The plan to regenerate central Scotland's canals and reconnect Glasgow with Edinburgh was led by British Waterways with support and funding from seven local authorities, the Scottish Enterprise Network, the European Regional Development Fund, and the Millennium Commission. Planners decided early on to create a dramatic 21st-century landmark structure to reconnect the canals, instead of simply recreating the historic lock flight. Designs were submitted for a boat lift to link the canals; the Falkirk Wheel design won. As with many Millennium Commission projects the site includes a visitors' centre containing a shop, café, and exhibition centre.
The difference in height at the wheel is 24 metres (79 ft), roughly equivalent to the height of an eight-storey building. The Union Canal is still 11 m higher than the aqueduct which meets the wheel, and boats must pass through a pair of locks to descend from this canal onto the aqueduct at the top of the wheel.
The structure is near the Rough Castle Fort; the closest village is Tamfourhill. On 24 May 2002, Queen Elizabeth II opened the Falkirk Wheel as part of her Golden Jubilee celebrations. The opening was delayed a month due to flooding caused by vandals who forced open the wheel's gates.