MYRTLE BEACH -- The tallest Ferris wheel in the eastern United States, a 200-foot-high, $12 million wheel with a million LED lights and 42 air-conditioned gondolas, started spinning Friday in Myrtle Beach.
The SkyWheel is expected to help draw visitors to downtown Myrtle Beach, where a new 1.2-mile oceanfront boardwalk opened last year but which five years ago lost the oceanfront Pavilion amusement park.
The wheel takes riders for a 12-minute spin above the beach, and each night will feature a computerized light show.
"This is really going to be an icon for our city and I think we're going to be able to use it as a tremendous commercial tool," said Myrtle Beach Mayor John Rhodes.
The attraction is of the same design as a wheel on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls and dominates the skyline along the beach district in a resort that is the heart of South Carolina's $18.4 billion tourism industry.
"Myrtle Beach was the right audience for the attraction," said David Busker, president of Koch Development, which developed the wheel along with Pacific Development. "Niagara Falls has a similar profile to Myrtle Beach, 14 million visitors, natural attractions -- they have the falls and we have the beach -- and they have been very successful."
One of the first riders on the wheel was 10-year-old Tad McCord of North Myrtle Beach. He's not afraid of heights, having been much higher -- his dad is an airline pilot and also flies smaller planes.
"I loved it. I liked the going-around part," Tad said, and, asked to compare it to an airplane ride, said, "I think they're both equally as fun."
The wheel is 12 feet shorter than the Ferris wheel at the Texas State Fair in Dallas, the tallest wheel in the nation, and smaller than the world's first Ferris wheel, a 264-footer built for the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago.
The 541-foot Singapore Flyer remains the world's tallest, said Norman Anderson of Raleigh, a retired North Carolina State University professor who has written a history of Ferris wheels and writes a monthly newsletter dealing largely with the rides.
At one point, interest in Ferris wheels had declined for many years, he said.
"Roller coasters went through this in the '60s and '70s," he said. "Then with the advent of steel roller coasters with corkscrews and helixes, they made a real strong comeback."
When the Millennium Wheel -- also known as the London Eye -- was built in London more than a decade ago, bigger Ferris wheels started being built overseas. The Great Recession delayed construction on several large wheels, including one in Beijing planned to rise 682 feet.
In the United States, he said, there has always been more interest in roller coasters.
"In America I always say that with the young people, if they go to an amusement park and don't have four near-death experiences in a day, they are not happy," Anderson said.
Anderson estimated that there are a couple of thousand Ferris wheels worldwide, with Asia a particular hotspot.