New Holy Land Tour
Eureka Springs, Arkansas
The New Holy Land was the last great project begun by Gerald L.K. Smith for his Great Passion Play Christian theme park. It was to cost $100 million and rival Disney in scope and pizzazz. An impressive replica of the Great Wall of Jerusalem was built, with twin gates 47 feet high -- and then Smith died. The Wall still stands, but the New Holy Land on the other side of it has taken decades to reach its current state, and has emerged as something home-grown with a much more modest budget.
For those without the time or money to travel to Israel and Palestine, the New Holy Land Tour offers an opportunity to "experience" the Bible conveniently and comparatively cheaply -- with the added benefit of there being an ice cream stand at the end, next to Calvary. An electric tram carries the pilgrims along a narrow road -- very, very, slowly -- past pagan altars and biblical scenes. Although it winds through wooded hills of only about 50 acres, the trip takes 2.5 hours. This is just fine for most folks on the tour, who are in no hurry and who don't want to miss a thing.
A number of stops slow the pace, especially on a hot summer afternoon. At the replica of Moses's desert tent tabernacle, visitors are met by an actor dressed as a Levitical priest and peer through a tent hole at a replica Ark.
At the Inn of Bethlehem, more actors in costume show us around the establishment, including its famous manger. Larry, our guide, describes it to our group as "what a motel was like in Bible times."
The tram ride is an odd mix of Bible-comes-alive history and modern logistics. Larry broadcasts our position over a squawking walkie talkie to alert the actors at the next stop to our approach. "We are leaving the Upper Room, moving to the Garden Tomb," he barks. "Roger that," comes an un-scriptured reply. Even with this system, Jesus was caught off-guard at the Sea of Galilee by our arrival; he was at the other end of the pond, throwing bread crumbs to ducks, and at first couldn't hear our pleas for him to walk on water (Which he does -- we won't give away how).
We asked Larry if the tour might not be even more engaging with the addition of holograms, subsonics, and smoke and light -- at least above the Tabernacle. He politely brushed this aside. "We don't want to make it flashy," he told us, "we just want to convey the teaching."
He did mention that the Park was considering an overnight tour, where visitors would bed down in the 3,000-year-old Bethlehem Inn, "to get them into the experience."