Inside the world’s largest model airport and railway

Inside the world's largest model airport and railway
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(CNN) — There’s a low rumbling sound of aircraft landing and engines whirring. Bags are loaded onto planes. In the terminal, people sip coffee, wait for their flight and reunite with loved ones in arrivals.

An Emirates A380 readies for takeoff, accelerating before soaring into the clouds. A crowd of onlookers gasps in delight as the superjumbo disappears out of sight.

No, they’re not plane spotters — or at least not in the traditional sense, because this isn’t a real airport. The airplanes are fake. The clouds are painted. The airport spans just 1,614 square feet.

Welcome to Miniatur Wunderland. This is the world’s largest model railway, home not only to a functioning miniature airport, but also tiny replicas of some of the world’s most popular destinations: Venice, Machu Picchu and Las Vegas, to name just a few.

Spread across several stories in an old warehouse building in Hamburg, Germany, Miniatur Wunderland is a marvel of engineering and one of the German city’s most beloved tourist attractions.

Its crown jewel is its airport — a painstaking recreation of Hamburg’s real transport hub, complete with 52 moving aircraft, carefully painted with livery to match their real-life, larger counterparts.

Miniatur Wunderland is the vision of twin brothers Frederik Braun and Gerrit Braun. Once upon a time the pair ran a nightclub, but a childhood spent playing with model trains sowed the seed of an idea that returned to Frederik in 2000.

Frederik recalls phoning his brother and telling him, “I have the greatest idea.”

Gerrit was on board right away.

“We had the dream to build a very large model world in childhood, but we forgot this dream when we were 15 or 16 years old — girls, cars and everything else came into our life,” Gerrit tells CNNTravel.

As soon as Frederik spoke the words aloud, this childhood vision came rushing back to Gerrit.

“It took seconds. All the pictures from our childhood — and what we could do today — came into my mind,” he says. “And these pictures were not standing still. It was movement. It was life. Lights turning on and off, trains running, planes moving and flying…”

Within weeks, the brothers were sketching out on ideas. Within months, they’d signed the lease on a building in Hamburg’s port district.

Frederik and Gerrit were convinced the idea had legs. But there were plenty of naysayers.

“Many, many people around me said to me, ‘No, it can’t work. Model trains? That’s for old men,'” says Frederik.

But Miniatur Wunderland had mass appeal, becoming a word of mouth hit when it opened in August 2000.

“It is an exhibition for the whole family, for each person, one to 100 years, women, men, does not make a difference,” says Frederik.

Designing a mini version of our world

For brothers Frederik and Gerrit Braun, creating Miniatur Wunderland was a dream come true.

For brothers Frederik and Gerrit Braun, creating Miniatur Wunderland was a dream come true.

Miniature Wunderland Hamburg

Before opening Miniatur Wunderland’s doors, Frederik, Gerrit and their third co-founder, friend Stephan Hertz, sat down and made a list of all the scenes they’d like to see play out in miniature form.

The next step was hunting out a model builder who could help bring their dream to life. An internet search led them to skilled German modelist Gerhard Dauscher.

Dauscher initially turned down the opportunity as he was fully booked with work for the next two years.

“Two days later, he called me,” recalls Frederik. Dauschler couldn’t shake the idea from his mind. He rejigged his schedule and joined the team.

Speaking to CNN Travel today, Dauscher says Miniatur Wunderland appealed to his longtime love of railways. He was also excited about the prospect of creating fantasy versions of our reality.

In the two decades since, the Miniatur Wunderland team has grown to over 250 employees, include a skilled team of model builders who constantly plot new ways to thrill and delight visitors.

“Everyone has built some part of the layout, everyone feels like a little bit of [them], [their] heart, is in the layout,” says Dauscher.

There are also electricians on hand, and a team of technicians keeping tabs on day-to-day happenings from an in-house control room.

Frederik and Gerrit’s younger brother Sebastian Drechsler is also on board. Drechsler is over a decade younger than the twins, and says his childhood was mostly spent accidentally destroying his older brothers’ model railways.

Today, Drechsler is in charge of Miniatur Wunderland’s marketing. Meanwhile Frederik is the dreamer, and Gerrit is the doer.

“Freddy always had the big ideas, and I always had the solutions to make these ideas,” is how Gerrit puts it.

Building a model airport

The airport at Miniatur Wunderland is a recreation of the real Hamburg Airport.

The airport at Miniatur Wunderland is a recreation of the real Hamburg Airport.

Miniature Wunderland Hamburg

Perhaps Frederik’s most ambitious idea was Miniatur Wunderland’s airport, which opened in 2011. This expansion took almost six years to construct, costing €400,000 (about $400,150). The finished result incorporates 62 miles of wiring, 75 buildings and 40,000 LED lights.

Unlike most of the landscapes in Miniatur Wunderland, which are approximations of their real-life counterparts, the airport is an exact replica of Hamburg’s real aviation hub.

Gerrit explains this is partly because it was easier to copy the airport layout and then scale it down than it would have been to “learn everything about aircraft, how they move on the ground, what are the spaces they need.”

Gerrit spent four months making regular visits to Hamburg Airport, talking to workers and taking thousands of photos to use as inspiration.

Creating realistic aircraft and simulating takeoff and landing was a key focus, but Gerrit also talked to the airport fire brigade, airport cleaners and the team who defrost the aircraft.

“We wanted it to have a real atmosphere of the airport,” explains model builder Dauscher. That meant recreating every aspect of the transport hub.

When CNN Travel visited the attraction, a “fire” broke out at the airport, and the airport fire trucks stepped in — all part of the simulation, of course, but it was momentarily concerning to see an airplane go up in smoke.

The airport includes a detailed recreation of the terminal building.

The airport includes a detailed recreation of the terminal building.

Miniature Wunderland Hamburg

The Miniatur Wunderland aircraft range from A380s to Cessna private jets, and are designed to take off and land in a way that feels as “real” as possible.

“They drive to the runway, and from under the construction come two pipes, they lift up the plane and give them speed. It’s very complicated, technical,” explains Dauscher.

Much of the happenings in Miniatur Wunderland, including the airplane takeoff and landings and the regular lighting shift to simulate day turning to night, are automated.

Dauscher explains the technicians in the control room are mostly focused on checking for — and then fixing — any errors. The most common cause of errors? Dust.

“The more dust we have on the surface, the trains don’t run, the airplanes don’t fly,” says Dauscher.

Over a decade since it launched, the airport remains a highlight of Miniatur Wunderland. The only issue, says Gerrit, is whenever anything changes at Hamburg Airport — even if it’s just the position of the taxi rank — the team feels pressure to change their model to match.

The Miniatur Wunderland team want to thrill and delight visitors with their detailed creations.

The Miniatur Wunderland team want to thrill and delight visitors with their detailed creations.

Miniature Wunderland Hamburg

Still, nothing at Miniatur Wunderland is static — it’s a constantly evolving attraction.

The Miniatur Wunderland South America expansion continues to grow, and is set to be complete within the next five years with the addition of a mini Amazon rainforest and Andes mountain range. Miniatur Wunderland also plans to expand to another building to aid future growth.

As well as holding the Guinness World Record for world’s largest model railway and world’s largest model airport, Miniatur Wunderland also set a record in 2021 for the longest melody played by a model train.

Exploring worlds

Miniatur Wunderland's most recent expansion is its South America section.

Miniatur Wunderland’s most recent expansion is its South America section.

Miniature Wunderland Hamburg

Miniatur Wunderland stays open open until 1.am on certain days in summer. When CNN Travel visited at 8.pm on a summer weekend evening, the attraction was packed with visitors pointing out tiny details and marveling at the different worlds.

Gerrit suggests the appeal of Miniatur Wunderland is that it’s not just the culmination of the Braun brothers’ childhood ambitions. It’s the model world many of us dreamed of creating as a kid.

“[Visitors can] spend two or three nice hours reminded of their childhood,” says Gerrit.

Certainly walking through the building is pure escapism. The appeal lies in the mix of whimsy and technical progress.

There are over 1,000 trains which vary in size and speed depending on location. There are also mining caves, cruise ships that cross real pools of water and a hot air balloon. And there are thousands of tiny figures and almost imperceptible levels of detail. Wherever you are in the building, there’s something thrilling about peering down at the world with a bird’s eye view.

That’s Frederik’s favorite part of the attraction. Standing and looking down below.

“The night is coming and you close your eyes a little bit, you can imagine it’s like flying through the mountains,” he says.

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