Since becoming a nonprofit in 2011, Navy Pier  has embarked on a total transformation both outside and in: not only is its physical space undergoing a makeover, but it’s quickly becoming one of the city’s hottest cultural scenes. In this case, change is a good thing — a very good thing — and it’s safe to say that Daniel Burnham, Chicago’s most renowned city planner and the visionary behind Navy Pier, would be delighted by the impact of his work.
“I am certain that he would be proud,” says Marilynn Gardner, the President and CEO of Navy Pier. “It is truly the People’s Pier, a place of respite where locals and guests from around the globe and all walks of life are able to gather to escape the bustling city and be inspired by the uniqueness of the space and the imaginative programs and experiences that now bring this lakefront jewel to life.”
Indeed, as Navy Pier enters its second century, it’s thriving as never before — and here’s why.
1. It’s an oasis in the city
Guests enter Navy Pier through Polk Bros Park, a 13-acre greenway boasting a range of new features including a magnificent water fountain with more than 150 jets that mimic the movement of waves, schools of fish and flocks of birds; and the Polk Bros Park Performance Lawns, which treat guests to a first-of-its-kind experience right on the lakefront. Both spaces — named the Lake and City Stages — are framed with trees and native plantings to provide shade and are open daily for picnics, star and city gazing, enjoying a cultural program and watching the bi-weekly Aon Summer Fireworks.
“We are thrilled to be part of Navy Pier’s transformation into a space where Chicagoans from every neighborhood can engage with arts and culture. Polk Bros Park is about much more than physical space. This is about creating opportunities for all Chicagoans and our city’s visitors to come together to celebrate Chicago, explore the arts and enjoy themselves,” says Gillian Darlow, CEO of Polk Bros Foundation .
As guests stroll the Pier’s historic South Dock, scenic vistas extend in all directions. A remapping of the docks and more efficient use of space have opened new sightlines, giving the location its well-earned reputation for having the “best selfies in town.”
Inside the Family Pavilion, now undergoing a major redevelopment, guests can explore the 50,000-square-foot Chicago Children’s Museum , be enthralled at the newly-renovated Navy Pier IMAX at AMC , or simply enjoy the restaurants and shops. Coming soon, Navy Pier will host a transient boat slip with room for 130 vessels to dock, giving boaters the chance to break out the mooring line, come ashore and explore Chicago.
Of course no visit is complete without a spin on the Centennial Wheel, the recently-rebuilt Ferris wheel that now soars 50 feet higher than its predecessor, cresting nearly 200 feet into the sky. Its climate-controlled gondolas, each weighing one-and-a-half tons, operate year-round. First-time guest and Trinidad native Michael Logie says, “Navy Pier is breathtaking, and as a West Indian soul, I felt the warmth in every 10-degree smile and welcoming arms in every ride. I’ve never felt this exhilarated — more of the world needs that exhilarating experience.”
2. It’s a cultural destination
Celebrating a diverse community and workforce is central to Navy Pier’s mission. Event programming is at once Chicago-centric and, because of this city’s great diversity, truly global in scope and scale — from international public art installations, such as Impulse, which delighted guests with its musical, illuminated seesaws; to Pier Pride, the largest local Pride celebration outside the Lakeview neighborhood; to Here Hear Chicago, a collaboration between internationally-acclaimed, contemporary artist and performer Nick Cave, and renowned, award-winning architect Jeanne Gang.
Navy Pier’s newest cultural jewel, The Yard , is the third and most innovative stage yet created at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater . The year-round theatrical venue redefines the traditional, fixed relationship between artist and audience, with nine mobile audience “towers” that can be arranged in a wide variety of ways. With each visit, you will come to expect the unexpected. These and many other innovations enable Navy Pier to attract inventive partners and collaborators from around the world, providing a cultural test kitchen that continually reinvents and expresses Navy Pier’s vision in fresh Chicago-centric ways. In 2016, nearly half a million people took part in Navy Pier’s free programming.
“Navy Pier’s programming has befittingly been inspired by Chicago, a breeding ground for talented artists, creative forces and visionaries. We have designed a 50-acre lakefront platform specifically for them to showcase and share their gifts with audiences from near and far. In turn, our guests are offered the unique opportunity to experience authentic works produced in Chicago, by Chicago — all for free and against the most stunning backdrops in the city!” says Michelle T. Boone, Chief Program and Civic Engagement Officer, Navy Pier.
3. It’s a civic treasure supported by all
More than 100 civic and community-based organizations have partnered with Navy Pier in its ongoing evolution, contributing financially, strategically, and operationally. A handful of these partnerships include: The Polk Bros Foundation and family; Fifth Third Bank ; Peoples Gas ; the Chicago Free for All Fund at the Chicago Community Trust ; the Joyce Foundation ; the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts ; and the Paul M. Angell Family Foundation .
Of all Navy Pier’s contributions as a civic treasure, the most essential is that it provides all guests, regardless of origin or means, access without charge. Most of Navy Pier’s activities are free; the Pier is as open to all as the lake and city views around it.
In fact, the Fifth Third Bank Centennial Celebration culminates Nov. 7 with the gala, “A Celebration ExPIERience ,” Navy Pier’s first-ever large-scale fundraiser to support free programming.
“Fifth Third Bank is proud to support and partner with Navy Pier. This iconic Chicago landmark and international destination has hosted generations of customers, employees, community partners and friends. The bank has a long history of supporting the preservation and celebration of arts and culture, and the People’s Pier is all that and so much more. We are honored and proud to be a part of the Pier’s transformation readying it to host future generations over the next 100 years and more,” says Eric S. Smith, Fifth Third Bank Market President.
4. It’s a model for urban planning
In late 2016, Navy Pier was awarded the prestigious SITES Gold certification for leadership in water use, soils and vegetation management, materials selection, human health, construction, maintenance and innovation in design. Among its many successes: a new storm water management system designed to keep up to 1.5 million tons of sediment from entering Lake Michigan each year; the planting of 200 native or adapted trees to form a “green spine” on the South Dock; the introduction of extensive new seating areas made from reclaimed wood and recycled steel; and the reduction of trash diversion to landfills by more than 20 percent.
These initiatives are the forerunners of Navy Pier’s 30-year Sustainable Master Plan, a template for environmentally conscious development, co-created by Navy Pier with Chicago’s civic leaders, municipal experts, environmental advocates, and nonprofit board members. Partners in the initiative include the Mayor’s office , the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group , and the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation .
5. It’s a true Chicago partner
In 2016, a record-breaking 9.3 million guests visited Navy Pier — and in less than a year since its inaugural spin, the Centennial Wheel has welcomed its one millionth rider. This speaks to the magnitude of all the contributions to its host city — that of economic engine. “Navy Pier is Chicago’s front door, serving as a beacon to visitors and one of our city’s great economic and cultural sites. By transforming it into a truly one-of-a-kind destination we are drawing even more visitors from across the region and throughout the world,” says Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Navy Pier partners with more than 80 businesses who collectively employ 3,000 people. In many ways, it’s economic contributions to the city are still at the starting line. In 2019, the Pier will welcome at 220-boutique hotel adjacent to Festival Hall.
Staying true to its nonprofit mission, Navy Pier also partners with the Southside Occupational Academy , pairing special needs students in job training with Navy Pier employees. This year also marks the second year in which Navy Pier partnered with nonprofits for its “101 Rides 101 Nonprofits Partnerships ,” which awarded 101 fellow nonprofits with 101 tickets for a spin on the Centennial Wheel.
ExPIERience the Season
Get into the holiday spirit with two of Navy Pier’s unique family programs.
Sequence Ch!cago 
Now through Dec. 20, 2017
The Pier’s exciting new free fall and winter music series, supported by the Paul M. Angell Family Foundation, is a nod to Chicago’s diverse art and music scene. Guests will jingle all the way through free, holiday-themed performances — including “Housegiving” and “A Blues Christmas” — that showcase the work of local artists, musicians, and cultural organizations who have inspired and influenced the local arts community.
Dec. 1, 2017 to Jan. 7, 2018
For the 17th consecutive year, guests are invited to escape the Chicago cold and step into a dazzling indoor wonderland in Festival Hall, where they’ll be greeted by festive décor and a glittering forest of nearly 500 trees decorated with 25,000 ornaments. Inside, dozens of entertaining activities span over 170,000 feet, including the ever-popular ice skating rink, photos with Santa, cookie decorating, and a ride around Winter WonderTown
on the Arctic Express Train. Got an appetite for adventure? Soar across the 40-foot Cliff Hanger or scale the Polar Ice Peaks Climbing Wall.
For more information, visit navypier.org .