The residents of the city of Knuffingen live in a proverbial paradise. Situated between the Harz Mountains and the Alps, it lies in a region with rolling hills with magnificent mountains lining the horizon. However, no navigation device will ever find its way to Knuffingen. Anyone who wants to convince himself of the splendour of this tiny city should check it out by visiting Miniatur Wunderland (miniature wonderland) in Hamburg’s Speicherstadt.
How it all began. In the beginning was the word – a word and an intention that almost no one took seriously. Over ten years ago, the founders of Miniatur Wunderland voiced their plan to build the world’s largest model railway and were met with smiles from their families, friends and business partners. And when they added that this miniature model railway would be an attraction for men, women and families, drawing more than 100,000 visitors per year to the Speicherstadt, the smiles turned to roaring laughter.
They were not to be deterred despite the scepticism, convinced the Hamburg Sparkasse bank of their idea and, based on a bilateral concept, were granted a loan of two million Deutschmarks. The beginning of a unique success story. “Aside from all the love and effort we put into Miniatur Wunderland, we also had an incredible amount of luck. First in getting the loan, choosing the employees and so many other factors. I cannot express how thankful I am,” explains Frederik Braun, one of the founders, in hindsight.
Additionally, the two brothers were not surrounded by a supportive atmosphere, with those close to them being in fact extremely critical of the idea. “Back then, most of our friends called us crazy dreamers with our heads in the clouds, when we told them about our idea,” Frederik Braun says about the sentiment of the time. His brother Gerrit adds: “We probably would have been met with more approval for a bobby car racetrack in Hamburg’s Heiligengeistfeld area than for a model railway. Back then, building model railways was an outdated hobby for loners.” As such, they had to find out in advance, whether their dream could actually be realised by attracting enough visitors, if everything was technically possible and if there was a suitable place for the exhibition. So the twin brothers set off on their journey through the model railways of Germany to discover the reasons behind the outside perception of the hobby as peculiar.
A survey was additionally carried out via the AOL member directory, in order to find out whether there would be enough visitors to offset the enormous cost. More than 3,000 people with various socio-demographic characteristics were surveyed about this via email and were asked to assess which of 45 attractions, some fictitious, they would visit in Hamburg. For men, the made-up Miniature Wunderland took third place, whereas it was on the very bottom of the list for women.Despite these far from conclusive results, one thing remained for certain: “WE WILL BUILD THE WORLD’S LARGEST MODEL RAILWAY.”
After the decision had been made, they worked on evaluating the results from the survey and the trip. Hundreds of ideas arose from this, and the basic idea to build an attraction for the whole family became ingrained. It should not just be a model railway behind a glass wall but an entire model world in which trains were to be only one of many highlights. “Our idea was to build a world that would astonish men, women and children and encourage them to dream,” says Gerrit Braun about the concept. This basic idea and many more crazy ideas and concepts on how to design the plant led them to Gerhard Dauscher in Mühlhausen, near Neumarkt.
Gerhard Dauscher supported the idea right from the get go and cancelled all of his appointments and contracts. He has been Miniatur Wunderland’s chief model engineer since that day and is responsible for a great deal of its success. However, a team had to be found before construction could be started, which led the three to conducting a “model building” casting. More than 150 people applied to this casting. 40 interested parties were invited over the course of two days. Based on the casting, Gerhard Dauscher put together a team of men and women, of whom 95 per cent were not classic model builders but excellent craftsmen.
And thus began the building of Miniatur Wunderland in Speicherstadt, which continues to this day.
From then to now. There were more than two hundred visitors on the first day, and everyone working at Wunderland became anxious – but just for 24 hours, luckily. What happened then was like a fairy tale. On the second day, more than one thousand people stood in a queue at the entrance. 300,000 visitors came in the first year alone and that crazy idea has turned into the largest model railway by far and the most successful tourist attraction in Hamburg.
A plan for 20 employees turned into 40 by opening day on 16 August 2001, and the costs of building skyrocketed. “The time until opening went by like a dream. We worked day and night in an excited trance and never thought about failure for even a minute. That caught up with me the night before opening. I realised I would never get out of debt if no visitors came the next day. I couldn’t sleep a wink that night,” sums up Gerrit Braun, founder and twin of Frederik.
In the following years, Wunderland grew as did the number of visitors. In 2002, the Hamburg area opened, the USA in 2003 and in January 2004, the one-millionth visitor came to Speicherstadt. At 1,300 square metres, the size of the plant today is more than four times what it had been. Highlights were created with sections for Scandinavia, Switzerland and most recently, the Knuffingen Airport, which have been well received far beyond Germany’s borders. The Knuffingen Airport alone received attention in more than 100 countries.
The increase in popularity continues to influence the number of visitors. For the tenth year in a row, 2010 also had a record number of 1,070,000 visitors, followed by 1,300,000 visitors every year, only ten per cent of whom are from Hamburg. “To be honest, when I told my friends that we would touch men, women and children in equal amounts, that tourists would come from all over the world to visit Wunderland, I did not always believe it myself. To see the numbers today and realise our dream came true is an unbelievable feeling,” reports Frederik Braun, Managing Director of Miniatur Wunderland.
And there is no end in sight. New additional space was rented for it, and there are set plans for expansion until 2020. Next up is Italy, followed by France, England and Africa. “I am proud about the first ten years, the team and all we have achieved, but Iam in no way complacent. If it were up to me, we would still be building in fifty years,” concludes Gerrit Braun, dreaming.