here through the entire construction process, just the fact that the thing is standing, up and running is a marvel in and of itself.
“When I got here we were standing on piles of dirt,” St. Louis Wheel General Manager Karyn Wilder said. “Dirt as far as the eye could see. The only part of the wheel that existed was concrete being poured into the ground. So to go from there to seeing everything ready to go is just spectacular.”
This new addition to the skyline with its grand view is about something else of significance in Downtown West. It is yet another attempt to breathe life into a Union Station complex that has seen plenty of ups and downs over the years. The owners of the facility say the brighter parts of that history are a draw.
“Part of buying Union Station, we wanted to tell the history of what went on at Union Station and how it made St. Louis the third-largest city in the United States,” Bob O’Loughlin, CEO of Union Station’s owner, Lodging Hospitality Management, said. “Everybody going from the east coast to the west coast had to come through Union Station.”
The Ferris wheel is not the only nod to those days. An “old timey” carousel, trains that will be used for special events, and even a nostalgic soda fountain are all part of the complex. There’s mini-golf, too. All that will be open by the end of September; and the biggest prize of all, the new aquarium, is set to be ready by year’s end.
The price tag on it all is $190 million, but if it can bring staying power to another city neighborhood, money will become a secondary issue.
“It’s beautiful and I love it and it’s great to have this back in the city,” Rice said. “Particularly this part of town. More restaurant options. It’s beautiful. I really hope we’re drawing more people down to this part of town. I mean, yeah, the Wheel is great.”
Wilder is hoping for big-picture results.
“We’re so happy to bring an iconic structure to St. Louis,” she said. “Something that enhances the skyline of St. Louis. But for Union Station as a whole, we really want it to be the place that when people go downtown, they’re like, ‘We need to go to Union Station.’”