Sign Up For The Loop!

The Pacific Wheel

Published on May 13, 2024

It’s hard to imagine the Santa Monica without the Pacific Wheel. An indispensable feature of the Santa Monica coastline, our iconic Ferris wheel brings joy and wonder to visitors and locals alike.

The Pacific Wheel is the world’s only solar-powered Ferris wheel. It has been a feature of the Pacific Park amusement park since 1998 and has become a world-famous attraction.  The Wheel has featured in more than a thousand movies, television shows and commercials, music videos, print ads and social media posts.

Each year, millions of riders enjoy incredible views of the Pacific Ocean, Santa Monica coastline, Catalina Island, Malibu, and Palos Verdes Peninsula from more than 130 feet above the Santa Monica Pier.

History of the Pacific Wheel

Pacific Park unveiled the world’s first solar powered Ferris Wheel in November 1998, two years after the opening of the amusement park itself. Pacific Park was the first amusement park to open on the Pier since 1930.

Prior to Pacific Park’s opening, the Santa Monica Pier had overcome significant obstacles to stay in business. The earliest amusement park in Santa Monica was built by entrepreneur Charles Looff in 1916. It was situated on nearby Newcomb Pier, or what was then called the Looff Pleasure Pier. Over time, both piers went through a succession of owners. Weather, age, and changing times led to their deterioration and eventually, the planned demolition of the Piers.

However, Santa Monica residents loved the piers and in the 1970s developed a “Save Our Pier Forever” campaign. The City of Santa Monica created the Pier Restoration Corporation to oversee restoration efforts. In 1988, the City Council adopted the Santa Monica Pier Development Program. This program included the world-class Pacific Park amusement park and, finally, the world-famous Pacific Wheel. The nine-story-tall Ferris wheel was an instant sensation, and boasted 20 gondolas and almost 5,400 incandescent light bulbs.

The Pacific Wheel in Popular Culture

The Pacific Wheel has been a highly visible icon for the entertainment industry. Along with the Santa Monica Pier, the Wheel been featured in hundreds of movies, television shows, commercials, and music videos. You can ride even ride the Pacific Wheel in the popular video game Grand Theft Auto V!

Some notable appearances of the Wheel include in 2008’s Iron Man, when a boy sitting in the top gondola of the Ferris wheel gapes at Iron Man jetting past in his red and gold suit.

In Stephen Spielberg’s parody film, 1941 (filmed in 1979), a Ferris wheel at an amusement park on the Santa Monica pier is  shown, somewhat comically, rolling into the ocean as the result of a Japanese submarine attack.

In the 2013 film Sharknado a run-away Ferris wheel is knocked free by a tornado full of live sharks and demolishes the Pier. The wheel eventually crashes through the Santa Monica Pier sign and into the side of the Wyndham Hotel across the street. This scene is possibly an homage to Steven Spielberg’s 1979 movie 1941, where a Ferris wheel dislodges and rolls across the pier before sinking into the sea.

More recently, a 2019 episode of the FOX television drama 9-1-1 depicts the Pacific Wheel sticking out of the ocean after a tsunami sends the entire 110-year-old wooden Santa Monica Pier toppling into the sea. Though the scene was shot in Mexico, the set faithfully recreated Pacific Park and its 85-foot-tall Ferris wheel, right down to the color of the gondolas.

Pacific Park and the Pier have of course been featured in countless other productions. The amusement park served as the perfect venue for a birthday party in the 2009 teen musical Hannah Montana: The Movie. It’s also in the background during the final scene of Walt Becker’s biker road comedy Wild Hogs (2007).

Upgrades and Improvements

In May 2008, Pacific Park introduced a brand new, $1.8 million Ferris wheel. Amazingly, the old Pacific Wheel was listed on eBay—with half the proceeds from the sale donated to the Special Olympics!

The new wheel featured a lighting system with 160,000 energy-efficient LED lights. That was a big improvement from the previous wheel’s 5,400 incandescent bulbs. This eco-friendly lighting provided 75 per cent greater energy savings than most Ferris wheels.

Then, in May 2016, the Ferris wheel received another upgrade, just in time for Pacific Park’s 20th birthday.  This was a new lighting package that increased the colors displayed on the Ferris wheel from eight colors to 16.7 million combinations. It also delivered higher resolution, greater color depth and faster “frames per second” display speed.

The current Pacific Wheel measures 85 feet (26 m), and moves at 2.5 revolutions per minute with intermittent stops to pick up passengers. It also presents custom, computer-generated lighting entertainment each evening. It’s pretty eye-popping!

Ferris Wheel Solar Technology

As far as amusement park rides go, the Pacific Wheel is pretty green. Not only is it solar powered, but the LED lights dramatically cut energy consumption for the park while still managing to thrill the crowds as they light up the Santa Monica coastline.

The Pacific Wheel generates more than 71,000-kilowatt hours of renewable photovoltaic (PV) power from the sun’s rays. On cloudy days the Pacific Wheel is powered from conventional energy sources. In order for the wheel to operate, more than 650 PV modules had to be mounted on top of the Park’s loading area for its roller coaster, West Coaster, and its Midway games building. The PV modules generate the electricity needed to power the wheel.

The mechanical structure and operation of the Pacific Wheel has come a long way since the original Ferris wheel was invented by a bridge builder from Pennsylvania. In 1893 George Washington Gale Ferris debuted his vertical wheel at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. It was powered by two 1,000 horsepower reversible engines.

This original concept of the Ferris wheel remains intact, but it has been updated and advanced. At Pacific Park, the Wheel reflects our age’s state-of-the-art technology while retaining the magic and nostalgia of times past.

Ride The Pacific Wheel