The Holy Land Experience
Several words come to mind when attempting to describe The Holy Land Experience, a $16 million attraction just off I-4 in Orlando, only a few miles from Disney World. "Fun," unfortunately, is not one of them. Of all of the religious attractions that we've visited -- and we've visited a few -- this one is the least like an attraction. When one leaves The Holy Land Experience, one has the distinct feeling of having spent hours at church, not at The Magic Kingdom.
The Holy Land Experience consists mostly of several life-size Biblical scenes packed into its 15-acres. A Jerusalem street market, the Dead Sea Scroll caves, Herod's Temple, the tomb of Jesus -- all are here, impressively rendered. Most of the employees wear period costume, and the visitor quickly grows accustomed to seeing Roman soldiers and coarse-robed civilians scurrying about in Birkenstock sandals, on their way to their next musical performance.
Much of the instruction at The Holy Land Experience is carried out in song, with the actors belting out Christian tunes through headset microphones that seem odd in the 2,000 year old setting. It's as if Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell never ended. Prerecorded music, synthesized and zealously amplified, booms from speakers everywhere. Even when there is no singing, music oozes from the speakers: supersweet biggie-sized Pepsi music (This is a Pepsi attraction; no Coke allowed on the property.).
The religion being preached at The Holy Land Experience is born-again Christianity, but the attraction makes a valiant effort to tie it to Judaism, perhaps to give it historic validity (and perhaps because it was founded by Rev. Marvin Rosenthal and Zion's Hope of Orlando). All of the employees end their conversations with a cheery "Shalom!" and one of the several gift shops on the property sells yarmulkes, prayer shawls, and menorahs. "The Seed of Promise" video, playing in The Theater of Life, jumps directly from the story of Abraham and Isaac to the crucifixion -- the Old Testament sacrifice and the New. See? Jews and born-again Christians, no difference at all!
Whether any Jews -- or anyone who isn't born-again -- receive this message is doubtful. The Holy Land Experience is not designed for the casual visitor. Its dress code -- in Florida -- bans halter tops, spandex, and "short shorts" (fabric length not specified). Its behavior code bans "lewd and lascivious conduct." Its "miscellaneous codes" prohibit smoking and the bringing of food through the entrance gates. Admission is fifty bucks (up from $17 when it opened in February 2001), plus an additional charge for parking, which effectively bars all but the most committed.
And there isn't much to do at The Holy Land Experience unless one of the employees is guiding you, or singing to you, or delivering a sermon. The only activity you can perform on your own is shopping. We didn't see any displays with written explanations; you have to be told. We appeared to be the only ones asking questions.
Of course, one person's drudgery is another person's delightful afternoon, and most of the visitors that we saw at The Holy Land Experience seemed content with its order, and willing to be told what they could see, when they could see it, and what they were seeing when they finally could see it. Our media contact told us "most people take seven hours" to view the attraction. Sensing our surprise, she added, "But if you're in a hurry you can do it in four." She then handed us a schedule that would keep us at The Holy Land Experience for 5.5 hours.
We did not stay that long, but we did have time to take in the Jerusalem Model A.D. 66, "the largest indoor model of Jerusalem in the world," a claim not likely to be challenged. A guy in an Indiana Jones hat pointed out the alleys and buildings where Jesus probably would have been, explained that "The Herodian Temple was the Wal-Mart of sacrifice," and barked at an old man shooting video. "Sir, we don't allow video recording. This material is copyrighted. If you want the lecture, we have our own video for sale."
At Calvary's Garden Tomb, two Roman soldiers (with English accents) stomped off in frustration as a single white dove was released: there goes Jesus! Then Indiana Jones reappeared, telling the audience, "Choices. We all make choices. Jesus made a choice...." Then the singers came in, one launching into an extended version of How Great Thou Art that dragged on like a celebrity rendition of The Star Spangled Banner.
The smell of Dromedary Depot -- a camel stable -- wafted over the guy working the audio board, and some of the younger audience members began to bail on Calvary and wander over to the animals. When it was all over, the reward was an opportunity to look into the tomb, its entrance blocked by a velvet rope, and see a rumpled sheet resting on an empty rock shelf. Above the shelf was a framed notice: "He is not here. For He has risen."
The Holy Land Experience understands theatrics, and apparently does not hesitate to tinker with a Bible story if it makes for better staging. The costumed woman in one of the gift shops, for example, told us of the attraction's elaborate Easter pageant. "And, of course, the ending is spectacular...."
"Yes," we replied, anxious not to miss the start of The Theater of Life video. "We kind of already know how the story ends."
"Oh, but you don't know our ending," she said, her face aglow. "After the resurrection you think Jesus is going to appear through the Temple doors. Instead he appears on top of the Temple! Six stories up! In spotlights! Those people on I-4 are swervin'! They're saying to themselves, 'Wow, those Christians are right!'"