What Happened to the Melbourne Star Observation Wheel?

night view of Melbourne Star Observation Wheel

The Melbourne Star Observation Wheel in Australia was initially known as the Southern Star because its operators promoted it as the “Southern Hemisphere’s only giant observation wheel.” Outside of Australia, however, there exist as many as ten other giant ferris wheels in the world.

Giant Ferris Wheels in Parts of the World Other Than Melbourne, Australia

Alongside the Melbourne Star Observation Wheel, there are also ten other giant ferris wheels worldwide, including:

The London Eye

The London Eye, Riverside Building, County Hall, London, United Kingdom.

The Singapore Flyer

The Singapore Flyer, 30 Raffles Ave., Singapore.

The Moscow Sun

The Moscow Sun, 2-Ya Ostankinskaya Ulitsa, 3, Moscow, Russia.

The SkyStar Wheel, San Francisco

The SkyStar Wheel, 2860 Taylor St, San Francisco, United States.

Our Worst Ferris Wheel Fears: Bidding farewell to a “troubled” feature of Melbourne’s skyline

On the 6th of September 2021, “MB Star Properties” announced that the ride would be “permanently grounded” due to the COVID-19 pandemic causing their business to be unsustainable. Melbourne had the longest COVID lockdowns in the world, causing many casualties in the tourism industry, but the Melbourne Star was the most high-profile example.

MB Star Properties filed for bankruptcy with reportedly more than $3.9 million in liquidation debt. The largest creditor was a Liechtenstein-based foundation that owns and manages similar attractions worldwide. MB Star Properties owed this company almost $2.5 million.

Some disparaging headlines implied it was not a loss to bid farewell to “the attraction no one asked for.” One Twitter user mockingly waxed poetic about his memories of the wheel, tweeting uninspiring photos of the views of the Melbourne Docklands he took from a cabin on the wheel. He sarcastically commented, “The way the shipping containers glint at night beyond the elevated freeway is majestic.” Another tweet showed a clipping of a newspaper report of passengers experiencing trauma from tilting problems in one of the cabins, with the caption “Other things you could see up there.” 

The CEO of ING Real Estate, the company that ran the wheel in 2013, denied that such tilting was possible. But the headlines dubbing the Star “the wheel of misfortune” and the references to the Melbourne Star as a “troubled attraction” reflected a distrust from a history of mishaps and closures. The news about the allegedly tilting cabin came not long after the Star reopened in 2013 after a hiatus that lasted almost five years. That occurred after many delays and the wheel’s owners refusing to commit to a deadline for reopening, as the ride was being redesigned and rebuilt due to what structural engineering experts felt were fundamental flaws in its original design. 

The Melbourne Star Reimagined: Reinventing the (Ferris) Wheel

Melbourne Star Wheel
Melbourne Star Wheel by Brett Tweedly

The first hiatus of the Melbourne Star lasted from January 2009 until December 2013. The wheel closed 40 days after it opened to the public. A contract worker installing lights discovered cracks, which led to questions about the safety of its design and the low-strength welds by Sanoyas Rides Corporation, the Japanese company that built the original version of the wheel between 2006 and 2008, and would later buy and operate the attraction from 2013 to 2021. ING Real Estate’s spokesperson claimed that the large cracks made the problems look worse than they were. Even if ING Real Estate would “categorically deny” any safety risk from the original Melbourne Star, they put the ride on hiatus for years. 

During that time, the operators engaged Arup, the civil engineering company that helped construct the Singapore Flyer, the London Eye, and the Las Vegas High Roller. Arup’s engineers recommended a redesign and replacement of the spokes and rim after concluding that a different company’s recommendations for remedial work on the existing wheel were not feasible. 

Even while the wheel wasn’t working, there was still drama. Human factors contributed to the delays in construction and uncertainty about whether the Melbourne Star would emerge from its hiatus. At one point, contractors weren’t getting paid, so they stopped work. After that, construction was halted due to safety issues when the wheel broke free from its restraints and started to turn freely in the wind. Detached assemblies had fallen and struck a completed spoke, damaging the wheel and causing it to rotate, with minor injuries to one worker. After the reopening in 2014, Sanoyas blamed this incident on the Australian construction company Alfasi and sued them for $6 million.

Not long after the reopening, a computer glitch forced a brief shutdown. In a separate incident, a passenger reported a crack in the glass of one of the cabins, which the Melbourne Star CEO dismissed as a minor cosmetic issue due to a bird attack. The passenger, Marco Bresciani, was dubious about this claim and speculated that a bolt might have come loose from the structure and fallen onto the glass, which could be symptomatic of worse problems with the wheel. He also pointed out that if a bird could do the kind of damage he saw, that seemed concerning. The CEO claimed the company had offered Marco free tickets to return to the wheel and that Marco had accepted, while Marco said that there was no such offer.

The Melbourne Star operators had a history of contradicting what passengers saw with their own eyes. For instance, the incident with tilting cabins had reportedly traumatised multiple passengers, yet the operators flatly denied this was even possible.

Farewell Ferris Wheel: Lights out for the Melbourne Star

Observation Wheel City by Phil Bromley

During the 2020 lockdowns, the operators of the Melbourne Star continued to run the iconic animated LED light displays that illuminated the star-shaped spokes and rim, but announced this would cease as they entered liquidation. As of June 2023, the ride remains intact but inoperational in Melbourne Docklands, and there is uncertainty about whether it will be dismantled or taken over by another company.

As mentioned earlier, people have mocked the idea that this closure was a loss for Melbourne, with one disparaging opinion piece suggesting an alternative way of lighting the wheel to make it resemble a giant coronavirus particle. Even still, it was reported that more than 300,000 people rode the wheel in its first year of operation, and the 1,814 reviews of the attraction on Tripadvisor give it an average rating of four out of five stars. One journalist admitted to unironic sadness about the closure and interviewed others who had a positive experience. It seems many visitors and locals did enjoy the attraction, despite its historical issues and famously suboptimal views of the roof of Docklands Costco.

Indeed, in 2021 the designers of Federation Square had an idea to improve the experience with a proposal to relocate the Melbourne Star next to the Yarra River to create a more comparable experience to the London Eye, which is next to the River Thames. The Andrews government expressed enthusiasm for the idea, so it’s possible that despite all the uncertainty and controversy, history will repeat and we may see the wheel turn again.

Melbourne Star Observation Wheel Photos

Melbourne Star Wheel LED by Vinay Hasija
Melbourne Star Wheel LED by Vinay Hasija
Melbourne Star Wheel with LED by Nasir Ahmed
Melbourne Star Wheel with LED by Nasir Ahmed
Night View Through Melbourne Star Wheel by Brett Atkinson
Night View Through Melbourne Star Wheel by Brett Atkinson
Night View through Melbourne Star Wheel by Warwick Braithwaite
Night View through Melbourne Star Wheel by Warwick Braithwaite
Melbourne Star Wheel by Nima Latifi
Melbourne Star Wheel by Nima Latifi
Melbourne Star Wheel by Ewan Arnolda
Melbourne Star Wheel by Ewan Arnolda

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