Building a Bible-themed tourist attraction in central Florida is not a new idea. In Jamie Buckingham's 1988 novel Jesus World, a character asked, "Why should Walt Disney be more attractive than Jesus Christ?" The man dreamed of transforming his religious roadside attraction, with a wax Jesus, into a major theme park. "It will be 'Jesus World' in capital letters," he said. "A hundred times bigger and more spectacular than Walt Disney ever dreamed. We will recreate the scenes of the Bible, we'll build a scale model of Herod's Temple, we'll have holograms of Jesus walking on the water. And when they come—by the millions—they'll hear the Word of God."

Jesus World was fiction; Orlando's Holy Land is fact, and it has attracted criticism from both Jews and some evangelicals. The Living Bible Museum opened in February, just a few miles up Interstate 4 from Universal Studios Florida. There are no thrill rides, but Holy Land offers a considerable razzle-dazzle, covering Israel's history from 1450 B.C. to A.dD 66, from the time of Moses and the Exodus to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem by the Romans.

Highlights include a six-story replica of Herod's Temple faÇade; the largest indoor-scale model of first-century Jerusalem in the world; costumed characters; and multimedia, multisensory presentations recreating scenes from the Old and New Testament. On holidays like Easter, an actor portraying Jesus will carry a cross along the reproduced Via Dolorosa, and another actor will preach as John the Baptist. The attraction does not lack for show-business hyperbole; in the weeks before the unveiling, Holy Land's promotional literature proclaimed, "The Gates of Jerusalem Are About to Open in Orlando!"

The Holy Land Experience, as it is formally known, has a lot going for it, not the least of which is its location. Central Florida is a hospitable environment for evangelical Christianity, and local pastors have hailed the attraction as an asset. The new park joins a growing list of organizations and seminaries that have moved to the Orlando area here in recent years: Campus Crusade for Christ, Wycliffe Bible Translators (an animatronic figure of the pioneering church reformer John Wycliffe is being built for Holy Land), Reformed Theological Seminary, Asbury Theological Seminary, and Geneva College. There are just about enough interesting attractions for religion-minded tourists to put together a "Jesus tour" of the area. These include a model Presbyterian church in Disney's planned Community of Celebration, a large Catholic shrine, and the Morse Museum in Winter Park, which features the reconstructed personal chapel of the stained-glass artist Louis Comfort Tiffany.

Article continues below

When guests enter Holy Land, said the Reverend Marvin Rosenthal, the man most responsible for the theme park, "They will leave the 21st century behind and embark on a journey that is unequalled anywhere in the world. It will be an experience that is educational, historical, theatrical, inspirational, and evangelical." The Baptist pastor came to central Florida with his ministry, Zion's Hope, and brought with him the idea for a place like Holy Land, located in Orlando's tourist corridor. In scale, the attraction is only a vest-pocket version of giant neighbors like Universal, Disney World, and Sea World. But its production values are equal, at least in the physical recreation of biblical Jerusalem, which is striking. And that is no accident. From the beginning, developers of the $16-million, 15-acre park knew they would face some stiff competition. Two other attempts to mount religious attractions in Orlando, a Bible World theme park in the 1970s and last year's Ben-Hur, a $9-million live musical based on the 1959 MGM film, both washed out in seas of red ink.

"The central Florida market is very sophisticated," said Rosenthal. So, when he decided the time was right to build the attraction on land adjoining the Zion's Hope headquarters, Rosenthal went to a professional theme-park design firm, ITEC Entertainment Corp., which has worked for the major theme parks and for the Kennedy Space Center. One of ITEC's latest projects is Universal's new park, Islands of Adventure.

"The Holy Land Experience has proven to be one of the most unique and creatively demanding jobs we've ever undertaken," said Bill Coan, CEO of ITEC. "The challenge of compressing literally thousands of years of biblical history down to an entertaining and inspiring three-to-five-hour guest experience has driven our design team to come up with some of our most inventive ideas and approaches ever."

Coan, speaking above the noise of Interstate 4, told a press conference that his goal was "not to compete but to be comparable" to the other rides and attractions he has worked on. To some degree he has succeeded. Late last year Disney requested and received a tour of Holy Land for some of its attraction-designing "imagineers" from California and Orlando.

Holy Land's two centerpiece shows are a film shot on location in Israel, called The Seed of Promise, and a sound-and-light presentation called The Wilderness Tabernacle. Christians may find both inspiring, but jaded theme-park denizens may find they do not hold a roman candle to the multimillion-dollar special effects of Universal's Terminator or Back to the Future presentations, or even to Disney's Muppets Show. In the brutally competitive world of central Florida attractions, Holy Land ranks in the second-tier tourist attractions, along with comparably-priced venues like Gatorland, Ripley's Believe It or Not, and Splendid China.

Article continues below

The admission price, $17 for adults and $12 for children, is "the bare minimum to cover our costs," Rosenthal said. There is an outstanding mortgage of about $2 million, according to the tax-exempt ministry. In order to break even, Rosenthal said, Holy Land needs to draw 180,000 to 200,000 visitors each year, and it hopes to draw these from central Florida and the 43 million tourists who visit Orlando each year.

Rosenthal, who built Holy Land with the aid of large donations from supporters, said he believed that "God has breathed on this project," and he makes a persuasive case. Before construction on the park began, the city of Orlando decided to put a new interstate exit across the property. The sale enabled Zion's Hope to recoup the cost of the entire 15 acres, and now funnels traffic to Holy Land's front gate. And several weeks before the opening, all the major theme parks announced they were bumping their one-day, adult admission cost to more than $50, making Holy Land seem like even more of a bargain.

Jewish leaders protest

Controversy flared around Holy Land in the weeks before the paying guests arrived, centering on Holy Land's evangelical purpose, as well as on the historical accuracy of its presentation. Zion's Hope was founded as a Christian mission to the Jews, and Rosenthal said that any profits from Holy Land will be directed toward sharing the gospel with Jews in the United States and Israel. "First and foremost, the goal of the Holy Land Experience is a ministerial one, to deliver to our guests the message of the Bible in ways that are gracious, comfortable, and of uncompromising quality," said Rosenthal's son, David, vice president of both Zion's Hope and Holy Land.

Jewish leaders were angered by what they charged was the appropriation of their symbols, language, and history. Rabbi Merrill Shapiro of Congregation Beth Am in Longwood, Florida, first criticized Holy Land in 1999, when plans for the park were announced. While more than 70 area ministers were invited to preview the attraction in the weeks before the opening, no rabbis were asked.

Article continues below

"Frankly, I and other Jews are going to be loath to pay an admission fee that ultimately will support the efforts to ask Jews to abandon the faith and heritage of their ancestors," Shapiro said.

The president of the Greater Orlando Board of Rabbis, Daniel Wolpe, was particularly offended by the content of the 18-minute Wilderness Tabernacle, which recreates the life of an Israelite slave in the desert. Most of the multisensory presentation, in English with some Jewish prayers accurately recited in Hebrew, is taken directly from the Book of Exodus. But in the last several minutes, the narrator, portraying a Jewish priest, wonders if the desert sojourn is just a prelude to a fuller understanding of faith, in the person of Jesus.

The last image flashed on the screen is that of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. "That's really offensive," said Wolpe, "because it is implying that their tradition is the fulfillment of our tradition, and that is a clear proselytizing maneuver. They owe the Jewish community an apology."

Marvin Rosenthal did not retreat in the face of such criticism. Holy Land hopes to create "a wholesome, family oriented, educational and entertainment facility, where people can come to be encouraged, instructed, and reinforced in their faith," said the minister, himself a convert from Judaism. But he said the park's medium will be its message; no tracts will be handed out at the park, and evangelists will not buttonhole visitors. Although Zion's Hope ministry was founded to convert Jews to Christianity, Rosenthal said Holy Land does not intend to single out Jews, or to lure them to the park under false pretenses. "We are interested in sharing the gospel with the Jewish people," Rosenthal said. "But we do not focus exclusively on the Jews. We do not target Jewish people. We think there are a lot of things Jewish people will like here. Other things they will disagree with."

The kitsch factor

As might be expected, the whole idea of melding entertainment and evangelism has also provoked criticism, some of it derisive, in the local press.

When plans for Holy Land were first announced, one columnist suggested a ride called a Holy Roller Coaster. Another thought a better name for Holy Land might be Cross Country, or perhaps Six Flags Over Israel.

Marvin Rosenthal acknowledged that Holy Land will have to deal with the "kitsch factor" associated with any tourist attraction that promotes religious values. Like other area venues, there are gift shops, featuring products imported from the Middle East. A restaurant, the Oasis Palms CafÉ, offers American and Middle Eastern items like the "Thirsty Camel Cooler" and the "Goliath Burger" on the menu.

Article continues below

"We will have some criticism and ridicule, and we won't enjoy that," he said, adding that the risk of ridicule is worth taking for Holy Land. He offers assurances that the park character portraying Jesus will not walk across the lake around which the park is built. Yet it would not surprise him if Holy Land ends up as a punch line on late night television. "I'd just shrug it off," he says. "That's part of our society." More serious criticisms, some from other evangelical Christians, may be more difficult to shrug off, especially from those concerned about Holy Land's potential to trivialize faith.

Quentin Schultze, professor of communication at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and author of Communicating for Life: Christian Stewardship in Community and Media (Baker), said an attraction like Holy Land "makes religion more superficial and transitory" and contributes to a "consumerization" of faith. When people visit a tourist attraction, he said, they bring with them "a tourist mindset, which is: spend money and have a good time."

Marvin Rosenthal, whose vision is responsible for Holy Land, believes his attraction does pass that test, although he fully expects some people to disagree with what he is doing. "Holy Land has been my dream for 20 years," he says. "Even before our ministry moved to central Florida in 1989, I believed that there was a need for a concept that utilizes all the tools of modern technology, that presents accurate biblical history and creates a one-of-a-kind experience. This is not only for Christians, but for people from all walks of life. When people come here, we hope the Bible will come alive for them and, I pray, change their lives."

Mark I. Pinsky covers religion for The Orlando Sentinel.

Related Elsewhere

The official site of the Holy Land Experience is still under construction, but should be up and running soon.

Previous Christianity Today articles about the Holy Land Experience:

Holy Land 'Living Museum' Planned | (Oct. 4, 1999)
Is Orlando New Promised Land? | (Feb. 8, 1999)

Other media coverage of the park includes:

Theme park on a hill | As Orlando's Holy Land Experience shows, even virtual history is messy — The New York Times Magazine (Feb. 25, 2001)
Article continues below
Orlando's Newest Attraction Leaves Some Unamused | Minister Denies His Park Proselytizes Jews — The Washington Post (Feb. 20, 2001)
Holy Land theme park is a place for reflectionThe Miami Herald (Feb. 18, 2001)
Fantasy Lands | Ride an artichoke! Visit Christ's tomb! Eat with Martians! Theme parks take shtick to the extreme — The San Francisco Chronicle (Feb. 15, 2001)
New Christian theme park troubles rabbis in OrlandoDetroit News (Feb. 15, 2001)
Controversial Holy Land surpassing expectationsThe Miami Herald (Feb. 7, 2001)
Bible theme park accused of 'soul-snatching'The Independent (Feb. 6, 2001)
New park no amusement to someThe Seattle Times (Feb. 6, 2001)
Holy Land park opens to mixed reviewsThe Boston Globe (Feb. 6, 2001)

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.