Christ in the Smokies Museum and Gardens
Christ in the Smokies Museum and Gardens can stand on its own merits, but it still helps to understand what was there before: Christus Gardens, a nearly-identical attraction that occupied the exact same building. Christus Gardens was a mainstay of Gatlinburg tourism for nearly 50 years -- until 2008, when its owners sold out to condo developers.
What followed was a series of events that could be seen as heaven-sent: the economy crashed, the condo deal fell through, and the property fell back into the hands of those who'd worked at the old attraction. They vowed to bring it back better than before.
What they've created is something still very much Old School, but with modern flourishes that should satisfy all but the most nit-picky contemporary Christians.
At the heart of Christ in the Smokies Museum and Gardens is a quick-paced 25-minute automated walk-thru wax museum tour of the life of Jesus, a kind of greatest hits compilation of Gospel stories that leaves you wondering why everyone isn't a Christian. Jesus is born humble, stands up to Satan, heals a blind man, smiles with kids, is unjustly and cruelly executed, then rises from the dead and ascends skyward -- literally, he's motorized -- while a choir belts out The Hallelujah Chorus. The cotton-fluffy firmament in the final scene is in fact made of cotton.
Visitors exit through the last of the museum's crowd-control automatic doors into a greenhouse prayer garden, face-to-face with the "Awe-Inspiring Face of Christ," which replaced the "famous Carrara Marble Face" of Christ that had occupied the same spot in the old attraction. Like its predecessor, Jesus has been carved into a slab in such a way that he appears to look right at you, whether you're studying the Christ the Redeemer statue on the far side of the garden or walking toward the gift shop.
The wax dummies in Christ in the Smokies Museum and Gardens arrived by way of another well-timed minor miracle -- the sale by the Hollywood Wax Museum chain of all of its religious figures. Art director Mark Pedro, a veteran of the old museum, was able to fill the new one at a fraction of what it would have cost to create a new population of beatific Jesi, scowling Pharisees, and assorted worshipers and disciples.
"To do a new Last Supper would cost a quarter-million dollars," said Mark. "If I'd have turned that bill in they would have crucified me."
The museum has taken advantage of its fresh start to update its interpretations. Gone is the old circa 1960 Christus Gardens. Jesus, for example, now has a Middle Eastern nose and no longer sports strawberry blonde hair. Satan no longer resembles Ming the Merciless, but rather "a normal person" according to the museum's prerecorded narration (He still looks evil). Thunder rolls and lightning flashes now accompany the crucifixion, and the angel with cotton ball wings who used to sit in Jesus's tomb has disappeared.
The pace of the attraction has quickened. Mark, who grew up in California, fondly recalled visiting the Santa Cruz boardwalk and its Last Supper wax exhibit. "It was a 20-minute-long presentation, by itself," he said. "Nobody could do that nowadays."
A Christian attraction in East Tennessee will always draw repeat visitors. Mark admitted that it could be frustrating at times when former patrons of Christus Gardens returned and misremembered the old attraction, enhancing its charms and forgetting its flaws. "At first I would argue," he said, "but now I'll say, 'Oh, did you like it now?' and they'll say, 'Yes, we like it now,' and I'll leave it at that."