Tallest Ferris wheel opens in Vegas

LAS VEGAS -- At 550 feet, the highest point on the highest observation wheel in the world, Tony Anouvongs takes a selfie and sends it to his 16-year-old daughter.

"My daughter requested it," he says of the High Roller wheel. "She seemed so excited to have me ride it and take a selfie for her."

Everyone around him is snapping Smartphone photos of the 360-degree view of the sun setting over Vegas and the mountains surrounding it. One woman is Face Timing with her mother. Once the sun sets, the High Roller's 2,000 LED lights turn on, and the wheel, which resembles a bicycle tire with a hub and a spindle, turns into a giant kaleidoscope.

Anouvongs, a security corporal at the Flamingo Las Vegas, is one of the first people to ride Las Vegas' newest attraction, which got its official operating permit from Clark County last week and opens to the public March 31 at 1 p.m.

Las Vegas has always been known for being over-the-top. With the opening of the High Roller, commissioned by Caesars Entertainment, it has taken that reputation to another level.

The highly anticipated High Roller, which only Caesars employees and select media (USA TODAY is the first) have been able to ride since Thursday, has dramatically changed the Vegas Skyline, competing with the likes of Paris Hotel and Casino's Eiffel Tower replica and the Stratosphere observation deck.

It's already beat its competitors around the world. At about 51 stories high, it's taller than the Singapore Flyer, the Star of Nanchang in China, and the London Eye, which until this week made up the triumvirate of tallest observation wheels. The High Roller can fit up to 1,120 people.

"It's really an art piece on the Las Vegas skyline, from the dynamic lighting sequences to the overall engineering and architecture that it adds to the skyline," says Jon Gray, vice president and general manager of The LINQ, the open-air dining, retail and entertainment district where the High Roller is located. "It's a new icon that everyone, locals and tourists alike, have embraced. We've really enhanced the Las Vegas skyline."

With 28 cabins that can fit up to 40 people each, the High Roller is the focal point of The LINQ, which has been opening in phases since Dec. 27.

The LINQ, which will eventually have 30 venues, is located in the center of the Strip between The Quad Resort and Casino and Flamingo Las Vegas and directly across from Caesars Palace.

"It required a big anchor to really make that work," says Greg Miller, executive vice president of domestic development for Caesars Entertainment. "If you think of the history of Las Vegas, it's been hard to get people too far off the Strip. We needed something big, something audacious, almost, to compel people to come that far off the Strip."

It's not the first time someone in Vegas has tried to build an observation wheel. The partially constructed Skyvue is still visible on the south end of the Strip, far short of the 500 feet it was supposed to reach.

But luck was on the side of Caesars Entertainment, which spent $550 million on the High Roller and The LINQ.

The High Roller had its inaugural ride on Thursday.

On Friday, employees are giddy as they wait to get in.

A video starring Lucas Dick (comedian Andy Dick's son) explains to visitors in a humorous way the logistics of getting through the High Roller.

"It's the highest party in Vegas," he says.

Employees scan tickets with handheld devices before sending visitors up an escalator, where five cameras take photos of each group in front of green screens that will be digitally enhanced with scenes of the High Roller.

The next room has a full bar. This is Vegas, after all.

"We want them to bring drinks aboard," says Eric Eberhart, general manager of the High Roller.

Eberhart says if people are willing to pay to reserve a cabin, he can have a bar and bartender set up. He already has a cabin reserved for a wedding this summer.

"If you want to, I will even arrange to have Elvis marry you," Eberhart says.

He doesn't say how much that would cost. The High Roller will open to the public today at 4 p.m. EST. A variety of ticketing options will be available online and on-site starting at $24.95, plus fees. The High Roller will be open seven days a week 365 days a year.

In the next room, a 270-degree video screen loops six different videos by up-and-coming filmmakers, including -- not surprisingly -- a cheeky cartoon tribute to Elvis Presley singing "Viva Las Vegas."

I finally make it to the platform, where employees are loading people into each 44,000-pound cabin. The wheel never stops turning so you have to get on it quickly. But not too quickly as it only moves 0.89 feet per second, or half the normal walking speed.

Each cabin has 300 square feet of glass, so you're guaranteed a great view. There are orange benches on each end. But mostly, people stand.

I ride with several employees. Two of them, like me, are afraid of heights and stay seated.

But the cabin feels like it's hardly moving, and after a few minutes the jitters start disappearing. I feel like I'm floating in air.

"I feel okay. It's steady," says Sandra Lombardo, a digital marketing specialist for Caesars who says she can't even sit in a window seat on an airplane.

The entire ride takes about 30 minutes. We have an expansive view of the entire Strip. We see the Wynn, LVH to the north, and down to Mandalay Bay on the south. If you know where to look, you can even see outlying casinos like Red Rock. The famous Bellagio fountains go off while we're in the air.

Back at the bottom, I hop off and decide to return to watch the sunset from the wheel.

I get back on around 6:40 p.m. and watch the sun disappear behind the mountains. All is well, until we are almost at the peak and the wheel stops. An announcer says over the loudspeaker that there's a medical emergency in one of the cabins. A few minutes later he lets us know that an "abnormality" has been detected and that we would be moving shortly.

The atmosphere becomes tense but after a few minutes, we begin moving again.

I learn later that several computers and monitors are in place to detect anything out of the ordinary and alert engineers to check various functions of the wheel. Once the medical emergency was taken care of, the computers sent out an alert. The engineers checked, and everything was fine.

We continue our journey, iPhone cameras in hand, nerves back in check.

I ask Anouvongs if he'd ride the High Roller again. "Absolutely," he says. "When do we get to bring the family?"


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