Until I got my bright red, ten-speed Raleigh bicycle, the best present I received as a child was a Lionel electric train. I still remember the smell of the oil, the sound the engine made as it came into contact with the tracks, the hum of the transformer, the physical heft of the black steam engine in my young hands, like a small sack of silver dollars. I spent hours setting up the layout and seeing how fast I could make the train go without sending it off the tracks.

My generation may have been one of the last to be absolutely mesmerized by the electric train, but from two visits to Miniature Wonderland in Hamburg, it is evident that the magic has not completely gone away. The attraction is located on three floors of one of the wonderful old brick warehouse buildings called Speicherstadt, situated on two islands adjacent to the city center. The huge brick warehouses were constructed as something like architectural machines, designed to make the most of Hamburg’s designation as a Free Port.


While the models of the trains, boats, planes, cars, fire engines, mountains, lakes and building may be small, the layout itself is enormous. No wonder it is the biggest tourist attraction in Hamburg. During my visits, there were kids of all ages gawking at the multi-story layout that was, as a Hollywood publicist might say, twelve years in the making. This is the world’s largest computer-controlled model railway, covering 14,000 square feet, or 1300 square meters. There are 930 trains pulling countless carriages along eight miles, or thirteen kilometers of tracks. But it is the landscape, the lighting, the miniature scenarios, the staggering imagination and attention to detail that is so enchanting.


The trains are a rhythmic backdrop to a world in motion. Transport trucks lumber toward warehouses, fire trucks speed toward burning buildings, traffic jams hold up long lines of frustrated motorists and jetliners actually take off and land. It is as if Walt Disney had stuck with his original vision, retaining a child-like delight in his wonderful sense of play. The quarter million inhabitants of Miniature Wonderland are busy at all sorts of activities, doing everything from nude sunbathing to coal mining, cheering on football teams to washing cars, steering antique British sports cars up twisting alpine roads to blasting through thick walls to get at bank vaults.


It all started with a dream, of course. In 1967, Frederik Braun was born a few minutes earlier than his twin brother Gerrit, so he got to be the “dreamy” one while his brother took on the mantle of responsibility and practicality. Initially, Frederick dreamt of childish things such as collecting “a 10,000 copy collection of Mickey Mouse comic books” or a “huge collection of autograph cards from sporting stars.” For a decade, he and his twin brother started and ran a successful club, the Voila.


In July, 2000 a new dream emerged, triggered by a visit to a model railway store he and his girlfriend stumbled across on a trip to Zurich. It was a vision of the world’s largest model railroad layout. But Frederick wasn’t interested in the kind of layout that would appeal only to model railroad fanatics; he wanted to create a world bustling with action and intrigue, founded on activities and characters that were silly and scary, as well as everyday activities, like in the world around him.


Fortunately, the enthusiasm and drive of the twins brought them in touch with talented technicians and marketers who could help make it happen. They began modestly enough, with the Harz mountains of Germany, the fictional town of Knuffingen, and Austria. They moved on to Hamburg and central Germany, followed by a cross-section of American landmarks, Scandinavia, and the technically taxing three-story construction of Switzerland.


This section alone took two years, but it was topped by the stunning reproduction of Hamburg’s airport, which was started in 2005 and only completed in 2011. France and Italy and parts of Africa are in the works. They don’t plan to have the complete layout finished until 2020.


I’m sure it gets very crowded in the summer, as most of the available space is dedicated to the displays. You can check out some videos on the website or order a DVD called “Small World, but Larger than Life.” It may just whet your appetite for seeing it in person, but in the meantime you will have a ringside seat in front of your T.V. Most of my visuals are in video format rather than stills, but it may be a month before I have my mini-movie up on Flickr. Check back, and stay tuned. We’re off to Berlin.