It was a sensation at the time. On April 7, 1766, Emperor Joseph II opened Vienna's royal hunting grounds to the public. The Viennese came in droves to enjoy the massive park, which became known as the "Prater."
Two-and-a-half centuries after the Holy Roman Emperor and Hapsburg ruler Joseph II did the unthinkable and made his hunting territory a public park, the green expanse now draws 4.2 million visitors per year.
"The Prater is important for tourism. It is also a childhood memory for the Viennese, who would all go to the merry-go-round as children," said Robert Kaldy-Karo, a magician and director of Vienna's Circus and Clown Museum.
The 65-year-old collects costumes, posters and accessories from jugglers and performers all over the world. One of his most prized possessions is a gigantic pair of underpants which used to belong to the plump Mitzi, a 500-pound lady who was once paraded around the Prater as part of a freak show.
"Before television, sensationalism could only be experienced live at the Prater," explained Kaldy-Karo as he transforms the red ball in his hand into a rabbit. In addition to directing the museum, he gives magic shows in a nostalgic, old-fashioned theater in the Prater.
From blimps to a giant Ferris wheel
The Prater is celebrating its big birthday with a special festival on Saturday, April 9. The main boulevard that runs through the park will be lined with colorfully decorated classic cars and horse-drawn carriages - just like in bygone days.
Through August 21, the Vienna Museum is showing the exhibition "In the Prater - Viennese Pleasures Since 1766." On display is a vibrant collection that shows how the Prater was a place to show off innovation: racecars from the 1960s, hurdy-gurdies, merry-go-round horses, photographs, posters and black-and-white film clips from past decades.
"At the beginning, there were fireworks; then the first blimps were presented here. The Prater was the location of the fifth World's Fair in 1873. Then in 1897, the year before the anniversary of Emperor Franz-Joseph's reign, the giant Ferris wheel was erected," explained exhibition curator Ursula Storch.
The exhibition also shows how the Prater became a muse for composers, writers and painters. Countless portrayals of spring scenes in the Prater's green meadows near the Danube River, horse-drawn carriages leisurely driving down the park's main boulevard, and fair-goers enjoying the merry-go-round at dusk have been captured in watercolor and oil.
"The Prater's heyday came to an end between the world wars," noted Storch. "During World War II, the Prater was 99 percent destroyed. Only the Ferris wheel survived and was reopened. It became an important symbol for reconstruction."
Famous Ferris wheel gets a facelift
The Ferris wheel his being outfitted with new carriages in honor of the 250th anniversary. Seven new red carriages have already been installed according to the design from 1946 - with the exception that they include a heater and air conditioner and six instead of four windows. All 15 carriages will be installed by mid-June.
"From up here, you have a great view over Vienna," said Florian Weinberger, a 10-year-old from Bavaria, who was visiting the Austrian capital with his family.
"I prefer to sit in the middle of the carriage, otherwise I get dizzy when I look down," added his mother with a smile. And it is a long way down: The Ferris wheel is 65 meters (213 feet) tall.
The Weinberger family said they couldn't visit Vienna without taking a ride on the famous Ferris wheel, which made an appearance in the famous classic film "The Third Man" starring Orson Welles. Riding high over Vienna, the unscrupulous penicillin dealer Harry Lime reflects on the tiny, faceless people on the ground far below - which he would readily sacrifice for the right price, he says.
After the ride, Ms. Weinberger from Bavaria was glad to be back on the ground. That was just the beginning of the family's day in the Prater.
Amusement park adrenaline
Although the leisure market is oversaturated and intense competition means the Prater's best days are over, some 80 businesses are still earning good money in the park.
"I'm the fourth generation in my family to do business in the Prater," said Stefan Sittler-Koidl. He owns several fair rides, including a brand-new roller coaster called Volare, in which brave riders lie on their stomach and fly through tight curves.
Also on offer is a skydiving simulator called Windobona and an indoor roller coaster called Maskerade.
Once visitors have had enough of the modern amusement park rides, they can relax in a retro atmosphere in one of the park's many bistros and restaurants - which were the first businesses in the Prater. After that, six square kilometers (2.3 square miles) of grassy park await anyone who wants to stroll off their sausage or schnitzel.
On sunny days, the area is full of horse riders, joggers and cyclists. The locals make the most of their Prater - just as they did 250 years ago when the emperor broke with tradition and opened its gates to everyone.