ST. LOUIS — The downtown landscape is getting some legs.
The support towers for the new 200-foot observation wheel at Union Station are rising above the former train shed; about a quarter of the wheel’s spokes are also in place.
By mid-October, visitors will be able to ride year-round in one of 42 climate-controlled gondolas. Each gondola will hold up to eight people.
“This is going to change the landscape,” said Eli Stovall, the managing partner for Icon Attractions, which will run the wheel, which will be known as the St. Louis Wheel. “It’s going to add a new landmark to the city of St. Louis.”
For size comparison, the Colossus wheel at Six Flags St. Louis is 180 feet tall.
The St. Louis Wheel will be just one aspect of the $187 million entertainment complex at the former train station (then shopping mall) that soon will open as St. Louis Aquarium. The aquarium is set to debut in mid-December. Officials opened the building Thursday for a media tour.
A 36-foot-wide carousel with 30 animal rides and two chariots will open at the same time as the wheel, as well as an 18-hole mini-golf course.
For riders, the wheel offers a new perspective on the city below, with views spanning up to 20 miles in every direction on a clear day. And those on the ground will get to enjoy the wheel’s 1.6 million LED lights, which can display colors in any combination to celebrate special occasions, such as the Fourth of July or yet another Blues hockey win. (For a fee, the wheel can light up with your wedding colors, school colors, or in pink or blue for the ultimate baby gender reveal.)
The wheel itself will be completed by the end of the month. As workers add the rings and spokes, they rotate it so nobody has to go too far off the ground, Stovall said. “It’s like the coolest, biggest Lego set you can build.”
The time between the wheel’s completion and the opening will be used to finish ground construction, hire and train operators, and test the wheel.
Icon Attractions also operates the Capital Wheel at National Harbor in Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C. It was installed there in 2014 and has attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors, Stovall said.
“It’s become an iconic structure for the National Harbor,” he said. The setting is different because it sits on the Potomac River.
The St. Louis Wheel sits on the southwest corner of the train station complex, near the aquarium entrance, between the train tracks and Lombardo’s Trattoria.
St. Louis Union Station, a National Historic Landmark, opened in 1894. Without it, the 1904 World’s Fair and the Olympics may not have happened, said Robert O’Loughlin, chairman and CEO of Lodging Hospitality Management, which purchased Union Station in 2012.
The St. Louis Wheel is an homage to the fair’s famous Ferris wheel, which was 264 feet high and had 36 wooden cars that each could carry 60 standing passengers.
Inside the aquarium, it’s easy to see the layout taking shape. It’s two stories, taking up 120,000 square feet, and will have a combined 1.3 million gallons of tank space. The 190,000-square-foot Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga has 1.1 million gallons.
The aquarium itself will honor the building’s railroad roots. Visitors will buy a ticket and go on a virtual train ride to the aquarium; they will keep track of their ticket time by looking at a 10,000-gallon clock tank, a replica of the building’s clock tower, said Aaron Sprowl, the general animal curator of the aquarium.
Visitors will exit the “train” to explore the aquarium’s touch tanks, a J-shaped tank for sharks and rays, an area for otters, and tanks devoted to rivers in the region and around the world.
The aquarium will begin getting animals in the fall, Sprowl said, and it will take a few months to acclimatize them to their new home. The aquarium wasn’t counting on its first resident, a rare blue lobster named Lord Stanley, after the Blues’ recent Stanley Cup win.
On Thursday, officials wheeled his touch tank from the aquarium offices so Lord Stanley could meet the media again. Sprowl said options are being discussed for a permanent aquarium home.
Undoubtedly, Stanley will be a draw.
“I have heard rumors they are ordering blue stuffed lobsters” for the gift shop, Sprowl said.