Once upon a time not too long ago it was the geometrically eccentric museum, the audacious opera house or the tall-but-useless observation tower that was the go-to status symbol for a city on the move. But in the world of bigger, better, taller and flashier, where status is ephemeral, there’s a new player in town: the jumbo-sized carnival ride.

If you haven’t got one already, you’re sure to see a larger-than-life Ferris wheel pop up in a city near you in the coming years as these smile-inducing architectural showpieces become fixtures on our cityscapes and pawns in an increasingly flamboyant pageant of municipal virility.

It makes since that the Ferris wheel has emerged as a new player in the world of extreme architecture. It’s been a symbol of engineering innovation since June 21, 1893 when George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. unveiled his 264-foot-tall (80-meter) “pleasure wheel” at the Chicago World’s Fair. It was the largest single piece of forged steel made at the time, could fit 2,160 people, cost 50 cents to ride (twice the cost of the fair itself) and was so popular it saved the World’s Fair from financial ruin.

Chicago’s Ferris wheel was a direct response to Paris’ Eiffel Tower (erected for the 1889 World’s Fair), but while Gustave Eiffel’s creation went on to become a beloved architectural marvel, Ferris’ wheel would be churned out en masse as a folly.

Indeed, it was relegated almost exclusively to the garish domain of carnivals and amusement parks for more than a century before the London Eye climbed 443 feet (135 meters) above the River Thames in 2000 with fixed, climate-controlled capsules instead of teetering baskets. It promoted luxury over utilitarianism, and its arrival on the South Bank of the British capital heralded the beginning of a new era of the giant observation wheel. It was far too late for Ferris to have the last laugh, but he’d finally out-Eiffeled Eiffel.

The Race To The Top

“The Eye has done for London what the Eiffel Tower did for Paris, which is to give it a symbol and to let people climb above the city and look back down on it. Not just specialists or rich people, but everybody,” Richard Rogers, winner of the 2007 Pritzker Architecture Prize, wrote of the London Eye in a book about the project. “That's the beauty of it: it is public and accessible, and it is in a great position at the heart of London.”

The brainchild of Marks Barfield architects, the London Eye has become the United Kingdom’s most-popular paid tourist attraction in the last decade, though it lost its bragging rights as the world's tallest Ferris wheel in 2006 with the 525-foot (160-meter) Star of Nanchang in the capital city of China’s Jiangxi Province. Just two years later, the Singapore Flyer pushed the bar even higher, to 541 feet (165 meters).

While the Flyer has held on to its title for half a decade, the stage is now set for an epic battle to see which city can create an even bigger, bolder and more impressive wheel. And in this increasingly crowded race to the top, there are many contenders.

First up is the 550-foot (168-meter) High Roller on the Las Vegas Strip. Earlier this month, workers hoisted into place the final 60-foot (18-meter) piece of the 55-story outer wheel in a new walking mall sandwiched between the Flamingo and Harrah’s hotel-casino. The observation wheel will form the centerpiece of Las Vegas’ upcoming $550 million Linq project from Caesars Entertainment Corp. when it opens to the public this winter. Each of the ride’s 28 enclosed cabins will have the capacity to carry up to 40 passengers for a revolution that will take about 30 minutes to complete.

In true Vegas fashion, designers will outfit the futuristic pods with flat screen TVs featuring audiovisual shows; passengers will whet their whistles with an array of cocktails onboard; and the wheel will light up the Sin City night with 1,500 LED bulbs.

Yet, Las Vegas will have less than two years to bask in its artificial spotlight before a 625-foot (190-meter) wheel rises above Staten Island in May 2016 with views of Lady Liberty and the Manhattan skyline. Richard Marin, CEO of New York Wheel LLC, hopes the 60-story attraction will lure some 4.5 million people across the harbor to the city’s “forgotten borough,” where a massive shopping complex and 200-room hotel will transform the underdeveloped stretch of harborfront real estate into one of the Big Apple’s top destinations.

“The Wheel will extend the tourism boundaries of New York City to its natural and magnificent limits,” Marin explained. It “will become one of New York City’s -- and the world’s -- great landmark attractions, alongside the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building. In terms of size, scope and spectacular sights of New York Harbor, the 625-foot, or roughly 60-story, attraction will be the tallest observation wheel in the world when it’s finished, and the only one in New York City; rivaling the London Eye, the Eiffel Tower and the Sydney Harbor Opera House.”

Never one to be outdone in the superlative department, Dubai hopes to trump all others when it opens the 689-foot (210-meter) Dubai Eye as early as 2015. The wheel -- which would be about 1.5 times the size of the original Eye -- is expected to attract some 3 million visitors each year and offer them sweeping views of Dubai’s wonders, including the world’s tallest building (Burj Khalifa), tallest hotel (JW Marriott Marquis) and largest manmade island (Palm Jumeirah).

Other projects in the early planning stages include the world’s largest spoke-free design in Changzhou, China, and the Nippon Moon in an undisclosed Japanese city, which Dutch design team UNStudio has said will be “almost twice the scale of the wheel in London” and boast augmented reality views of the city in which it is built.

Several other cities, including Moscow, Beijing and Orlando, will open tall (if not record-breaking) wheels of their own in the next five years. Even in Las Vegas, which is poised to have the world’s tallest Ferris wheel for at least a year-and-a-half, two other projects -- the London Thrill and SkyVue -- are in the early planning stages. The SkyVue, for one, will have the world’s largest outdoor advertising screen in its center with a direct view from the flight path into McCarran Airport.

So why has the world suddenly gone loopy for Ferris Wheels? The answer is a simple one: prestige.

Have We Reached Peak Wheel?

The London Eye emerged in a city with few tall buildings or commanding views and offered something fresh and new: a way for a global city to look back at itself. It brought London out of the industrial age and turned it into what is arguably a post-industrial fairground.

“The London Eye proved you could build one of these wheels as a stand-alone attraction and it could work and it could be profitable,” explained Nick Weisenberger, curator of the Observation Wheel Directory and author of the book “Observation Wheels: Guide to the World’s Largest Ferris Wheels.” “But it takes the right ingredients to become such a well-known icon.”

Weisenberger said location, orientation, architecture, design, name and uniqueness all play a huge part in whether or not an attraction will succeed. He expects that the next generation of wheels will completely raise the stakes with more social media integration, transparent touch screens or even Google Glass-type windows in an attempt to stand out from the pack.

“Demand for giant observation wheels will peak at some point, but right now it’s continuing to grow, especially in America where we haven’t had any giant observation wheels until recently,” Weisenberger said. “It’s about bragging rights -- who can build the biggest. You see this type of competition all the time … It’s easy to market an attraction with ‘world’s first’ or ‘world record holder’ attached to its name.”

It has been argued that wheels can only climb so high, and that we’re quickly approaching Peak Wheel, which, if true, begs the question: What next?

“I think we could see some noncircular design shapes like a square, triangle or pentagon, where passenger capsules would move around a stationary track as opposed to a wheel turning,” Weisenberger supposed. “We could see observation towers with roller coasters attached to them, a concept called the Polercoaster, or also entire amusement parks built in a vertical, skyscraper configuration occupying a very small footprint.”

Thus, a new race is already underway to find the next bigger, better, taller and flashier showpiece -- something old-but-new-again, and something that can out-Ferris the out-Ferrisers of Ferris.