The skyline of National Harbor has a dramatic new addition: The Capital Wheel, a 180-foot-tall, 42-car Ferris wheel that holds as many as 336 riders. It opens today, in time for the Memorial Day weekend throngs. And, like many other attractions at National Harbor -- such as ICE! and an entire store devoted to Peeps -- it might leave you with the strange feeling that this ice cream cone-scented vacationland of chain restaurants is just a "Truman Show" set of facades, now made even more cinematic with the addition of the enormous wheel.
It begins with a photo op. When you approach the Capital Wheel's maze of a rope queue, you are asked to pose in front of a green screen for a photo. The photo that is revealed to you at the end is of your group inside a Capitol Wheel gondola, with the Capital Wheel in the background. How can you be on the wheel and still see the wheel behind you? Is there an invisible wheel on the other pier? Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?
As we're waiting in line, we notice the VIP car. It's black, and is outfitted with fancier seats and a glass floor. It also has a wine chiller and a DVD player. (What, views of two states and the District not enough to hold your attention?) The VIP car costs $50 per person.
And on the topic of price, it costs $15 for an adult to ride the Capital Wheel -- which, for the record, falls in between the Chicago Navy Pier wheel's $7, and the London Eye's £26.55, about $44. But for a family of four with two kids under the age of 11 (adult rates apply for kids older than 12), it would be $52.50, not including tax, for a 15-minute ride.
The wheel can load up to four cars at a time, and up to eight people can fit in each car -- but for comfort, probably no more than six adults is ideal. The first thing we notice when we get into our regular person, non-VIP, gondola is the big red illuminated panic button on the ceiling, followed by the additional warnings. On a window: "Open for emergency ventilation only." On the side of the door, a series of pictograms warning riders not to rock their cars, throw things out the window, stick their arms out the window, lean on anything, or touch the walls (I think? Picture was unclear). The cars are air-conditioned and speakers pipe in soothing adult contemporary instrumentals and patriotic symphonies.
We start to move, and it's a smooth ride, with only a little bit of swinging from the gondola. One of my fellow riders was afraid of heights, but reported that it was less scary than she thought it would be. At the top, it was time to take in those views, which are listed in the Capital Wheel stats as being of the Washington Monument, U.S. Capitol, Alexandria, and Prince George's County. Your clearest view is of Alexandria's George Washington Masonic National Memorial just across the river; the Washington Monument was puny and far away, and no one in our car was able to spot the Capitol dome. Your eyes will instead be drawn to the bright lights of the most immediate landmark: The National Harbor boardwalk.
It takes about a minute to make a full rotation, not counting the times that the wheel stops to load other passengers. You'll make several rotations, but by the time it's over, you feel like it's hardly just begun. Step out of the gondola, bathed in the glow of the red, white and blue-illuminated wheel, walk past the Wolfgang Puck concessions stand, down the pier, past "The Awakening," past the Peeps store, into the night.
If you want a good view this weekend that costs nothing at all, how about that meteor shower?
Correction: A previous version of this post referred to the wheel as offering views of three states. Because the District of Columbia is still not a state, this version has been updated.