SkyWheel spins by the seaside

Neal Gilstrap of Atlanta slid into the temperature-controlled gondola on the SkyWheel, ready to be the first to take a spin on downtown Myrtle Beach's newest attraction.

"This has come a long way since the Ferris wheel with lap bars across you," he said as the gondola's doors closed.

Minutes later, "wows" and "whoas" filled the gondola as it climbed to its 187-foot peak, swayed a bit, then continued around three more times - with the thrill-seekers pointing out landmarks such as the Pavilion site, the boardwalk and even where one rider had parked his truck.

"Wow. It's awesome," said Gilstrap, who took the SkyWheel's inaugural trip May 20 with his wife and daughter.

Officials say the attraction - debuting a year after the mile-long boardwalk in the same area - will be a key to bringing downtown Myrtle Beach back, giving it an iconic feature to compete with other tourist hubs in town. Downtown has struggled to find its place since The Myrtle Beach Pavilion Amusement Park shut down in 2006, and some locals and tourists said the SkyWheel - while it can't replace the Pavilion - will bring back some of that amusement feel.

"It's going to be huge," Myrtle Beach City Councilman Randal Wallace said. "It's the beginning of like a whole new era, rebirth of the whole area."

Officials touted what the ride could do for business and heralded the 150 jobs the ride and restaurant created.

Riders, though, were all about soaking up that bird's-eye view. The first 100 folks in line got to ride for free last week. A ride on the SkyWheel, which lasts about 12 minutes, costs $12 for adults, $8 for children ages 3 to 11.

"It was unbelievable," said Tony Rossi, who moved to Surfside Beach with his wife, Lori, about two weeks ago. "It's worth whatever they charge. What a great experience."

Mark and Misty Mills left their house in Belmont in Gaston County about 2 a.m. to get to Myrtle Beach in time to get in line. They came just to ride the SkyWheel, and planned to leave by about 7p.m..

So was the ride worth the 41/2-hour trip, one way?

"Every bit of it. It was well worth it," said Misty Mills, adding that she was a bit startled when the ride started swaying when it stopped at the peak. "The view was spectacular."