During its heyday Coney Island was the place where the biggest and best of everything was built. So, when designer Charles Herman designed his 150-foot tall ferris wheel it was no surprise he picked the beach at Coney to be the home for his wheel. 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 has become 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 and some sort of rolling sound. That is the devilish charm of the wheel. 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 passengers cars operate. When the wheel is in motion these tracks incline, causing the cars to roll back and forth." Each cars has two rows of two seats, both facing the same direction. As the engine 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 and very well taken care of. 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 perfect safety record the ride has had since it first opened.
If one looks east down the Bowery it is easy to spot one of the Wheel's best pieces of advertising. It is a large neon sign that has the words "Wonder Wheel" on top of each other, and the blinking word Thrills! in the middle of an arrow pointing south to the great wheel. There are only two similar ferris wheels in the world. The first stands in Yokahama, Japan and I believe the park's owners got the permission of the family to build a copy of the Wonder Wheel. However, according to Coney Island U.S.A., the new Sunwheel at Disney's California Adventure was built without the family's o.k. In typical corporate fashion they decided not to give the Vouderises the courtesy of a formal request and built their version.
The Vouderis family have built a nice family park at Coney Island with the Wonder Wheel as the centerpiece. Full of traditional family and children's rides Deno's Wonder Wheel Park helps bring thousands of families to Coney Island each year to give their children a small piece of the unique Coney Island experience. If you are in the area be sure to drop into the Wonder Wheel and the surrounding rides because it, like all of the experiences at Coney, will not continue to turn without your support.