Over 13 kilometres of track and more than 900 trains help make Hamburg’s miniature railway the largest in the world. Yet the success of this attraction isn’t all due to its size. Miniatur Wunderland is a story of passion and vision; a story of two brothers creating something imaginative and unique. And what parents wouldn’t love their children working together like this…?
Truly the world’s largest Miniature Wonderland
In the doorway of a chapel a shotgun wedding is taking place. Literally; the bride is pregnant and her father chases after the would-be groom with a rifle. On the roof of a nearby skyscraper Spiderman is about to wrestle an arch enemy while down below King Kong is frightening a teeny blonde. In the hills there are aliens. But hey, it’s all normal. This is Vegas!
There’s a different drama happening in Europe. People here are too busy wrestling with major disasters to worry about miniature ones. An aeroplane is on fire. A porsche has been cut in half in a car accident. A body is being dragged from a river. A corpse pushes a hand out of a grave. A man breaks into a portaloo in a football stadium; either he’s rescuing some hapless football fan, or the Mexican wave has made him desperate to pee. And given the accident prone nature of these countries, there is little doubt the polar bear on ski’s is going to come to a sticky end.
The view from behind the tracks…
But in case you are wondering, or indeed worrying about the future of Europe, (and how a polar bear managed to find his way to the Alps, let alone wrestle with the clips on a pair of ski boots) all the drama’s are mini ones. There are more than 250,000 tiny people and animals in Hamburg’s Miniatur Wunderland; the largest model railway on earth. We get a good look at them on our ‘behind the scenes’ tour of the attraction. While almost everything is tiny here, the crowds are the exception to the rule, so it’s worth paying an extra few Euros to have this exclusive access to, in, under, above and around the eight huge sets. During the hour long tour you can quiz an English speaking guide about how it all works and how it came to be.
Does my nose look big next to this space shuttle?
“Here we are under the Rockies,” says our guide Elena Zernibel, after we sneak behind a little door in the wall to start our tour. It feels a little odd at first, squatting under the corner of a model train set to look at the underside of tracks, before squashing into a small space to see locomotives recharge their batteries, and then crouching in the airport wings waiting for a plane to land.
But I soon get used to it and start to feel like a celebrity as the flash bulbs go off on the other side of the tracks. While crowds jostle to watch the evening lights dim in Sweden; I pop up behind the hotels and houses, my cheeks pink against glassy white snow. I only wish I had my sunglasses! And perched behind another set, I smile at the cameras before starting to wonder if my nose looks big next to a miniature version of the space shuttle. Beside me, standing on wooden boxes, the kids can see everything there is to see, and it’s clear they’re enjoying themselves.
The largest model railway: dream big, start small
You might imagine an attraction of this size and detail has evolved over decades, but in fact, the story only began in the year 2000 when the co-owner Frederik Braun had a ‘crazy idea’ when he visited a model shop. He persuaded his twin brother, Gerrit, to sell up their nightclub businesses and invest in something more creative. But like most of those who dream big, they started small, working on miniature versions of Germany and Austria. “They never expected so many people,” says Elena, shaking her head. Half a million man hours have now gone into making the attraction, which would currently sell for 1.3 million dollars if the twins decided to move on, although it’s unlikely they will in the near future as their plans for the attraction stretch as far as 2020, with plans for similar sized attractions in other cities around the world. These boys are still thinking big, in miniature.
I figure the half a million hours doesn’t include cleaning time. Dust is the enemy here, and to keep it off the rails, full sized humans begin dusting at 4am each day and work until the first visitors arrive. And despite their efforts, derailments can happen, which like in real life, can cause a backlog of commuters and trains. “The trains have good days and bad days,” smiles Elena. To keep curious fingers from increasing the likelihood of this, there are 300 cameras on site, with a team of people watching out for transgressions.
In the control room a fellow English speaker points out one of the twin owners, standing in the centre of it all with a walkie talkie. Clearly owning your own railway doesn’t mean you can retire early. “Geritt is an IT specialist,” says Elena, who goes on to show us his work at the harbour and then the airport, where his method of making planes take off is nothing short of ingenious.
“Did the owners have train sets when they were kids?” someone asks her.
“Of course,” Elena laughs. “Do you?” she asks our boys.
“Yes!” Cameron answers.
“Are you competition for us?” she asks. He thinks of his Brio sitting in the attic gathering its own dust and shakes his head. In fact, says Elena, there is no competition anywhere in the world for this attraction.
Share the toys and double the visions and rewards
But for me, even after seeing this world in miniature, it’s not about the trains. It’s about the two brothers and their co-operation and vision. I look at my boys shoving each other in the gift shop. Close in age, their relationship has long been founded on rivalry and squabble. But sometimes there is hope. Sometimes, increasingly, they chat, compare notes and help each other out. Could they work together? Perhaps I should find ways to encourage them to work together more. Who knows what they’d achieve or what might happen if you start small, think big, share your toys and double your vision? Maybe the skiing Alpine polar bear isn’t beyond the realms of possibility after all.
This post is part of our 2012 Adventure Islands Season. We spent summer 2012 exploring Iceland and The Faroes, researching what’s on offer for adventure seeking families. We’re grateful to Smyril Line for help with transport, to Berghaus and Thule who helped equip us for the journey. And to Miniatur Wunderland who invited us in to look behind the scenes and bring you this story. All experiences, views and opinions are however, as ever, our own.
You can see a map of our journey on The Family Adventure Project Punkt! and view some exclusive behind the scenes photos and video of what we got up to.