Observation wheel offers “360 degrees of paradise”

After a week of blazing fast assembly work, 360° Pensacola Beach officially opened for business Tuesday.

At 200 feet tall, the Pensacola Beach wheel is one of the tallest in the United States, just under the 212-foot Texas Star in Dallas. It’s the second such project by St. Louis-based Pacific Development, which opened the SkyWheel in Myrtle Beach last year.

With hundreds of thousands of LED lights lining the wheel’s starburst and supports, it’s going to be an unmissable addition to the island’s skyline, and Pacific Development co-CEOs Al Mers and Todd Schneider are thrilled to bring their attraction to the Gulf Coast.

“We’re excited to get this open, and we are going to deliver 360 degrees of paradise,” said Schneider.

Don’t call it a Ferris wheel

360° Pensacola Beach is one of a newer breed of Ferris wheels, called “giant wheels” in the industry, that are different from the typical carnival-style Ferris wheels with their shaky, open gondolas.

“I don’t like when people call it a Ferris wheel,” said Mers, “because they think that they’re going out there and it’s like Coney Island.”

On the contrary, 360° Pensacola Beach has forty-two enclosed, air conditioned gondolas, each emblazoned with the logo “Wheel of Excellence,” a trademark originated by renowned giant wheel designer Ronald Bussink that requires operators to pass a rigorous training and testing process.

The standard “flight” lasts 10-12 minutes and consists of four rotations — one for loading and three more uninterrupted. Each gondola holds between two and six people, for a maximum capacity of 252 at any given time, but smaller parties aren’t forced to share with strangers. Each group gets its own private gondola.

“The thing that’s great about it is that anybody can enjoy this wheel, from infants to grandparents,” said Mers. “It moves so slow you won’t get any rocking in that gondola. It’s not like the old Ferris wheel where, you know, we can all get in and shake it.”

Coming to Pensacola a “no-brainer”

The Myrtle Beach SkyWheel was a joint development with Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, which operates a LandShark bar and grill in the same complex. After being invited to Pensacola Beach to see the new Margaritaville Beach Hotel, Schneider and Mers decided this would be the perfect place for their next development. Specifically, they were drawn to the unique nature of Pensacola’s waterways, which is only visible from a certain height that most tourists don’t get to appreciate.

“To have the gulf on one side, and then the little strip of land here, and then the sound, and then Gulf Breeze, and then the bay, and then mainland USA — this is a pretty special place,” said Schneider. “And our attraction is an observation wheel. To literally put people up there and let them observe this beauty, it’s just a no-brainer. It just clicked with us instantly.”

Schneider credits SRIA Executive Director Buck Lee for taking an interest in the project and helping to expedite the planning process.

“I don’t know if you guys know how great of a leader he is out here,” he said. “Without his support, this would have never happened.”

All told, it took about six months’ worth of planning and development to get everything ready.

“Then we squeezed it into a month,” laughed Mers.

Hurricane, schmurricane

After site preparation, the wheel itself was assembled in only a few days. That’s a feature of the design, and one that may come in handy when tropical storms threaten the area.

“It can be put up and taken down fairly quickly, top-to-bottom in six days,” said Mers. “But we would never have to take it down top-to-bottom.”

Depending on the kind of storm that enters the Gulf of Mexico, they might only remove the gondolas. For higher category hurricanes, they might decide to take down the ring beams or spokes.

“I don’t think we’d ever hit a spot where we’d take the A-frame down,” Mers said.

Besides hurricane contingencies, there are other safety features. In the event of a power loss during operation, the wheel has an emergency generator. There’s also a battery back-up braking system for an extra layer of redundancy.

“It doesn’t take a whole lot to turn the wheel, because it’s a balancing act,” said Mers. “It will always come to the bottom because the weight will always be to one side or the other, so you just use the braking system.”

VIP treatment

Schneider and Mers are confident that 360° Pensacola Beach will have a “ripple effect” on the surrounding businesses and the local economy, but they also want to help in other ways. For example, they plan to offer the VIP treatment to visiting dignitaries and other special guests.

“Say someone’s thinking about doing a convention here in Pensacola and they want to come out and see the area,” said Schneider, “we’d welcome them and show them. A travel magazine guy’s doing a story on Pensacola, we’ll get him on there. We’ll take care of those kinds of people. Anything to showcase the community and help out.”

One of the forty-two gondolas is set aside for VIP flights. It’s equipped with four bucket leather seats, upgraded lighting and amenities, and even a champagne bucket.

“When the sun goes down and you’re up in this wheel, people are going to want a little champagne,” Schneider said. “Valentine’s Day is going to be a smash.”

They’re currently working with neighbor Florida Pizza Kitchen to provide the champagne and other catering, but they plan to apply for their own beer and wine permit soon. VIPs will also have access to a cabana-style red carpet area before and after their double-length flights, and managers will personally escort them and accept special requests (like fresh flowers for gentlemen who want to pop the question).

Flights are $15 per ticket or $5 for children under 48″ tall. VIP flights are $55 per ticket. There’s a 10% senior and military discount, and locals are encouraged to watch the 360° Pensacola Beach Facebook page for special promotions and other updates.