Opinion: Kicking the tires on the new SkyStar ‘observation wheel’

SkyStar, observation wheel, Golden Gate Park

SkyStar Observation Wheel in Golden Gate Park, photographed on Oct. 25, 2020. Roman Gokhman/STAFF.

Could the new Golden Gate Park Ferris wheel—the SkyStar—withstand the predicted 70-mile-per-h0ur winds Sunday night? I wasn’t about to find out.

The 150-feet-tall SkyStar “observation wheel”—company spokesman Jon Finck was quick to point out that the one at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago had open gondolas, so this was not a Ferris wheel—was concluding its grand opening week on Sunday. I talked my family and a couple of friends into joining me for a ride before prices go up Monday to $18 for adults and $12 for kids. It didn’t take much convincing, as my 6-year-olds are “observation wheel” enthusiasts. We visited Myrtle Beach a couple of months back, and that city is home to the SkyWheel, developed by—you guessed it—the same people. The SkyWheel rises 200 feet up, so San Francisco’s, at 150 and about 15 stories, isn’t quite as tall.

The St. Louis company that runs the wheel, SkyView Partners LLC, pioneered the stand-alone observation wheel concept in America, with the Myrtle Beach wheel becoming the first one in 2010. It partnered with the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department, which was looking for a way to commemorate Golden Gate Park’s 150th anniversary. It arrived last spring, right before COVID-19 shut everything down.

SkyStar, observation wheel, Golden Gate Park

SkyStar Observation Wheel in Golden Gate Park, photographed on Oct. 25, 2020.

“We’ve had to adapt many of our community events and celebrations this year, but the fact that we can now safely open the observation wheel is a tribute to the resilience of our city and provides some much-needed hope for our residents,” Mayor London Breed said in a news release.

In any case, there we were at Golden Gate Park’s Music Concourse, which is off 9th Avenue if you’re approaching it from the south. We found street parking, but if you’re in a hurry—a real possibility because riding the SkyStar can only be done by an advance online time-based reservation—there’s a handy garage right there.

There was a line of about 300 people, part of which you can see after joining and part of which surprises you just when you think you’ve made it to the front. It’s like Disneyland, when Disneyland was a thing. Remember Disneyland? But the line Sunday afternoon was relatively brisk. First an employee scans your forehead for a contactless temperature reading. Later down the line, your tickets also get scanned. The instructions I had in advance said to print the tickets, but most people showed the barcode on their their phones. Masks are required throughout, and I didn’t see anyone trying to avoid that part of the process. People were taking safety seriously.

“We are taking every step possible to ensure a healthy and safe ride for the public and operating staff/crew,” Finck told me.

Then you join a corral, with multiple hand sanitizer dispensers, that snakes back and forth a few times. Suddenly, it was like I was at Bill Graham Civic, waiting to get in for the Flaming Lips or Carly Rae Jepsen, or—sorry. Got distracted for a moment. After about 20 minutes, you make it to a photo booth where you can get a fake green-screen shot of your group in front of the SkyStar. In case, you know, you don’t want to walk for 30 seconds and get your own photo in front of the actual SkyStar. We blasted past that to find we were about 20 more people from the front. Another 15 minutes later, we were finally able to check out one of the 36 enclosed temperature-controlled gondolas, which, by the way, leak water from their air conditioning onto the people waiting in line below. Watch your head.

SkyStar, observation wheel, Golden Gate Park

SkyStar Observation Wheel in Golden Gate Park, photographed on Oct. 25, 2020.

I caught a brief glimpse of the “VIP gondola,” which offers “a longer ride and more amenities,” and is also $50 per person. Before we got into a gondola, an employe sprayed down at least some of the surfaces inside—whatever he could get to in 10 seconds—and then we piled in. Six people is the maximum inside a gondola, which is what we had, but there’s no mixing of groups, so some of the gondolas had one or two riders. The glass doors slammed shut, and the wheel slowly accelerated—for 10 seconds, before we stopped about 40 feet off the ground for others to get on. On our first of three or four revolutions, this happened about three or four times. The remaining ride was relatively smooth, to the point that I think it was shorter than the promised 12 minutes and four revolutions.

The view was indeed pretty, with the ocean peering in from one side, downtown from another, the park below, as well as the neighborhoods. I wouldn’t say the views were “unparalleled,” which the company claimed. San Francisco is a very beautiful place, and if you’re after a view, you have many options without an admission fee or a line.

SkyStar, observation wheel, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco

The view from the SkyStar Observation Wheel in Golden Gate Park, photographed on Oct. 25, 2020.

After our ride was over, we were funneled out the other side of the gondolas and right into a makeshift gift shop. I thought we had cleared it until the kids spotted the snack stand right outside.

What the SkyStar did provide was a short sense of normalcy. Sitting as a group, facing each other and carrying on a conversation as the green roof of the Cal Academy of Sciences flashed below you (someone’s behind on watering that thing) and the scenery shifting every few seconds was worth the experience. And if you have an after-dark ride, you’ll get to see the wheel light up in a colorful psychedelic display.

To make a reservation, visit the SkyStar website. It’s scheduled to remain in the park for 12 months. If it remains hugely successful, it might stay longer, Finck implied. Operating hours are Monday through Friday, from 12 to 10 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. But probably not during hurricane-force windstorms.


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Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.

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