The historic amusement park, expanding over the years, looks back on a substantial history. First documented references to this area, which was originally a primeval forest, trace back to the 12th century. The once imperial hunting ground was customised for the general public in 1766 under the Austrian emperor and “man of the people” Josef II. Soon afterwards, a range of small amusement businesses (carousels, shooting galleries, food stalls) appeared in order to entertain people and to provide for their physical well-being. The inhabitants of Vienna enjoyed riding on artistically designed carousel horses (Hutschpferde) and swinging to dizzy heights. In doing so one could poke a long pole into rings; hence the name Ringelspiel (merry-go-round). Thus the townsfolk were given their own place for recreation. The fireworks of Stuwer as well as the balloon ascends at the end of the 18th century drew the Viennese away from the city and into the fairgrounds of the Prater. Listening to the general trend of the time, facilities for national education (such as theatre, wax museum and human museum – “Prauschers Panoptikum” with 2000 objects, vivarium, planetarium,…) were built, joining in with the vibrant activities. The biggest sensations in the old Prater were the freak-shows in which people got to see midgets, hairy people, Siamese twins and other monstrosities. The fat Prater-Mitzi or the Russian torso-man Kobelkoff as well as the ghostly magic theatre of Kratky Baschik added distinction to the bizarre Prater landscape. With developing technology and electricity, the range of entertainment in the Prater became more and more diverse. In the emerging age of the steam engine, a man from Trieste, called Basilio Calafati, created the first steam engine carousel in the year 1844. In its cabin, the figure of the “great Chinese” was erected as mast in 1854. Many showmen and technicians from all corners of the Austrian-Hungarian monarchy, but also from other parts of Europe, carried out their ideas in the illustrious Viennese amusement park. The Englishman Basset succeeded in erecting the Riesenrad (Giant Ferris Wheel) in 1897, which stands to this very day. This vehicle has a diameter of 61 metres and originally consisted of 30 carriages. When the first “tableaux vivants”, or cinematography, emerged, the Prater’s first cinema was opened in 1886. Electricity brought the first electrically operated grotto railway (Grottenbahn) to the Prater in 1898. This fairy tale railway was also the first in Europe.
Since the aeroplane proved to be very popular, the first “aeroplane carousel” was built in 1911. This was followed by the first “motor-racing circuit” in 1926 and the first “ghost train” in 1933. 1928 saw the acquisition of the still functioning “mini railway” (Liliputbahn), a minimised version of the big steam locomotive. In 1935, a Prater entrepreneur from Chicago brought the rapid “flying train” to the Prater, a construction that was not linked to rails. The Prater has always changed its profile, modernised and adapted itself according to the trend of the times. One attraction constantly replaced the next. Only a few historic enterprises are able to survive to the present day. Businesses that were conscious of the old tradition, such as the “pony carousel” from the year 1887 or the nostalgic sliding tower “Tobogan” from the 1950s struggle against the tastes of the age and the needs of the visitors. The attractions that will never lose their popularity, however, are the historic Riesenrad, the “mini railway” and of course the restaurant “Schweizer- haus” (their speciality: knuckle of pork and beer). But rattly ghost trains and glistening grotto trains, though they might be dusty, will not get themselves pushed out of the Prater. Between the historic operations sparkle the new, modern, hydraulically operated high-tech-speciality shops. Between 1909-1944, the rollercoaster (Hochschaubahn) of enormous dimensions has continually been a magnet for Prater visitors. A smaller structure was erected after the war – the new Viennese rollercoaster (Neue Wiener Hochschaubahn). Utterly swallowed up by history was the magnificent “Venice in Vienna”: around the turn of the century, the ground of today’s Kaiserwiese was the site of a world of illusion of the artificially recreated lagoon city. In 1895, the initiator Gabor Steiner created this world in the Prater, not only for the amusement of high society, but also for Bohemian servants and the soldiers of the Austrian-Hungarian multi-ethnic state. In the age of the “fin de siacle” (the decadent opulence of sentiment and taste at the end of the 19th century) in which the Prater thrived, lived and performed the most famous conductors of that time, (Strauss, Lanner, Ziehrer).
Very characteristic of the Wiener Prater is the adjacent green, the natural Praterau, which remains to this day. It is an endearing recreational landscape with trees, meadows and ponds. Through this valued and peaceful part of the Prater runs the main avenue (Hauptallee), tree-lined with horse chestnuts. At that time, some colourful flower parades were held there, with special appearances of the imperial couple and mayor Lueger. Alongside the main avenue the three famous coffee houses were located, which unfortunately did not survive. However, the Lusthaus, built by Canevale in 1783, can still be found at the end of the main avenue. The “Variete Leicht” passed into oblivion; but it was for a long time a place where favoured film stars and artists of the old times (like Aslan, Jeritza, Moser) entertained the Prater audience.
The Prater also houses the exhibition centre. It was the place where, in 1873, the World Exhibition was held. The Rotunda, a proud centrally-planned building crowned with a dome, was destroyed by fire in 1937. Whatever remained from the historic building structure or equipment of the Prater in the course of time, was destroyed in the Second World War. But the heavily damaged amusement park was reconstructed. Yet again it established itself as a permanent feature of the range of cultural entertainment of the city of Vienna. The strength measurement machine “Watschenmann” is a unique specimen in this local, historic institution, just as the cheeky and stubborn “Praterkasperl” shapes the atmosphere of the Wiener Prater.