In Orlando, Still Theming My Religion

August 18, 2009 at 12:15 pm | Posted in theme parks | Leave a comment
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by David A. Kelly

Courtesy of The Holy Land Experience

Courtesy of The Holy Land Experience

Anybody remember Mouseland’s “Holy Land Experience”? Though America’s premier family playground remains far better known for Mickey, Shamu, and Wet ‘n’ Wild, back in 2001 a group of evangelical investors headed by Marv Rosenthal and his Zion’s Hope Ministry holy-rolled into town with a $16-million, 15-acre theme park, aiming to share the Bible’s message by dramatizing its historical and cultural contexts. And while it’s had its ups and downs – a string of new owners as of 2005, financial challenges, and shifting cultural tastes – Holy Land has arisen and still walks among us, so to speak, even as theme park attendance has fallen and other Orlando-area attractions like Splendid China have gone to their makers. And if you happened to catch Bill Maher’s religion-bashing flick Religulous last year, you might recall Maher debating a bearded Jesus impersonator right here (the management turned out to be, unsurprisingly, not amused).

So what’s The Holy Land Experience actually like to visit? Well, while the biggest conundrum you encounter at the typical theme park is figuring out which ride has the shortest line or how to score a ticket to the character breakfasts, the lofty goal here is to help its visitors ponder The Big Questions, like: “what is life really all about?” and “why are we here?” No Holy Rollercoasters or Walk-on-Water simulations here.

And even if your visit brings you short of answering those questions — as, admittedly, mine did — it’s hard not to admire the vision of this gutsy bid to make biblical history into an interactive experience powerful enough to compete for tourist dollars against the likes of Disney and Universal. Yes, this park does certainly have its evangelical agenda, but I have to say, it will appeal to anyone with an interest in learning, say, how the Bible has been printed through the centuries, or getting a sense of what it was like to tread the cobblestones of ancient Jerusalem (without shelling out to fly to the real Holy Land, of course).

The key is to time your visit right, since a large part of the value of the admission price (adults $35, ages 6-12 $20) lies in attending one of the live shows or presentations on biblical history. For example, the “Wilderness Tabernacle,” a 20-minute presentation on ancient Israel’s priesthood and sacrificial system runs frequently, while “Calvary’s Garden Tomb,” an outdoor recreation of Christ’s tomb featuring actors hyper-dramatizing events related to his death and teachings, is staged just once or twice a day.

For less fervent and fervid visitors, the highlights will be the huge scale model of Jerusalem and the walk-through tour of the origin and history of the Bible. Jerusalem Model A.D. 66 is a detailed and impressive 45-by-25 foot reproduction of the city before it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. Nearby is the Scriptorium, a non-sectarian library featuring a 60-minute tour of 13 scenes (from Mesopotamia to a Midwest prairie church) that trace the history of Christianity’s holiest tome and how it was produced over the ages, with exhibitions of various rare Bibles, including an original Gutenberg.

And parents note: while the little children may suffer boredom to come unto exhibits like the two mentioned above, the park does its bit to keep them entertained with kid-friendly exhibits and even an outdoor rock-climbing wall.

Not surprisingly, the overall mixture of religion and tourist attraction may prove jarring for some. Come-ons for a hearty, mouthwatering “Goliath Burger” and fries at the Oasis Palms Café and gold-and-maroon foam Roman shields and swords in the gift shops can sometimes threaten to overwhelm the authentic biblical antiquities.

But what the hey — as they say, let he who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone. And while some may find it a little hard not to smirk at the idea of a biblical “theme park,” if you approach it with an open mind, the Holy Land Experience is an educational, even intriguing Disney alternative with undeniably real, er, passion. Just don’t try to go on Sunday — it’s closed.

More info: http://www.HolyLandExperience.com, 800.447.7235.

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