For our outing this month, the Chicago Detours team decided to head out to see what’s new at Navy Pier. Much like our Segway tour adventure in September, we wanted to change gears for a Chicago experience more frequented by tourists than locals.
I’ll admit that my interest was also piqued because 2016 marks the centennial celebrations for Navy Pier. Tied to the centennial celebrations are several exciting renovations and improvements, most notably the fancy new and high-tech Centennial Ferris Wheel. I was curious if I could spot the updates.
A Little Navy Pier History Lesson
Before getting to the new attractions at Navy Pier, it’s worth diving into what this “people’s pier” has been in the past. It was first envisioned by Daniel Burnham in his legendary 1909 Plan of Chicago. Burnham called for it to be one of two public recreational piers near downtown. The other was to be at what is now Museum Campus.
Initially called Municipal Pier, it was constructed in 1914 as a mixed recreational and harbor facility. The public could stroll and enjoy the lakeside views, and go to the ballroom at the pier’s end. Included in the plan were train tracks, office space, and warehouses to service both passenger ferries and freight traffic along Municipal Pier. It was renamed Navy Pier in honor of the naval servicemen of World War I in 1927.
Over the decades, Navy Pier wound up being used for a wide variety of purposes as the harbor facilities moved and the public recreation space isolated out on the end of the pier was somewhat forgotten about. It was home to federal agencies in 1930s, a Naval pilot training center during World War II, and as the campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago from 1946-65. It even hosted conventions for decades.
Navy Pier as a Tourist Attraction
By the late 80s, the pier was without a clear purpose and in a shabby state. In 1989, the state of Illinois created the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority to oversee both Navy Pier and McCormick Place with the great nickname of “McPier,” the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority set about turning Navy Pier into the tourist destination we know today.
The city demolished much of the original structures decades ago. That created the 3,000-foot-long venue that felt like a cross between a suburban shopping mall and a lakefront amusement park. To its credit, the redesign was wildly successful. Navy Pier has proudly proclaimed itself the most popular tourist destination in the Midwest since the 1990s, with about 9 million visitors a year.
But Do Locals Go to Navy Pier?
In my experience, the downside of Navy Pier’s touristy vibe is that actual residents of Chicago rarely head out there. I had the impression that the shops are mostly tacky and the restaurants can all be found at more convenient spots. And its a lot more of a trek to enjoy the views than you can easily get at lakefront parks. But our Chicago Detours team exploration changed this impression!
Personally, I had only been to Navy Pier twice in the past few years. Even then, it was only for the Chicago Shakespeare Theater and IMAX movie theater. It just wasn’t a spot that even crossed my mind when I would think of things to do in Chicago.
Well, these new improvements and attractions at Navy Pier are changing its image for local Chicagoans. McPier wants Navy Pier to be thought of as more than a fireworks staging ground.
Exploring the “New-vy” Pier
First off, my apologies for that horrible pun. You’re welcome.
When the Chicago Detours team assembled at the entrance, Amanda told us her plan for the evening. We’d wander all the way down to the pier’s end inside of the buildings, walk back along the waterfront, take a ride in the new ferris wheel, and then chow down at Big City Chicken.
To be honest, it took a while to notice any changes as we started our exploration. The main entrance hall has a decidedly early-1990s vibe to its architecture. The food court is updated and has newer local restaurants, like Goddess and the Baker. Other than that, the much-reduced stained glass exhibits was the only thing that felt different from my last visit 5-ish years ago.
We all spent some time gawking at the early-20th century architecture of the amphitheater at the pier’s end, but it was only on our walk back down the waterfront that the changes at Navy Pier became apparent. The walkways feel wide open and welcoming. Crowding bric-a-brac and vendor stalls are gone. In their place are open spaces, comfortable boardwalk seating, and some sleekly modern ticketing pavilions. For the first time, I could imagine visiting Navy Pier “just because.”
Up and Around on the New Ferris Wheel
The climax of our outing was a ride on the new “Centennial” ferris wheel. Anyone who has taken our 1893 World’s Fair Walking Tour with Bars can tell you that the original ferris wheel was a stupefying engineering achievement. It was 264 feet tall and could hold over 2,100 people at maximum capacity. The new ferris wheel at Navy Pier is 68 feet shorter and can only hold up to 328 people. That’s not to say that bigger is necessarily better, since I had a grand time on our ride.
The ride itself was smooth and fast, sending us up and around three times. It even started out with a brief film about the history of Navy Pier. Unsurprisingly, it also offered with spectacular views of the city’s lights twinkling in the distance.
I had a great time on the ferris wheel despite my unease with heights. Notably, the cars are an enclosed space. Makes the drop less apparent and keeps customers in a comfortable climate. It’s a unique experience that worth trying out, even for locals.
Chowing Down at the New Restaurants
Our last stop was dinner at Big City Chicken. It’s a fried chicken joint operated by the local Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, whose restaurants are ubiquitous around Chicago. The fact that we devoured the chicken in a matter of moments gives a strong indication that it wound up being worth the wait.
At that point, Amanda had to (literally) run to a private tour on a boat docked at the pier, so the rest of us packed up and wandered back into the city. We chatted about the experience we’d shared before dispersing to our bikes and busses.
More to Come
The Centennial Vision redevelopment plan is only about halfway finished at this point. Earlier this year, plans were announced for a new hotel at Navy Pier and several new public attractions. The hotel will be 3/4 of the way down the pier, with many rooms facing out towards the lake. Nearby, there are plans to build a massive new outdoor restaurant and rooftop bar that will abut the century-old grand ballroom. Knowing the popularity of rooftop bars in Chicago, that spot will likely be hopping.
The two ends of the pier will also see refurbishment. The pier’s terminal end, near the ballroom, with see a new “lake overlook.” The curving elevated walkway will bring pedestrians out above the azure waves lapping the pier. Polk Bros. Park, which is the green entrance to the pier is also in the midst of a redesign. In the spirit of much-loved Millennium Park, it already has a new interactive jet fountain and an outdoor amphitheater is under construction as well.
Personally, I was happy to head out to Navy Pier and poke around. The renovations are on-going, but what I’d seen had definitely improved the experience. Heck, I’m even excited to return and see what it’s like when the renovations are complete.
-Alex Bean, Content Manager and Tour Guide