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Reinventing the wheel: As State Fair nears, giant ride rises again

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Workers assemble the Great Big Wheel
Workers assemble the Great Big Wheel -- a giant Ferris wheel -- at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds on Sunday. The fair opens on Thursday.
Sophia Sura | MPR News

On Sunday, just days from the start of the Minnesota State Fair, one of the fair's biggest attractions — literally — was being assembled at the corner of Randall Avenue and Cooper Street. 

All told, the Ferris wheel known as the Great Big Wheel weighs about 400,000 pounds.  

It takes 13 semis to bring in all of the pieces, and a 200-ton crane to put them all together. 

The construction started Saturday, with a 12-person crew building the foundation, assembling the legs and placing the center axle. 

Michael Wood of Wood Entertainment, which provides rides for the fair's Midway and Kidway, also is 50 percent owner of the company that owns and operates the Great Big Wheel. He described what was happening as he watched the crew at work. 

The Great Big Wheel is pieced together
The Great Big Wheel is pieced together at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds on Sunday. The fair opens on Thursday.
Sophia Sura | MPR News

Noting the many steps to assemble one section of the wheel, he noted that they'll repeat the step "till it makes the 360 degree circle, or 18 times."

It takes about 480 man-hours to set up the wheel and take it down. His team travels about 3,000 miles each year, making stops at about seven events along the way. 

Wood rides the Ferris wheel a couple of times at each site. His main concern is quality control, but he said he also just enjoys the ride. 

"It's actually spectacular — from here you can see the Capitol building, you can see the cathedral in St. Paul, you can see downtown Minneapolis, you can see the top of U.S. Bank Stadium," he said. "Humans have had a fascination, since the beginning of humans I think, of getting up high and looking around. And so that's really what we do. 

“We sell heights and we sell a spectacular lighting display. And a family experience. This is something that — from the grandbaby to the great grandma — (they) can do together. "

A 12-person crew assembles the Great Big Wheel
A 12-person crew assembles the Great Big Wheel at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds on Sunday.
Sophia Sura | MPR News

Vendors have been trickling into the fairgrounds to prepare their stands for weeks. Tracy Anderson has been owner of the stand French Crepes and More for 27 years. She said preparing for the fair and its hundreds of thousands of visitors begins long before the event opens.

"I’ve been here every day for the past two months," she said. "First it’s cleaning, and then of course the orders. ... It’s just a lot of prep and making the batter."

State Fair spokesperson Danielle Dullinger said "it takes a village" to prepare the 322-acre fairgrounds.

"We've been making sure the lawns are mowed and planting gardens and painting buildings ... and marketing the fair year-round, announcing grandstand shows, planning all the free exhibits we're going to have," she said.

The fair has 80 full-time staff members who work year-round; they add 400 seasonal staffers as the fair approaches, and an additional 2,300 workers during the event.

The gates open to the public at 6 a.m. Thursday, and the fair runs through Labor Day. About 2 million guests are expected to attend over the fair's 12-day run.

MPR’s Sophia Sura contributed to this report.