In Orlando, America’s thrill ride capital, one theme park is making a killing — twice each day, except Sundays.
At midday and again before the doors close for the evening, visitors to Holy Land Experience gather to watch a graphic re-enactment of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Wearing a tattered robe and a blood-spattered face, a man portraying Christ lugs a cross on his back through a lifelike “Jerusalem Street Market” as packs of tourists in sunglasses scurry to snap photos. Mickey Mouse, this ain’t.
And on Christmas Day, as many celebrate the birth of Jesus, the show will go on as usual, said park spokesman John Casoria.
“Our goal at Holy Land Experience is to present the life of Christ in a real way to the people who attend the park,” Casoria said. “And that is not hammering them over the head with a fire-and-brimstone type message; it’s not to evangelize in a negative way but to evangelize in a positive way — to show the love of God through life of Christ and to show different stories that arise in the Bible.”
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Owned by the Trinity Broadcasting Network and nestled next to Interstate 4 in central Florida, the 15-acre, Christian-based park is packed with singers, street theater and gift shops — and is typically filled to its 2,000-person capacity, the spokesman Casoria said. Tickets cost $35 for adults, $20 for children ages 6 to 12.
Touching hearts, touching nerves
With its stony backdrop and biblically bedecked employees, the venue aims to look, sound, and feel a world away from the gravity drops, splashy screams and mouse ears that fill nearby attractions like Disney World, SeaWorld and Universal Orlando. As Casoria says, “We don’t have roller coasters or water rides. What Holy Land tries to do is expand on that entertainment value by bringing the faith-based element. It touches the heart.”
It also touches a nerve with some tourists and some locals.
“The place scares me, quite frankly,” said Terry Ward, a travel writer who once lived close enough to the park to view its vast array of Christmas lights brightening the night sky. “To see Holy Land, in all its glory alongside I-4, just feels like another assault from people following what they interpret as the word of God, and a cheesy one at that. I mean, if you really want to go see the Holy Land, do what millions of other pilgrims do — go to Jerusalem, not Orlando.”
While filming his 2008 documentary “Religulous,” Bill Maher strolled through Holy Land Experience. The movie shows a twirling (and blood-free) Christ figure who is merrily dancing to the song “Jesus Is Just Alright.” Maher also asks one Holy Land tourist: “When you were a kid ... if they told you ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ was religion, and that a man (who) lived in a whale was a fairytale book, do you think, when you got to be an adult, you’d be defending one instead of the other?” The woman responds: “So you’re saying that the Bible is a fairytale?”
Some Orlando tourism boosters treat the park’s messages and its entertainment menu a bit more delicately — yet also with a careful nod to travelers who may not be drawn to a place that offers live shows called “Heaven’s Gate — Hell’s Flames” and “Celebrate Jesus — Karaoke.” FAQOrlando.com, for example, wrote: “Holy Land Experience makes some people uncomfortable, both devout Christian as well as un- or iffy-believer. Religion — a solemn view of salvation, sacrifice, and supreme powers — doesn’t fit easily into a city with singing country bears and wizards named Harry. Believers wonder: Is it a sacrilege to take a serious subject and turn it into a show? Can a park that relies on admission tickets and souvenir sales to pay its rent show the proper respect for God?” That website added: “The short answer is ‘yes.’ ”
The Bible beyond text
“People tend to come away from things of this sort either enamored or disgusted, depending on their connection to faith,” said religion writer Menachem Wecker, whose articles have appeared in Catholic, Jewish, Islamic and Mormon publications. He has never visited Holy Land Experience. “If we step back objectively, though, I think it’s great to have places of this sort — even if they are kitschy — for the same reason it’s important to have religious theater productions (and) religious art. It’s important to experience the biblical narratives in more than just textual ways.”
The park’s own narrative contains some interesting business twists. Opened in 2001 and originally called “Zion’s Hope, doing business as Holy Land Experience,” the founder, Rev. Marvin Rosenthal, reportedly wanted to use the place to convert Jews to Christianity as a part of rapture theology. “My understanding is that was Rosenthal’s vision for the park when he built it,” Casoria said. By 2007, however, the property had changed hands several times and was foundering financially. TBN, then looking for a TV studio to build in Orlando, saw the park as a “good fit” with its mission, bought the venue then used its 24-hour, global broadcasting power to promote Holy Land Experience. Within six months, the nonprofit attraction was “moving into the black,” Casoria said.
Some travelers, like Jen Hancock who lives near Tampa, still link the park with its original roots and, therefore, refuse to patronize it.
“I can’t see spending $30 to get in, especially when the money is going to evangelize,” said Hancock, who describes herself as a “humanist.” “I have Jewish relatives so this may be a sore spot for me.”
'Consuming presence of God'
But Kevin Benton, a Philadelphia minister, said he was moved to tears when he and his wife visited Holy Land Experience in August.
“As soon as we walked into the marketplace, we both just started crying because of the consuming presence of God that permeated throughout the place,” Benton said. “The first thing we saw when we walked in was the re-enactment of Jesus’ death on the cross.”
The bulging crowds at Holy Land have led other Christian business people to ask TBN about the possibility of building a replica on the West Coast. For now, TBN has agreed to license a group of investors to begin exploring the opening of a Holy Land Experience just outside Seoul, South Korea, Casoria said.
Indeed, the business of Christian-themed amusement parks is getting a bit more crowded. Earlier this month, the Associated Press reported that a group of investors is planning to build a full-scale replica of Noah’s Ark in the small, northern Kentucky village of Williamstown — and aiming to lure 1.6 million visitors a year.
“It’s our belief that the Christian marketplace is one of the last truly untapped demographics out there,” Casoria said. “Look at the movie industry. Over only the last few years, [Hollywood has opted] to create films with themes geared toward the Christian marketplace. The ‘Narnia’ movies have been wildly successful.
“But they put a lot of time, effort and money into them to make them quality. That’s what a Christian marketplace is looking for,” Casoria said. “There are a lot of people out there putting a lot of stuff out there that’s not quality. The Christian marketplace — like any other — they want a quality product.”