Vienna’s Prater is the world’s second oldest amusement park.
While today the 6 sq km (2.3 sq mi) park is separated into two distinct areas, the large “Green Prater” (the outdoor recreation area), and the much smaller “Wurstelprater” or “Volksprater” (the amusement park), it began life in the very early 15th century as Hapsburg hunting grounds.
In the late 16th/early 17th centuries, changes in the flow patterns of the Danube separated the Prater from the rest of Vienna, necessitating the building of a bridge. Non-royals needed special permission from the Imperial Forester to enter the grounds until 1766, when Emperor Josef II decided to give access to the entire population of Vienna. It’s a common theme during his reign, and I have to wonder whether the opening of so many imperial lands to the public played into the fact that at a time when the Hapsburgs’ French counterparts were being overthrown through revolution, the Austrian-based family was able to rule until the outbreak of WWI.
The parkland was opened for, among other things, “ballooning, bowling and other permitted entertainment”, and soon taverns, coffee houses, wine bars, inns, fireworks, and stalls for games and shooting halls arrived. The Danube’s overflow area was filled in to eliminate the need for bridge access.
There is still a bowling alley, but also sports fields for baseball, softball and soccer, an outdoor hockey rink, a miniature golf course, horse riding and bicycle paths, off-leash dog parks, ponds, playgrounds with play structures and fitness equipment in them, grassy areas, woods, and numerous eateries – all separate from the amusement park portion.
The Prater was the site of the 1873 World’s Fair, but of more lasting interest to the Viennese were the construction in 1897 of the giant Ferris wheel and in 1909 of the first roller coaster behind it.
Until 1918 the Prater remained imperial property – although with full public access – and then it was state-owned until January 19th, 1938, when it passed into the ownership of the municipality of Vienna.
The Prater’s history took a decidedly dark turn when the site was used as a forced labour camp during WWII. In April 1945 it was largely destroyed by bombs and fires; only 18 objects survived, including the Ferris wheel, whose wagons burned down, and the comedy theater. After the end of the war, the amusement was rebuilt in a more modern form.
Today, in addition to a second Ferris wheel, there is a Lilliput railroad, lots of crazy adrenaline-producing rides like tower drops, bungee jumps, and water flumes, and 12 roller coasters that twist, turn, flip people upside down, and generally make me nauseous without even getting strapped into them. There’s also a large Madame Tussaud’s and a planetarium tucked among the many themed restaurants, concession stands, and souvenir shops. Although there are certainly some very up-to-date rides, the vibe remains old-time carnival.
We walked around 6 km in total, nowhere near completing the 13 km Stadtwanderer (city wanderer) trail before walking through the carnival rides. Surprisingly, the amusement park was not at all busy despite it being a perfect sunny summer day, although the €3-5 price per ride could explain some of that.
The “Green Prater” was well used by walkers (both human and dog), joggers, and bicyclists though.
Tired, but glad to have finally visited the famous park, we headed down to the Danube banks to check out the river cruise ships docked there (there were FIVE Viking ships in Vienna today!), stopped for beer and sausages (accompanied by mustard and freshly grated horseradish), and then hopped onto Vienna’s excellent transit system to head back “home”.