It’s become one of Europe’s most popular – if unlikely – theme parks, drawing visitors from all across the continent. Entire families take the day off, calling in sick from work and sending excuses off to school. But if you’re expecting to find Mickey Mouse at the AutoStadt theme park, forget it.
The name, in German, means “auto city,” an appropriate nickname for Wolfsburg, itself, the town that grew up around Volkswagen and serves as the automaker’s headquarters. Less than a two-hour drive from Berlin, alongside the old East/West German border, Wolfsburg is the ultimate company town.
But until a decade ago, it wasn’t much of a tourist destination. Then, AutoStadt was opened to coincide with the nearby Hanover World’s Fair – and Volkswagen’s big push to transform itself from an automotive also-ran into one of the industry’s largest manufacturers.
The idea of an automotive theme park was mocked by skeptics, and there were plenty of reasons to dismiss its chances. In Flint, Michigan, birthplace of General Motors, a similar concept, dubbed Auto World, failed miserably, losing investors – and the struggling city – millions of dollars. But as with those who bet VW itself was going to fail, AutoStadt has turned into an unexpected hit.