Drive up Central Florida’s I4, just outside Orlando, and it’s hard to miss the complex of gold and fake marble columned buildings. The gaudy park looks a little like someone tried to build a model of ancient Rome out of drywall putty and glitter. That’s how you know you’ve reached The Holy Land Experience, a Christian theme park where Biblical antiquities meet miniature golf, where you can snack on authentic Middle Eastern JerusaLamb Kebobs before getting baptized by a real actor playing Jesus (weather permitting).
Was this ironic tourism? I guess you could call it that, if you must. I certainly wasn’t visiting a collection of strip mall antiquities as a holy pilgrimage. It just happened to be the strangest place I knew of in Orlando, and so when I found out I’d be passing through, it was first on my list. Isn’t that the point of all travel? To become an outsider, to have experiences outside your everyday norms? Certainly the Holy Land Experience qualified.
The park was the brainchild of a Jew-turned-Baptist minister from New Jersey named Marvin Rosenthal, who bought the land in 1989. Opened in 2001, The Holy Land Experience was officially declared tax-exempt in 2006, thanks to a law passed by the Florida legislature and signed into law by the then-governor and recently inept presidential candidate Jeb Bush — thus ending Orange County’s five-year effort to collect $300,000 in back property taxes. While it began “with no advertising budget,” in 2007 it was bought by the Trinity Broadcasting Network, a Southern California-based Christian cable empire founded by the late Paul F. Crouch, which calls itself the world’s largest religious television network. According to the most recently-available tax documents, the park made $9.4 million in ticket sales in 2013.
In return for their tax exemption, which has reportedly saved them about $2.2 million since 2006, all The Holy Land has to do in return is make admission free once a year. About 3,500 people showed up for the most recent free day, back in February. When Uproxx Orlando ambassador, Ashley Burns arrived in early March, however, admission cost $50 and attendance was looking sparse. Pretty steep for a day trip. Hey, at least parking was free.