As We See It

In Las Vegas, the ‘observation’ wheel becomes a new kind of entertainment experience

Round and round: An artist’s rendering of the High Roller observation wheel.
Caesars Entertainment

It really is true—everything old is new again. At the rate Ferris—sorry, “observation”—wheels are going up, you would think the technology had just been created yesterday.

Las Vegas has not one but two of them under construction as we speak, the 550-foot-tall High Roller, part of Caesars Entertainment’s Project Linq, and the 500-foot-tall SkyVue near Mandalay Bay. Just last month, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced his city’s plans for an even larger wheel, which, at 650 feet, would be the world’s tallest.

With this kind of market saturation (in a city our size, two is saturation) comes the necessity to make each wheel as unique as possible. You certainly don’t want customers giving in to that “seen one, seen them all” rule, because they probably have seen others. The 541-foot-tall Singapore Flyer and the 443-foot London Eye have been drawing tourists for years.

But the builders of the High Roller recognize that challenge, and they’re rising to it in dramatic fashion.

The High Roller observation wheel will feature spherical cabins.

The High Roller observation wheel will feature spherical cabins.

Phil Hettema, president and creative executive with the Hettema Group, which was hand-picked by Caesars to design the High Roller, is no stranger to designing iconic experiences. He’s worked on Universal’s Islands of Adventure and the “Beyond All Boundaries” 4-D experience at the National World War II Museum with Tom Hanks, among many others. “But of all the things we’ve done,” Hettema says, “this may be the most iconic thing of all, and we’re really thrilled about it.”

The two biggest priorities in designing the wheel, he says, were ensuring it’s a “striking” image on the skyline and to “take the guests by the hand from the moment they enter, and all the way through, create much more of a fully-fleshed-out experience for them.”

The design elements would seem to accomplish the first goal. Cabins of the wheel are spherical and made completely of glass, and Hettema says the design is “a real step forward” in that the cabin mechanism is held in a single steel ring, allowing for a greater 360-degree view. It won’t be a disorienting experience—à la the Grand Canyon Skywalk, where you appear to be “floating.” Every cabin has a solid floor, so you’ll still feel grounded while enjoying the sights.

As for the “only-in-Vegas” elements, Hettema says the three-story entry building will more than take care of that, comparing it to “the world’s hippest airline terminal,” with media elements “that are completely Vegas-oriented … they will keep everyone entertained as they are getting ready for their departure.”

In case you’re still doubting the group’s ability to pull off a truly original experience, consider this: They’re collaborating with Arup, which also worked on the London Eye and Singapore Flyer. Can Las Vegas sustain two wheels where it once had none? That remains to be seen. But seriously, isn’t that skyline going to look cool?

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Ken Miller is Las Vegas Magazine's managing editor, having previously served as associate editor at Las Vegas Weekly, assistant features ...

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