Sky Whirl

Sky Whirl made its debut at both Marriott’s GREAT AMERICA parks as the world’s first triple Ferris wheel in 1976. The Sky Whirl triple Ferris wheel rides were a custom design for Marriott. Supplied to Marriott by Intamin, that firm later marketed these huge rides under the catchy name of “Tree Triple Wheel”. The funny name was actually an apt description. The ride could be thought of as a huge tree with three giant wheels.

Although the Sky Whirl was huge, it occupied a relatively-small, circular footprint on the ground. Traditional Ferris wheels typically have not been well-suited for handling the large crowds at most large theme parks. These parks need rides that can handle large numbers of passengers per hour. The loading and unloading process of a traditional Ferris wheel is usually a slow operation. At the bottom of a traditional wheel, one or more seats or gondolas are usually unloaded and loaded, then the wheel is rotated to repeat the process iteratively until the entire wheel has been unloaded and loaded with passengers. Designed for operational efficiency, the Sky Whirl eliminated the slow traditional loading and unloading process by lowering an entire wheel onto its side. This allowed for the simultaneous unloading and loading of all cabins on an entire wheel. Sky Whirl was an engineering marvel. It was fascinating to observe this massive mechanical wonder operate seemingly with the precision of a Swiss watch.

While one wheel — or “spider”, as they were often called — was on the landing pad for passenger unloading and loading, the other two wheels were constantly spinning in the air at heights of up to about 110 feet. This made for a long, relaxing, uninterrupted ride. A ride on the Sky Whirl was a refreshing break from the heat and the crowds. It allowed the entire family, including infants and grandparents, to enjoy a leisurely spin in the sky with panoramic views of the park and the surrounding area. While the rotation of the wheels was actually quite gentle and did not bother most people, some passengers were not at ease on the ride. Sky Whirl had a reputation for having the most incidents of motion sickness of any ride in the park.

Sky Whirl was a Marriott’s GREAT AMERICA classic. To many, it was as much as symbol of the parks as the Carousel Columbia. Sadly, the Sky Whirl rides have passed into GREAT AMERICA history. First to go was the Santa Clara ride. Renamed the Triple Wheel in post-Marriott years, its last day of operation was 1 September 1997. The Gurnee ride was spared for a little longer. It also retained the original Sky Whirl name until the end. The Gurnee Sky Whirl gave its last rides in 2000.

County Fair
Final operating season:
Santa Clara: 1997; Gurnee: 2000

Go to the Sky Whirl photo album.

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