Built like a clowny village and boasting more than a century of official history, the Vienna Prater is one of the most varied and rewarding locales to visit in the Austrian capital. There are many people to meet, sights to marvel at, games of chance to lose, and, in a surprising summer trend, many flower-print jorts to ponder.
At around 10 a.m. each morning, the park slowly takes in a breath and shudders awake, with various carnival workers streaming in with coffees, tats and scowls. The rides are slowly resurrected from the previous night, scrubbed, patched. Over the next hour, carnies mentally build themselves up, eyeing down goofy teenagers, reminding them that they are the masters of their domain, be it the Testarossa Autodrome (not a Ferrari in sight, but so many flashy bumper cars), or the mouse-themed teacup ride, and slipping into a friendly, easy-going demeanor designed to make even the most shy visitors give their ride or game a go.
To visit the Prater is to meet a collection of unusual characters and familiar types. The morning brings hyper kids with their grandparents and sweaty tourists, who by the evening are replaced with amorous teenagers, hefty, loud families, and more sweaty tourists. To walk through the crowds is to transcend many contours of language, with a single, common, grounding expectation: that of being entertained. It is important to be wary of pickpockets, especially in the crowded evening hours, and to bring sunblock during noontime visits, when there are virtually no lines for any of the rides, but the sun is unyielding.
There are two major ways to experience the Prater. The first is to walk around and observe the potentially sudden and front page-worthy ways that people are about to humiliate themselves (strength games, ball throwing, drunk driving the boats in the kiddie pool) or die (any of the rides, really). The second is to consider that one can only do stupid things when one is still alive, and go do the ones you like. Top recommendations are the Riesenrad, the iconic Viennese Ferris Wheel which survived the bombings of World War II and provides an unparalleled view of the city, and the Prater Super 8er Bahn, a 45-second, old-generation roller coaster that threatens its riders with retina ungluing. Visiting the Riesenrad museum provides a series of dioramas showing the Prater and the impressive surrounding park area through the years, fashions, and technological triumphs of entertainment that it has experienced.
There are houses of terror, of the zombies (or as the monolithic voice over the loudspeaker calls them, “tsombies”) or the evolutionarily-unlikely dinosaurs flavor. There are racetracks with boats and buggies and go-karts, merry-go-rounds stacked high with toddlers, sculptures meant to delight but which instead turn the stomach. There are roller coasters, upright and upside-down varieties, and those spinning, turning, flipping rides that seem to beg the question: why do some people hate gravity? There is a faint smell of decay in certain corners of the park, either coming from the beleaguered pony ride, or there really are tsombies lurking here and there.
The Viennese Prater is truly many places. It’s a historical waypoint, a reminder of continuity for the people of Vienna, a symbol of civic pride. It’s a dirty carnival where you hope to win oddly proportioned Spongebob Squarepants plushes but get a tiny off-blue Smurfette instead, and go scare yourself by riding the Ferris Wheel older than your great-grandparents or the jaw-dislodging roller coaster. It’s a park of heartening serenity, it’s a place to meet people, a place to remember how to be your young self, or better yet, not your young self, because your young self was a stick in the mud who was afraid of clowns, but the cool version of your young self who went on all the rides twice.
EXTRA: It is the suggestion of the author that Prater-goers, considering the large quantity of young children on these rides, stay well outside of the splash radius, which is defined as the largest distance that a young child’s dislodged shoe or reappearing lunch can travel if lost during a ride cycle (Splash Radius = SQRT(H/4.9) * V, where H is the vertical apex of the ride, and V is the hoizontal velocity of dislodgement, all in standard metric units).
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