Next time you are in Orlando, FL, and seeking a break from all things Mouse, I suggest you wander over to Holy Land Experience — a place where the thrill rides are entirely intellectual.
For those of you who, unlike me, haven’t visited HLE a word of explanation is in order:
For six years, Holy Land has quietly been recreating the Jerusalem of Biblical times, without any publicity, relying instead on word of mouth. However, it ran into trouble two years ago after its preacher founder, the Rev. Marvin Rosenthal, left the project. But now a saviour has been found in the form of a Christian empire, Trinity Broadcasting Network, based in California. They took over the park’s $5.3 million mortgage and are celebrating a 25 per cent rise in ticket sales after advertising on their channels. Bosses prefer to call Holy Land a “living Biblical museum” rather than a theme park. Instead of rides, there are lectures and tours of a recreated Jerusalem and the garden tomb where Jesus was buried.
Herewith is an unfinished essay I wrote about HLE when I visited it shortly after it opened:
WITH GOD AND MOUSE IN FLORIDA
They make a lousy falafel sandwich in The Holy Land. The signature ingredient is chewy and flavorless, lacking the crisp shell and garlicky overtones you can find in any decent mid-eastern greasy spoon. The pita is no better than what’s inside: Its thick rubbery consistency has more in common with Dunkin Donuts’ version of a bagel than the pleasant, thin bread you can get at any decent grocery store.
The Holy Land which attempts and fails this classic Arabic dish is not the Levantine area where Jews and Muslims have been at odds with each other for, oh, forever, but The Holy Land Experience, an Orlando, Fla., theme park where Jews and Christians, Christians and Christians and the IRS have been at odds with each other since it opened in February.
In many ways the park is typical for the Orlando area, a region that is to theme parks as Rome is to churches.
As with its more secular neighbors—Disney World, Universal Studios and Sea World—Holy Land’s foliage is richly green and its fountain blasts away all day, which is notable because Florida is in the third year of a drought. Also like its neighbors, Holy Land’s exhibitions are painted and polished to look hyper-real. At HLE that means everything has a glossy patina of dirt and a “worn” look to make the new buildings look old, but in a shiny brand-new kind of way. However, unlike other area competitors for your leisure time dollar whose bland self-descriptive phrases (“Adventureland makes a fitting home for The Magic Carpets of Aladdin, filled with the wonder of genies, flying carpets, magic lamps and Middle East mystique”) serve as cover for unrepentant capitalism, The Holy Land’s bland self-serving phrases (“Its unique combination of sights, sounds and tastes stimulate your senses and blend together to create a spectacular, new experience”) serve as cover for a fascinating, reactionary religious outreach effort.
Describing Holy Land Experience as a theme park is both linguistically accurate and technically inaccurate. In amusement industry argot, The Land is a second tier tourist attraction—because it’s small and has no rides. But to any visitor it is quite definitely a theme park. The entire idea behind a theme park is to create a simulacrum of something familiar yet vaguely exotic in a very non-threatening way. Where Disney World, for example, seeks to place patrons in settings modeled on its cartoons, Holy Land’s beige buildings carefully imitate the post-and-stucco style of architecture we are all familiar with from countless biblical epics. At the same time, like any such park, it seeks to shield its patrons from anything potentially unsettling. For Disney, that means carefully avoiding any depictions of natural unpleasantness—in a Lion King puppet show the “Circle of Life” is shown without disclosing that predators eat other cute furry animals. For The Holy Land, that means avoiding any historically accurate unpleasantness — there is no dung in the streets, no slaves, no blood. It also means toning down the explicit anti-Semitism that has marked some Christian versions of life in Jerusalem in the centuries before and after the life of Jesus.
Anti-Semitism is a particularly sensitive issue at The Holy Land because the park was founded by Rev. Marvin Rosenthal as an offshoot of his Zion’s Hope Ministry. As might be surmised from his name, Rosenthal converted from Judaism to Christianity and, as might be surmised from its name, Zion’s Hope’s chief goal is to get other Jews to do the same. When the park opened it was, not surprisingly, subjected to a barrage of criticism from local and national Jewish leaders who objected to both Rosenthal’s plans to funnel any park profits to Zion’s Hope and to the park’s use of Jewish symbols and prayers. But, as the Kosher set realized the more they protested the more publicity the park garnered, they found themselves dropping the protests and doing some resolute harrumphing instead.
Not only has The Holy Land managed to piss off the religion Rev. Rosenthal left, but the one he joined isn’t so crazy about it either. Turns out you have to be the “right kind” of Christian to get a job in the blessed theme park. Surprisingly that doesn’t mean lefty Lutherans or people espousing liberation theology are excluded, it means no charismatic or evangelical Christians need apply. Anyone applying for a job at the park must sign a “doctrinal statement” of belief, which excludes Pentecostal Christians—who believe in such forms of worship as “speaking in tongues,” faith healing and spontaneous prophecy. “We are not charismatics,” Rosenthal told the Orlando Sentinel. “We love them. We appreciate them. But we would not offer them a job.”
Even though the Land’s doctrinal statement of belief doesn’t mention people who believe in the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, it doesn’t really have to. One of the souvenir shops played a video called “The Forbidden Book.” The blurb on its cover says that, “During the dark ages, superstition and ignorance controlled the minds of the masses. A few brave men obeyed God and brought the Scriptures to the world.” Watching the video you find out that those purveyors of superstition and ignorance were not pagans or people selling snake-oil cures but—and this is emphasized quite heavily—the corrupt Catholic Church seeking to suppress the translating of the Bible into the vernacular. Add to that the lecturer at the Jerusalem diorama saying repeatedly that “We don’t worship Mary,” and even a former Catholic such as myself began to take umbrage.
If the ban on born again employees has irritated many area charismatic Christians (and they are legion—Orlando is home to dozens of evangelical organizations, international ministries and seminaries), it hasn’t hurt business. The park has been averaging 2,000 people a day—about twice the business it had been expected to do before it opened. Despite facing the ire of many Jews and some Christians, the largest problem that the park seems to be facing now is where to put all the cars. On a Saturday in March many customers wound up parking on some of the attraction’s formerly well-manicured lawns.
HLE is an odd, modest place. At 15 acres it is perhaps the size of a half of one of the larger “Lands” in Disney World’s Magic Kingdom—so not even the size of a decent sub-theme park. (By comparison, The World, as it is known, occupies 47.5 square miles of what is now prime real estate.) The Holy Land has no rides just a recreation of a “typical” mid-eastern street, a “multi-media” presentation about ancient Jewish religious ceremonies, a diorama of all of Jerusalem circa 600 AD, an imitation of the tomb of Jesus, a movie of His crucifixion and a museum of Biblical artifacts.
Whether or not all this makes it a theme park is a point of some contention. Rev. Rosenthal, fearing an annual tax bill of more than $300,000 is lobbying to have it classified as a non-profit, “living museum,” rather than a tourist attraction. The tax folks, who classify these things on their use rather than on who owns them, says that it will have to render unto Caesar just as any other tourist attraction does. Rev. Rosenthal is appealing the ruling.
Regardless of whether it’s park or museum, The Land is a treat for those who mammon has not blessed, a daily ticket goes for $17, about a third of what it costs to enter any one part of The World.
To enter you go not like Our Lord to the Jerusalem Gate but just to the right of it where—in an clash of the pseudo-ancient and the security minded—a woman wearing a beige tunic and burnoose and a black telephone headset sits behind security glass and a post-and-stucco façade to sells you your ticket. While standing in line we were approached by a man dressed as a Roman soldier who cheerfully told us that the ATMs were located in the Guest Services office therefore, I guess, keeping the money lenders a safe way from the Temple (of The Great King). The woman in beige’s first word to me—as, it turns out, it is any time a “cast member” (which is theme-park industry slang for employee) speaks to a customer—is “Shalom.”
After getting my ticket, I then passed through the Jerusalem Gate, sans Ass or Palms, and wandered straight into a recreation of a Jerusalem street market which might easily be confused with a souvenir shop. The tchotchkes offered here and at various carts around the park are all Old Testament: a variety of shofars, several types of menorahs and jet black yarmulkes (suffice to say this selection of keepsakes has done nothing to soothe Jewish feelings about the park). The day I was there there was only one depiction of Jesus to be seen: a standard-issue, saccharine painting of an Anglicized Him meeting the woman at the well. All other paintings feature either Moses or Abraham. Indeed this lack of Christian imagery is ubiquitous throughout the park and on its customers. I didn’t see a single cross on anyone inside of the park. The only cross I did see was a small and relatively discrete one in The Land’s logo: It takes the place of a star in the sky over a silhouette of the old Jerusalem skyline. Admittedly that logo is on everything from key chains to tote bags to t-shirts but compared to the trifurcated circles of Mickey Mouse which are incorporated into buildings, landscaping and food at Disney World, The Holy Land is a model of restraint. (Indeed after visiting The Land, I was keenly aware of what it meant to have Disney’s corporate logo offered to me in cookies, ice cream and cakes of butter. Body of Mickey, anyone?)
What the park lacks in New Testament iconography, it more than makes up in for in the literature and videos offered for sale. There are workbooks to help the more scholarly learn New Testament Greek in 30 minutes a day—apparently no one is trying to recreate the original Aramaic—but most of the items emphasize Revelation and other apocrypha, with books featuring titles like The Prewrath Rapture Position Explained, The Rapture Question Answered and Imminency: The Phantom Doctrine and even one of the many popular novels about the post-rapture world called The Fourth Reich.
Exiting the souvenir shop, I strolled down the redundantly named Via Dolorosa Path to the Millstone Garden and thence to the Calvary’s Garden Tomb, to see for myself where He was risen from. While no one is exactly sure how long original Way of The Cross was (to quote the Catholic Encyclopedia: “Boffin and some of the others visited Jerusalem for the express purpose of obtaining the exact measurements, but unfortunately, though each claimed to be correct, there is an extraordinary divergence between some of them.”), at 30 seconds from start to finish, this one seemed a bit brief. Even had I been recently scourged and carrying a cross, I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have taken more than a couple of minutes to perambulate and I could have done it without falling three times, let alone getting some wayward Cyrene to lend me a hand.
This version of Christ’s tomb is no more impressive than the walk to it: It is a large hollowed out blob of sprayed and weathered cement, colored in various shades of tan. Inside, the tomb has an un-made bed feel to it, as if Our Lord were less profane than your average college student (no posters of members of the opposite sex) but every bit as messy. (In Manhattan it would probably rent for about $1500 depending on the neighborhood). Following this splash of the New Testament, I headed towards the Wilderness Tabernacle past the as-yet-unopened “Qumran Dead Sea Caves”—which the park’s literature promises will be a creation of “the same caves where, in 1947, a young Bedouin shepherd boy discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls. These amazing scrolls would confirm the extraordinary accuracy of the Holy Scriptures.”
Consider this about those two quoted sentences: A) while it’s good copy, most of the Scrolls were discovered during the ‘50s and ‘60s by people other than that unnamed Bedouin; and B) as to confirming the accuracy of Holy Scripture, well to use the ugly neologism of our most recent former President, it depends on what you mean by “confirm” and “Holy Scripture.”
The Scrolls are believed to have been written between 200 BC to 68 C.E./AD by a fundamentalist Jewish sect called the Essenes who believed in: (a) baptizing people, (b) that the Messiah either had or was about to come, (c) that the apocalypse was right behind Him, (d) that the covenant of the Old Testament had ended and that a new covenant—including the forgiving of sins—was in place. They were led by a priest they called the “Teacher of Righteousness,” who was opposed and possibly killed by the establishment priesthood in Jerusalem. (Stop me if this is beginning to sound familiar.) The Essenes, who were mentioned by some writers of the time like Pliny the Elder, are not referred to anywhere in what is popularly known as the New Testament and the favor is returned: there is no reference to Jesus, His disciples or His actions, anywhere in the Scrolls. The Scripture thus “confirmed” by the Scrolls is the Old Testament, and it is confirmed only in that they contain older and more complete copies of the Torah than had previously come to light. The Scrolls also confirm Jesus wasn’t the only one running around with these particular ideas at that particular time, but I suspect that’s not the conclusion The Holy Land wants you to draw.
That said, it should be noted that these are points highly subject to interpretation and The Land’s version of The Scrolls and what they contain is far from an extreme one. And this showcases The Land’s real thrill ride and what it offers that none of its competitors do: Something to think about. Pardon me Ms. Stein, but there is a there there. Whether you agree with its progenitors or not, The Land is actually about something. By comparison, The World offers no concept more challenging than “Progress is Good” and they’re pretty much willing to back off that if it bothers you. And Disney’s history is much, much more questionable than The Land’s. For example, Epcot Center’s Spaceship Earth ride, which claims to show you the history of human communications, is so Euro-centric as to be laughable—according to the ride’s narrative there wasn’t a single Asian or African contribution to the progress of human communication. In fact, so tenuous is Disney’s belief that progress is good that they haven’t figured out how to update Epcot Center from when it was opened in the 1970s and have turned Tomorrow Land into a giant retro, kitsch display probably out of the reasonable belief that even seven-year-olds aren’t going to buy the idea that there is a utopia anywhere in their future.
But I digress.
A far better and weirder display of historical research was performed at The Holy Land’s Wilderness Tabernacle. Before entering, the audience is told repeatedly that we will be seeing ceremonies witnessed only by the priests, including actually entering the room with the Ark of the Covenant, which could be done only by the High Priest on one specific day of the year. The net effect of these announcements was to give me a frisson of excitement from this chance to collaborate in a little cultural desecration.
The Wilderness Tabernacle is billed as a multi-media event and it is, in that it combines blurry laser imagery, portentous narration, gold-painted props, and some scrim. For reasons best known by whomever conceived of this demonstration, mundane acts like the washing of hands and the slaughter of animals are performed in pantomime (presumably because the simulation of the death of a sheep would be found upsetting by people today), while the manifestation of God, an event so fantastic it beggars the imagination, is rendered literally with “CO2 and water/glycol based ‘fog juice,’ blasted into the air at speeds of up to 40 mph.” Lacking in funds and technical facility, the Land’s rendering of the All Mighty’s emergence from the Ark of the Covenant is an unconvincing simulacrum of what audiences have been conditioned to expect from Steven Spielberg and Indiana Jones. (The chubby “Jewish” priest in his white robe and toque evokes another cultural referent: Chef Boy-ar-dee. So one gets the feeling that instead of being in a place of reverent awe you are about to be hit up by the kind of corporate spoke-symbol that litters the exhibitions at Disney’s Epcot Center.) The entire event is narrated from the point of view of a member of the priestly class and his text wouldn’t seem out of place in a Discovery Channel re-creation until the final minute when the priest voices a postscript of doubt that questions the ceremony we had just witnessed and portends of more important religious events yet to come.
With that odd bit of anti-Semitism rattling around my head, I exited to the Temple of The Great King, an imitation of part of the Great or Herodian Temple in Jerusalem. where a multiracial group of five singers were exulting the crowd with an up-beat song about renouncing self-seeking and materialism. It was a bracing moment and discordant, not so much in The Land, but in Orlando as a whole which is as impressive and overt a monument to self-seeking and materialism as can be found outside of the Trump Tower or Bill Gate’s mansion.
Because it was lunch time and the line to watch a filmed re-enactment of Jesus’ execution was long, I made my way to The Palm Oasis Café which, as it turns out, is a wannabe kosher eatery. The Jewish dietary laws are followed—attempts to order dairy with meat are rebuffed with more of a smile than you will ever encounter at Katz’s Deli in Manhattan and signs everywhere inform you that the hot dogs are Hebrew National—but given the anti-Semitism of the place not even the most reformed rabbinical authority would ever certify the kitchens. It is practically a manifestation of the old Woody Allen line about Jews who are so reformed that they were Nazis. In addition to featuring such items as Goliath and Goliath Junior Burgers, Milk and Honey Ice Cream and a Thirsty Camel Cooler, the Café also featured the only “cast members” who were also people of color. With the exception of some of the food servers, the cast are the palest, least Semitic looking people to don burnoose and sandals since T.E. Lawrence went to Arabia. (The customers, however, were much more diverse. The predominantly Anglo crowd was well leavened with people of various skin colors, speaking a variety of different languages.)
After lunch, with the faithful still swarming to witness God being nailed to some wood, I made my way over to what is billed as Jerusalem Model A.D. 66. The 45-foot diorama has been well rendered and gives you a much better feel for what a small town Jerusalem was. What makes it a must visit exhibit, though, is the accompanying lecture done the day I was there by a man named Clint Brown. He stood carefully in the diorama, a genial, balding colossus wearing a suit and tie, not the usual park mufti. Jones said he was a minister and from his presentation there was no reason to doubt him. His knowledge of who built what building when and where it was referred to in the Bible was clearly too deep for him to have just memorized a text.
Brown’s explanation of the many architectural peculiarities and how they came to be incorporated in the Scriptures was truly illuminating. For example, when Jesus exhorted His followers to shout the good news from the roof tops, it turns out this was neither revolutionary nor metaphorical but the result of an architectural condition that exists in many overly warm cities. Jerusalemites, whose houses by and large had flat roofs, frequently took to the roof tops in the evenings to escape the heat and, not surprisingly, shouted to the neighbors to communicate. Today the equivalent exhortation might be “Send it by e-mail!”
Brown could be faulted for saying with too much certainty that Golgotha is located on a hill called Gordon’s Calvary (this is the location preferred by the Protestant denominations) and not on the area occupied by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (the location preferred by Roman Catholic and Orthodox religions). Even the Catholic Encyclopedia, which presents a surprisingly strong case for the Protestant site in its pages, has the intellectual rigor to say of either location that “until documents are produced to confirm them, they must inevitably fall short as proof of facts.”
But what really makes Rev. Brown’s lecture a must-hear event is where it diverges from mere historical interpretation into prophecy. Since the dot-com bubble burst, I am not regularly around people who believe that Paradise is nigh—but listen to Rev. Brown rhapsodize on the coming Rapture takes you right back to those heady days of a year ago when there was no such thing as bad news.
(This is where there should be some sort of thing like a conclusion. Sorry.)