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WORLD PERSPECTIVE | Britain

Londoners Behold Beauty of Their Eye

The 450-foot wheel, despite missing its New Year's Eve premiere, has won over many even as rival Millennium Dome becomes target of criticism.

February 04, 2000|MARJORIE MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — They should have called it the Apple of London's Eye. Although the millennium wheel missed its New Year's Eve premiere due to a clutch problem and has yet to fully open, it already has captured the city's heart.

The London Eye is simple and graceful, "poetry in motion," as the Independent newspaper described it, and offers a breathtaking view of one of the world's great capitals.

What's more, the 450-foot wheel offers Londoners the satisfaction of looking down on their other 2000 project: the Millennium Dome. For, as much as the wheel has become the object of London's affection, the dome has become the target of its derision.

"From the moment the glass pods glided alongside the landing jetty, to the awe-inspiring second when rise turned to fall, the wheel was everything the dome is not: inspirational, classy and fun," one reviewer wrote in the Guardian newspaper this week.

Meanwhile, the Guardian editorialized that the $1.2-billion "Dome in the Dumps" was a fiasco zone. The dome, which has space for 35,000 people and drew huge opening crowds to its 14 education and entertainment zones, has seen attendance quickly drop to just 5,000 visitors a day. Directors of the dome, a public-private company, have been forced to go back to the government for a $97-million loan to satisfy what they hope will be a short-term cash flow problem.

"It carries no vibrant message and will leave no lasting memorial, unless you enter on the credit side of the ledger the new stations on the [subway system's] Jubilee Line, which are truly something for the nation to be proud of," the Guardian said.

The beauty of the wheel is that it carries no message, save the inevitable advertisement from its sponsor, British Airways. True, the gatekeeper urges you to "enjoy your flight" as you step onto one of the 32 slowly moving pods, but that corny plug is soon forgotten. (Better he should say "mind the gap," as only a ledge and a net separate passengers from the Thames.)

Perched on the south bank of the river across from Westminster Palace and the Charing Cross train station, the white London Eye looks like a high-tech bicycle wheel; it is a modern addition to the skyline, with old London visible through the spokes.

As the wheel turns at a gentle 2 mph, the curved pods begin to rise, the fast-moving river seems to drop and a 360-degree view of London unfolds: Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, St. Paul's Cathedral and on to a horizon that extends 25 miles on a clear day.

"I'm a Londoner, and I love London. This is fantastic, superb," said retailer Tony Stewart, 52, on one of the maiden wheel rides. "Look, there's Canary Wharf. There's the dome. The dome is such an ugly building. I have no wish to go there."

In fact, the white dome with jutting yellow pylons is an odd but interesting addition to the traditional landscape of barges traveling the winding Thames, trains crossing to Waterloo Station and airplanes circling to land at Heathrow Airport.

The wheel takes 26 minutes to go round and costs about $12 for adults and about $8 for children.

"It's brilliant. It appeals to the natural instinct of every tourist to get to the highest point and look down," said Paul Vockins, 49, a London surveyor.

"As for the design, it's extraordinary," he said. "They've managed to juxtapose the modern with the traditional. This has been done in Paris and Berlin, but it's the first time we've done it here with style."

Vockins ordered his February tickets in December, when the wheel was expected to open New Year's Eve. The London Eye is honoring such advance-sale tickets but is not selling any additional tickets for February. The wheel is expected to be fully open March 1.

Meanwhile, tickets for the dome are plentiful.

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