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.
We drove in, past a massive nativity scene overlooking a 7/11, to a security gate. A friendly security guard with a pleasant mustache directed us towards the many open parking spaces. “Welcome to the Holy Land Experience,” he said, waving us past the massive cement sign that bears more than a passing resemblance to the poster from Ishtar. He handed us a couple brochures touting TBN’s exchange program with Africa, presumably to underline Holy Land’s official status as a charitable organization.
We cruised through the open spaces, eventually parking next to a blue Dodge pick-up with twin bumper stickers reading “he is risen” and “keep Christ in Christmas.” Burnsy shut off the car and we took one last look at each other. Did we really want to go through with this? Did we look Christian enough? Would we have to sing with our eyes closed or speak in tongues? (You can find more than a few Holy Land videos online featuring all of the above).
“Oh what the hell,” Burnsy said. “I went to Christian camp.”
“Yeah, me too.”
We made our way toward the entrance, but the spectacle begins well before you get there. Next to a gray retaining wall — it had featured an azure blue sky with angel scrolls just the week before, but had been painted over in response to a ruling by the Florida Department of Transportation prohibiting religious imagery on state property — stood a cluster of statues mounted in an inch-deep fountain. “Walk On Water With Jesus” announced the marquee, along with a series of safety rules written in, what else, Papyrus font, the holiest of fonts. In the center of this sort of permanent puddle stood a very manly and anglo-looking Jesus, wearing a white toga with blue sash, presiding over a menagerie of fauna, from sea lions to a psychedelic-looking camel (why the camel was depicted standing in the water alongside sea turtles is anyone’s guess). Behind the dolphins, a second guy (Jesus’s pal?), arms outstretched as if releasing the kraken.
Belty, gospel-tinged Christian music blared from speakers. We were the only ones there.
We continued past more animals, statues of Roman soldiers, and a massive white marble slab with a hollow relief of Jesus†, to the entrance. We could hear another speaker inside blaring an entirely different Christian song, the separate attempts to praise Him momentarily competing.
“Shalom!” said another smiling friendly guy, this one outfitted in a silky sequined turban and toga getup. Imagine your dad in a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, cheerfully committing to the whole thing. It was strange and comforting at the same time. No one wearing this many sequins could possibly be unaware of their own kitsch value.
If “shalom” seems a bit Jewish for a Christian theme park, well, there’s an easy explanation for that: The Holy Land Experience’s founder Marvin Rosenthal, describes himself as a “Messianic Jew,” and the goal of park, according to its official history, was to “proclaim the Gospel to as many people as possible; and to help believers have a better understanding of the Judaistic roots out of which Christianity grew.”
Just inside the entrance was the “Smile of a Child Adventure Land,” featuring misters, a turquoise rock-climbing wall based on Noah’s ark, and a nine-hole, Biblical-themed “Trin-I-Tee” miniature golf course. Its nine holes, completed just a few months ago, guide players through various tales of the Old Testament, from Jonah and the Whale and David and Goliath on through to the Resurrection. Sure, it’s a course designed for small children that tells a story in which a guy gets brutally tortured and nailed to a cross, but I doubt it’s any more traumatizing than, say, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.
Exiting the kiddie area, we made our way past the white statues, astroturf, and painted cement walls of the Garden of Gethsemane exhibit, a life-sized diorama that looks not unlike the interior of the Venice Casino in Las Vegas. The walls are sky blue, the astroturf a rich green, and Jesus and the disciples are rendered in white stone. From the vivid colors to the gold peacocks flanking Jesus, it’s all absurdly upbeat-looking, especially for a place that’s also known as “the Basilica of Agony” — a depiction of a condemned man on the night before his execution. It’s not fire and brimstone, or even the more modern, persecution-at-the-hands-of-secularists themed. No, the Holy Land is Christianity at its most saccharine, where everything is awesome because Jesus is.
Pensioners strolled by. A wheelchair here, an oxygen tank there. A bearded veteran in a hat advertising a battleship walked past us in shorts, a V cut into the tops of his socks to relieve the pressure on his calves. Were these people born again or just bored? Hard to say, but I’m guessing a little of both. We bypassed the Holy Communion with Jesus exhibit (“gather around the table like the apostles or experience the gift of the Holy Spirit, see schedule for times”) on our way to Calvary’s Garden Tomb, a replica of the tomb where Jesus died.
The opening of the tomb is The Holy Land’s most obvious photo op and inside sat a collection of “ancient Biblical artifacts.” These artifacts held obvious appeal for me, thanks to my grandfatherly fascination with any object more than a few hundred years old. Funny thing about The Holy Land’s artifacts though — they’re not exactly labeled with the history buff in mind. Two stones sat on miniature pillars, one labeled “Mount Zion,” the other “Golgotha.” On the wall, a hooked metal and wood contraption labeled simply “Plow.” Elsewhere: “Helmet.” “Rake.” “Brass Bell.”
Did these date from circa 33 AD, the year of the Biblical resurrection? Were they originals? Recreations? No idea. All I can tell you is that the font was, once again, Papyrus. At first I thought this might be a Holy Land thing, using a font that looks exotic for the menus and labels, just like the Arabic Ishtar font out front tries badly to evoke the desert. But in my subsequent stay in Orlando, where I saw Papyrus as the main font in both of my hotels and at least three different restaurant menus, I realized it might just be an Orlando thing.
“Hey, Vince,” Burnsy said, nudging me on our way through the cave. “Jesus got laid in a tomb.”
An amalgamation of Jewish and Christian traditions though it may be, The Holy Land Experience’s dominant aesthetic reminded me of the sickly sweet faces of the Rockwell-inspired cherub children on the covers of the cassettes that my weird religious aunt used to give me for my birthday. She wore sparkly clothes and too much make-up in the Tammy Faye Baker mold, to match a permanent smile and an especially high-energy brand of general decency. No relative seemed nicer or more interested in my life, or more seemingly clueless about anything a kid might be interested in. I never had the heart to tell her that even as a small child, I found the sound of a children’s choir singing songs about Jesus intensely creepy (Jesus actually had nothing to do with it, a children’s choir singing about anything sounds creepy).
Outside the tomb, wooden crucifixes dot the rolling lawns. Near these are tables, with push pins and pieces of paper, so that visitors can tack to the crosses “prayer requests” and “re-dedication reports.”
Please Pray For (first name only)
Street & # _____________
City _____ State ____ Zip ________
Please check box if you would like email updates from the Holy Land Experience. Are you receiving the TBN Newsletter? (Y/N)
Prayer Partner _________ Date _______
The Re-Dedication Reports are similar, but printed on yellow paper, and start with a prayer. “AFTER PRAY: Father, I know that I am a sinner and I ask you to forgive me. I believe Christ died for me and I want to turn from my sins. Jesus, come into my heart and be my personal Lord and Saviour. I promise to obey you and follow you all the days of my life.”
Just opposite the tomb sits a massive artificial lake, the “Sea of Galilee,” officially. A set of poor man’s Bellagio fountains spray into the air, while on the opposite bank, hedgerows spell out “HE IS RISEN.” On both shores, separate standees of a beaming Jesus, who’s simultaneously a dead ringer for the buddy Christ from Dogma and the actor Will Forte. Nowadays, when even Christian movies have begun to depict Jesus as curly-haired and at least olive-skinned, The Holy Land’s Jesus is a throwback, to when Christian optimism was wrapped up in 50s nostalgia. Here, Jesus is a Father Knows Best type who pats kids on the head and converts Communists through prayer.
Burnsy and I pop on past it to the “Scriptorium,” a building housing “one of the world’s largest private collections” of Bibles. It offers 55 minutes tours every seven minutes, which sounds about 40 minutes longer than I’d want to spend looking at antique Bibles. Maybe not, I have to plead ignorance here. We opted out, hoping instead to catch the 1 pm Baptism show. It didn’t seem to be happening. The program did warn “weather permitting,” but it was 80 degrees and sunny. Who knows, maybe the Jesus actor was sick.
To kill some time before the live show (The Holy Land Experience’s main draw) starts, we check out the scale model of Jerusalem, circa 66 AD. It’s the world’s largest indoor model of Jerusalem, according to The Holy Land. This is probably The Holy Land Experience’s coolest exhibit. For one thing, I had no idea Roman-era Jerusalem was so big. The model stretches an entire room, and if the temple complex’s relationship to the human figure models is to scale, the structure and the city walls look like they’d be impressive now, let alone back when a rake consisted of a forked antler nailed to a tree branch (one of the Biblical artifacts I saw inside Jesus’s tomb). Is this model to scale? Did people really hang out on the roofs of their stone houses back then? No idea. I have plenty more questions about population, system of government, drainage — but once again, The Holy Land isn’t big on facts, or labeling.
An excited retiree in a Tennessee Vols t-shirt and white plaid shorts accompanied by his wife pushes past us. “Ooh, there’s the Dome of the Rock!” he says, snapping a picture with his giant DSLR camera. Maybe you’re just supposed to know these things?
Tennessee Dave is probably the most animated and well-to-do visitor we’ve seen, but he’s otherwise representative of the general park population. We’re by far the youngest people here not accompanying children, and the average age is about 70. It’s almost universally grey, and mostly white, though we did pass a Brazilian family in the tomb. The Jerusalem model leads through one of many gift shops, where you can buy virtually any type of Bible decoration and/or storage device, all manner of inspirational scripture decoration, and endless, indescribable trinketry for your weird aunt or white elephant party. They also sell yarmulkas and Hebrew tallits with scripture praising Jesus. I can’t imagine they sell many of those. The weirdest items on sale were probably the flip-flop sandals with velvet strap and massive, silver and gold-plated ornate crucifix clasp in the middle, $49.99.
From the gift shop, we migrate to the Christus Gardens Wax Museum, past a sign explaining, “the figures are antiques, the costumes are art pieces. They do not portray authentic biblical attire.” It’s odd that the wax museum is the only exhibit to address historical authenticity, in a place where Christ is almost universally depicted as a handsome blond man wearing a white toga and royal blue sash. The clothes in the wax museum do seem a little flamboyant, even for The Holy Land, with flowing silk, sumptuous patterns, and everything shining like tinsel. It all looks sort of Steven Tyler by way of Tony Montana’s car. Satan wears a black velvet cloak and pointy Van Dyke beard while summoning a snake from a tree — like Ricardo Montalban in a bad disguise. The wax figures represent scenes from Jesus’s life, from nativity to resurrection, the final room depicting Jesus halfway up the wall, spot lit and underneath an air vent gently blowing his hair and robe like an infinite gif of a Creed video. I’m reminded of the rabbi in the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man, the two Jews pondering an image of Jesus, trying to fathom Christians believing that he “floated up to Heaven in a white nightie” – simultaneously pitying the Christians’ gullibility while envying their optimism. The Holy Land Experience seems so intertwined with a bygone era of American optimism, that I sort of empathize with the Coens’ characters just as a post-Boomer.
By this point, our cup runneth nearly over, but we still haven’t experienced a live show, which seems to be The Holy Land Experience’s main draw. We line up outside the Church of All Nations building (the one you can see from the road), and file into the 2,000-seat auditorium, to watch a 35-minute production of “The Fullness of Time Has Come.” The “fullness of time,” I come to understand, refers to the Virgin Mary’s pregnancy.
I was pretty drowsy from the sunshine and my chicken kebob (delicious, by the way) by this point, so only a few things about the live show stick out:
- One of the dancing angels giving me impure thoughts
- Joseph and Mary canoodling like… well, like young newlyweds. With the modern way the play depicts it, probably the hardest part of this story for outsiders to understand would be how Mary was still a virgin despite apparently being married and in love.
- Satan looking like a guy who shops at Hot Topic
- The only black guy in the cast, whose entire job was to dance while flipping numbers on a big calendar to indicate the passage of time between scenes. The crowd ate this up, by the way.
- Ditto the most risqué joke of the show, where the actor who was pushing a giant horse on wheels kept wafting the air in front of his nose to indicate that the horse had a stinky butt. This got full-on belly laughs from the ladies down front. Goes to show, poop jokes kill anywhere.
- It was a little hard to tell without being right next to the stage, but I’m fairly certain the entire show was pre-recorded and the stage actors were lip-synching. All the voice acting and singing was a little too perfect, and when I looked back to the engineering booth, I could see a big red counter visible to the actors, presumably so they’d know their time cues down to the second. These guys couldn’t ad-lib, even should they have been so tempted.
All in all, the show felt like a cross between a high school play and Christian pro wrestling. The male cast, almost universally long-haired and bearded in the Biblical mold, looked like Christian rock singers, and I would be shocked if less than a third of them had dabbled in pro wrestling. But they were young people having fun, and I was so fascinated by their lives I could hardly focus on the play. Who were these people? Were they all true believers? What are the behind-the-scenes politics like when you play Mary and Joseph in the live show at a Christian theme park? I imagine that they probably spend so much time together that they’re like an incestuous high school drama club. What does that look like in the context of commercialized Christianity?
According to the Holy Land’s program, “Many of our Cast Members and all of our Jesus actors are ordained Ministers. We look forward to praying with and for you during your visit today.”
All I could think about was how much I want to see a show about these people’s lives. Think Party Down meets Adventureland by way of Saved.
The Holy Land’s flagship drama is their production of The Passion of the Christ, every day at 4 pm, which is such a big deal that the park’s food venues are closed from 3:45 until 5:00. It felt wrong for us to leave without seeing it, but not so wrong that it was going to make me sit through an 85-minute live version of The Passion.
We bailed, passing through one last collection of “antiquities” on our way out. They were mostly Russian orthodox icons from the 19th century from the looks of it — though again, no signage could confirm. By far the two biggest pieces were the framed paintings of TBN founder Paul F. Crouch, who died in 2013. One of him onstage with his impossibly big-haired wife, Jan, and another of Paul being welcomed into Heaven by Jesus himself. Jan Crouch’s personal style goes a long way towards explaining The Holy Land, where facts are mostly irrelevant and Jesus smiles even while he suffers. At the Holy Land, religion and stagecraft are one and the same.
As we squeezed in one last bathroom break before getting on the road, Burnsy looked at me over the top of the stall. “Hey, Vince, check it out: he is wizzin’.”
A group of disabled folks motored by in wheelchairs near the exit. It’d be tempting to think that they were here praying to be healed, but the truth is, they look like they were there for the same reason as everyone else — to see a show. I expected to feel bad for trespassing on something like this, knowing I’d find humor in things others found sacred. But you can’t trespass at a tent revival. It’s there specifically to be gawked at.
The Holy Land is Vegas, it’s Reno, it’s Branson, Missouri – -much more a shrine to tackiness than to religion. Like a rhinestone saaaavior. I left feeling slightly queasy, like coming down from a sugar high.
Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.
†The relief is called “Face of Jesus Statue” in the official program, saying “the eyes of Jesus follow you wherever you go.” The inscription on it reads “The eyes of the Lord are in every place keeping the watch upon the evil and the good.”
And from the Holy Land Experience PR Dept.