Questions about operating a Ferris wheel

Saturday, September 10, 2011 2:36 PM

I know I've asked some rather bizarre and esoteric questions at Coasterbuzz. Here are some more.

I need to know how a Ferris wheel is controlled--how it's started, stopped, advanced, turned on and off (not the motor mechanisms on the actual wheel itself, but rather operator control). I need a description of the typical control panel and how to use it.

Of course I'm sure there are many different designs for Ferris wheel controls and their operation. I just need something typical, preferably from an older model that might have run, say, between the 1930's and 1970's. I'm guessing much of the basics of operation are fairly universal.

Please, and pre-emptively, thank you. :)


My author website: mgrantroberts.com

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Saturday, September 10, 2011 5:46 PM

If we are talking what the typical Ferris Wheel that most people think of , that's the Eli #5 or #16 Wheel, or just a "Big Eli". Until recently these wheels had but two controls. They have a clutch and a brake. These are both hand controls, utilizing a rachet and pall locking mechanism that would lock the controls into position. The operator squeezes a release lever on the top of the control lever to move either one into the desired position. It takes a fair amount of skill to operate a cable drive Eli, especially the #16 wheel, so much so that a good Eli man was paid more than the average ride jockey.

I found this discription of how a #16 wheel is handled. It's the recollections of former Mountain Park employee Jay Ducharme during the last seasons of it's operation.

I was quite nervous when Roger Fortin trained me on the big wheel. I never considered myself good with math, and this ride required some on-the-fly computation. The wheel was powered by a small motor attached to an ingenious butterfly clutch system. The clutch had two curved shoes, much like old car brakes, that squeezed against a drum (like a tire rim). The drum engaged a steel cable (about 3/4 of an inch in diameter) that looped around the rim of the wheel. Along that one side, each sweep (the piece of steel that extends out from the central hub) had two flared angle irons at their ends, through which the cable passed. The operator stood in front of the clutch mechanism, next to a long hip-high lever. The lever had a squeeze-trigger that allowed it to move forward or back to engage or disengage the clutch and activate the brake. A push-button switch would send power to the motor.

All this is important to note because the ride operator, unlike with so many modern "automatic" rides, had complete control of the wheel and had to be constantly alert. All of the seats were numbered. So if two young kids sat in seat number 1, for example, I would have to mentally note their combined estimated weight. Then I would engage the clutch and swing them around to the top of the ride until seat 9 (directly opposite seat 1) was next to me. Then from the queue line, I'd try to find one large guest or two more small guests and ask them to sit in seat number 9. I'd have to do this to balance the wheel. Since the only thing turning the ride was a relatively thin cable running around one side of a steel rim and through a small clutch, an out-of-balance wheel would cause the cable to slip in the rim, and the wheel wouldn't be able to turn all the way around. It was especially bad if the ride was wet. Obviously, the ride could accept some variation. But if it was loaded it too heavily in one area, there was trouble.

Last edited by Dutchman, Saturday, September 10, 2011 5:50 PM
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Saturday, September 10, 2011 7:38 PM

Thank you, Dutch. I think I'm picturing what you're describing correctly. So the clutch engages the drive motor, if I understand. And if you want to leave the wheel running, you merely lock the clutch lever into position -- is that right? And then to brake, you do the same with the brake lever?

Is/was there a key to lock out the panel?

Last edited by Ensign Smith, Saturday, September 10, 2011 7:38 PM

My author website: mgrantroberts.com

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Saturday, September 10, 2011 8:30 PM

As they came from Eli Bridge, there was no lock out. When a wheel was installed at a park ordinarily a power cut out switch was installed that had fuses/circuit breakers in it and had lockout capability. With the portables that had a industrial gasolene engine for power, I used to see the carns chain up both the clutch and brake levers when the ride was not in use, but often as not it was left sitting there with just the brake set.

Yes once the wheel was loaded you just engaged the clutch all the way and let her go, no deadman control in those days. I've seen operations where they had one person running two or more rides where the op would go off and leave a wheel running with a load on it and go load up another ride and start it up, and then the op would come back and start unloading the wheel. Never get away with that these days.

Last edited by Dutchman, Saturday, September 10, 2011 8:32 PM
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Saturday, September 10, 2011 8:39 PM

That's exactly the information I needed. Thank you for the prompt answering, Dutchman. Or as your countrymen might say, "Dank u wel." ;)


My author website: mgrantroberts.com

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Sunday, September 11, 2011 1:13 AM

Your welcome ('graag gedaan') ;)

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Sunday, September 11, 2011 2:02 PM

I got the chance to operate Strickers Eli on several occasions but the Clutch engaged as the brake was applied. You simply engaged it at different levels according to how fast you wanted it to turn. It took a fair bit of skill to slow it and stop it in proper position and some moderate skill just getting people in and out of it and most importantly. KEEPING IT BALANCED. Those cables in rubber lined cable tracks won't hold if its unbalanced and then you have a ROLL BACK!.

Everything done right and guest riding properly. There were never any problems. However, I still say, This is one of the most dangerous ride in existence. The newer hang under ones are much more stable. The eli type is not hard to dump someone forward or backward and expecially at loading time or by someone rocking the tub. They ain't that stable people. Pass the fulcrum and over she goes. Im surprised at how few accidents there really are.

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Sunday, September 11, 2011 4:58 PM

I'm not sure I'm following all of that, Chuck. This part specifically:

...but the Clutch engaged as the brake was applied. You simply engaged it at different levels according to how fast you wanted it to turn.

So does this mean both controls are used simultaneously to control the wheel speed and to slow it down for boarding? Sort of like two-footing an automatic automobile?


My author website: mgrantroberts.com

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Sunday, September 11, 2011 5:35 PM

In the following link, the author describes what sounds like a single lever system, with braking and motor control on the same stick, for an Eli:

http://www.karenandjay.com/mtpark/mpblog/bigeli.html

Man, I wish I was mechanically competent so I could understand this stuff easily.


My author website: mgrantroberts.com

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Sunday, September 11, 2011 6:39 PM

The single lever control was used on Big Eli's from at least the late 1950's early 1960's (maybe earlier, it's getting to be a while since I've seen a Big Eli that hasn't been converted to hydraulic drive). Essentially, yes when you start disingaging the clutch you start applying the brake, so you would be working the brake against the clutch, like starting a standard tranmission vehicle on a grade. From what the couple old carns that I worked with on the old Gooding Amusement Co. shows told me, Eli came up with the single lever control specifically for the #16 wheel (and eventually I surmise the #5 and #12 wheels). If the ride jockey didn't phase the clutch and brake levers just right you could easily lose control. As has been pointed out even with the single lever it was not exactly a cakewalk which is why everyone is converting then over to hydraulic rim drive.

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Sunday, September 11, 2011 7:42 PM

I think I can work with that. Thank you again, Mr. Dutchman.... :)


My author website: mgrantroberts.com

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Monday, September 12, 2011 7:32 AM

Yeah, It was single lever with a hand clasp that had to be squeezed to get the lever to move. Forward was engaging the flywheel. Back toward you was brake. You pulled it to you to slow it and you started slowing it about where the car you wanted to load/unload was just past the top. By 3/4 down you were full brake and hopefully it stopped where you intended :) If it was a little short, You could just bump it forward a bit, but if you passed the platform that you had to raise to catch the car bottom, We'll you sent em around again! :)

Now what was really fun and hard for a 13 year old to do was operate the Herschell Kiddy coaster that my first year there didn't have the Pnumatics but the old heavy lever with the thumb button on top. Give em two laps. Ok, you set the brake to let it slide through the station at just the right speed to catch the chain easy the first time and full brake the second.

However if you didn't set it right. It would scream through the station and 3/4 up the hill and BAM the chain dogs would catch and the whole park would know it!. You had a workout on either of those rides.

Now the Scrambler and Tilt were fun to run as you had control at that time you could work the clutch on the tilt and get em sick. The scrambler at that time was Insane at full speed. Now it probably runs on about click five of what used to be 8.. You could also work the riders, Wanna go faster? YEAH!

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Monday, September 12, 2011 12:14 PM

Ensign Smith said:
I need to know how a Ferris wheel is controlled--how it's started, stopped, advanced, turned on and off (not the motor mechanisms on the actual wheel itself, but rather operator control). I need a description of the typical control panel and how to use it.

Why all the interest in operating a Ferris Wheel? Are you a terrorist;) Glad I did not ride the wheel at Cedar Point yesterday.

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Monday, September 12, 2011 1:06 PM

It's information I need for a confidential, super top-secret, x-ray confidential project I'm working on...

Also known as a book. ;)


My author website: mgrantroberts.com

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Monday, September 12, 2011 1:14 PM

A book - who reads those anymore?

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Monday, September 12, 2011 2:02 PM

Hopefully, somebody!


My author website: mgrantroberts.com

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Monday, September 12, 2011 3:04 PM

Shades said:


Ensign Smith said:
I need to know how a Ferris wheel is controlled--how it's started, stopped, advanced, turned on and off (not the motor mechanisms on the actual wheel itself, but rather operator control). I need a description of the typical control panel and how to use it.

Why all the interest in operating a Ferris Wheel? Are you a terrorist;) Glad I did not ride the wheel at Cedar Point yesterday.

For the record it's not rocket science and if you can find an Eli Wheel still operating with the original drive it's not all that difficult to decipher how it works. ;)

Last edited by Dutchman, Monday, September 12, 2011 3:05 PM
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Monday, September 12, 2011 4:09 PM
obxKevin's avatar

Seriously, Mike? A book? Including how rides worked and were run? Sign me up as your first customer. That's the stuff that fascinates me.

Of course, I'll want my copy signed...


The poster formerly known as 'Zcorpius.' Joined 2004
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Monday, September 12, 2011 4:47 PM

It's a work of fiction. I've been at it for a good while and am now (fingers crossed) within a few weeks of wrapping up.

My goal has been to provide at least some historical integrity, as far as how these rides operate(d). Unfortunately, I've found that in many cases it's been necessary to dispense with accuracy and detail for the sake of issues such as pacing and plot requirements. But at least I can say I tried...

Oh, and if it ever does sell, I'll be glad to sign that copy! :)

Last edited by Ensign Smith, Monday, September 12, 2011 4:48 PM

My author website: mgrantroberts.com

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Monday, September 12, 2011 6:21 PM
janfrederick's avatar

Yep, let us know when it's published!

Does anyone know if the wheel at Santa Cruz is an Eli 16? My guess is yes.


"I go out at 3 o' clock for a quart of milk and come home to my son treating his body like an amusement park!" - Estelle Costanza
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