Touring Orlando's 'Holy Land'
Monday in the theme park with Jesus
The following article is from Free
Inquiry magazine, Volume 21, Number 4.
In the year of their Lord 2001, on February 5,
drought-fueled brush fires burned outside my Orlando hotel-room window:
real fires, not the burning bush or even George W. Bush allusions. As
everyone else prayed for rain, the prayers of Zion’s Hope, doing
business as “The Holy Land Experience,” were answered with a sunny,
arid, picture-perfect, grand-opening day.
When I arrived, the huge protest promised by Jewish
Defense League (JDL) Chairman Irv Rubin—ballyhooed by Cable News
Network, the New York Times, the Orlando press, and even the British
Broadcasting Company—consisted of Mr. Rubin and another JDL member
holding either end of a banner. Mr. Rubin, in from Los Angeles for the
event, invited me to join him and his friend in demanding a warning label
identifying the theme park as Christian. Nearby, a man on a white horse
(unaffiliated with Mr. Rubin) was explaining to eighteen reporters that he
had been sent by the Lord to love everyone.
Orlando rabbis, avoiding association with the
militant JDL—or the chance of giving the theme park free
publicity—reserved the right to protest at a later date. Christian
groups also criticized the park as trivializing religion.
An Experience official charitably handed me a
two-dollar discount off the seventeen-dollar (children under Bar Mitzvah
age, twelve dollars) cover price. As I followed the path to Theme Park
Jerusalem, gray concrete gave way to a red faux-dirt road complete with
cracks, donkey-shoe imprints, and camel-hoof tracks. Cecil B. DeMillesque
Roman music blared forth. The non-Kosher Oasis Palms Café (Bedouin Beef
Wraps: just $6.95) played Arabic music. Jewish areas featured a
violin-laden rip-off of the Schindler’s List soundtrack, and the
Christian areas broadcast a heavenly chorus of twenty voices complete with
I was pleased to see signs proclaiming “The Holy
Land Experience is a nonsmoking facility,” wheelchair friendly, and
forbids lewd and lascivious behavior and unauthorized religious activity.
After a girl clothed in ancient garb of polyester
blend slipped a ticket through the bulletproof window, I entered the
gates. The walls, expensively “weathered” with pride by skilled scenic
artisans, rivaled the fireplace mantle I once marbleized using a kit. In
New York, we could have rendered it ancient in weeks for free, sidewalk
gum spots optional.
A teenage girl authentically costumed but for blue
designer braces shrilly called for all to come to the Marketplace, where
everything was 50 percent off. This proved untrue, but the refreshment
stands did sell milk and honey ice cream at a reasonable two dollars and
fifty cents a cup. The gift shops lulled Jews into a false sense of
security, and allowed Christians the chance to play archeologist, by
carrying Jewish merchandise: menorahs, prayer shawls, books, Holy Land
Experience logo apparel, and decorative objects including an
eight-hundred-dollar silver-plated Moses. There were no golden calves.
There was an also extensive line of books and tapes
by Baptist minister Marv Rosenthal, née New Jersey Jew and the force
behind the sixteen-million-dollar “Holy Land Experience.” One item, a
four-dollar-and-ninety-nine-cent pamphlet, takes Jews step by step through
conversion to Christianity.
A Gen-Xer checked out The Fourth Reich by Robert Van
Kampen, a thriller about cloning Hitler that was considered science
fiction before Dolly the sheep. “What’s the Fourth Reik?” she asked.
Her boyfriend replied it was the Nazis. (They were into biblical stuff,
but not up to speed on the twentieth century.)
Reporters, cameramen, and sound crews were
everywhere, including CNN’s Alexa Lee in a black suit, standing in the
hot sun and interviewing herself. When a reporter asked my opinion, I
gushed that the Holy Land Experience was just like the Caesar’s Palace
Mall in Vegas, but with a real sky. Maybe they’ll put a casino in the
Temple and let Jesus close it down.
I missed most of the pageant that took place on the
steps of the “The Plaza of The Nations,” but arrived in time to see
that their Madonna wears a microphone hooked around her head just like the
pop star. Wandering around the five developed acres of the park, I came
across “Calvary’s Garden Tomb.” An opening “carved” in the
concrete rocks contained a lantern, a shelf holding a rumpled sheet, and a
sign proclaiming, “He is not here for He has risen.” Nearby were the
as-yet-unopened “Qumran Dead Sea Caves,” slated to hold real biblical
artifacts. According to the brochure, they’re made of steel tubing and
165,000 pounds of hand-carved concrete (82.5 tons isn’t as impressive).
At The Plaza of the Nations, located in front of “The Palace of the
Great King,” a group of five men (one Black, one Asian, three White) and
four White women were singing peppy, quasi-rock, Gospel-free versions of
“Give Me that Old Time Religion” and other pro-Jesus tunes. A few
people were smiling and clapping, but most were looking for room on the
benches. The lack of seating while viewing or waiting for attractions was
a major complaint. Except for three Koreans, one African-American woman,
and a few families with children, the crowd was made up mostly of
gray-haired White people.
Waiting on line at “The Wilderness Tabernacle,”
we were entertained by a costumed Shofar-blowing actor/theme park
character. He complained that the Shofar, a carved ram’s horn trumpet
used to call for worship or battle, stunk like a dead animal. (They’re
available in the gift shop, in seventy-five and
Inside the black-walled theater, the stage setting
befitted a minimalist avant-garde postmodern way way off-Broadway
production. There was a twenty-five-foot-long, fifteen-foot-wide piece of
fabric slung across the stage with Ultrasuede “animal” skins hanging
at the top. A small wooden deck held a special effects barbecue for burnt
offerings. A five-foot-square black schmatta (rag) hung from the ceiling
on which to project images.
The guy from outside welcomed us as Moses’ brother
Aaron. After a recorded cantor sang Jewish prayers, a Borg (as in Star
Trek)-like chorus narrated the story of the Tabernacle after the Ten
Commandments. They avoided chanting, “You will be assimilated” or
“Resistance is futile.”
After smoke and light rituals around the
“barbecue,” we were treated to Indiana Jones-type special effects when
the Ark of the Covenant blasted carbon dioxide and water/glycol-based
“fog juice” into the air at forty miles an hour. At the end, the
voices chanted that one day the promise of Zion would be fulfilled. A
white outline of Mary and Joseph holding the baby Jesus momentarily
flashed on the schmatta to deliver an almost subliminal message. This is
just part of the reason that Jewish groups are so negative about the Holy
Land Experience. Still, it took me three days to figure out that
“Zion’s Hope” meant Jesus; the last two thousand years of history
prevented me from easily leaping to that conclusion.
Next, I wandered into a building containing the
world’s largest indoor model of Jerusalem (about twenty by thirty feet),
billed as such because there’s a larger one outdoors in the real
Jerusalem. This, the Mother of All Dioramas, was built to show Jerusalem
in 66 c.e., including the hills, roads, homes, temples, and teeny-tiny
people. The walls were made out of giant wooden Lego-type blocks, spray
painted with stucco finish. I was disappointed there were no electric
Waiting on line to see the movie The Seed of Promise
at the Theater of Life, I met the filmmaker: Keith Kolbo of ITCF
Entertainment, a company famous for theme-park development. Kolbo
gleefully related how “God provided” newly unemployed construction
workers from the just-completed Universal Theme Park City Walk to build
the Holy Land. (Note: ITCF also built Bob Marley Land, where, despite its
“holy” significance, Ganja is forbidden.) God also provided funding;
the developers profitably sold six acres of land to the government for an
Interstate 4 off-ramp.
The movie began. Jesus’ arm was being nailed to the
cross, blood running from His wound. Next, there were dizzying blurred
action images of the Romans approaching the Temple with a battering ram,
fleeing townspeople, and flashes of the Jewish priests inside preparing a
sacrificial lamb. The battering of the door was interspersed (in all its
New York University second-year film school student glory) with the
hammering of the nails into Jesus, creating a macabre anvil chorus. The
only things missing were the A-bomb mushroom cloud, the Hindenburg
explosion, and Eisenstein’s scene of the baby carriage careening down
the Odessa Steps.
The movie segued into computer-generated Creation (no
evolution here). The tastefully shown naked edges of Adam and Eve in
Paradise became terrified, fig-leafed people, fighting for modesty as they
fled a wrathful God, His wrathful storm, and the evil slithery snake.
Between more cuts of the Romans attacking the Temple and nailing Jesus,
Abraham tearfully bound his son’s hands to sacrifice him according to
the Lord’s wishes. As he reached up to plunge the knife into his son, it was flung from
his hand by a heavenly Star Wars light-saber effect accompanied by the
Voice of God. The circumcision that took place after this event was
mercifully deleted. The narrator described Jesus’ efforts curing the
ill: the greater the sins, sicker the sinner, the harder the healing. This
undoubtedly cheered up the folks watching in wheelchairs.
Back to Jesus. As the hammering was completed, the
scene shifted to the Temple door being rammed open and the Jewish priests
fleeing. The lamb, grateful to be rescued from those nasty Jews by the
Romans (at least it wasn’t a Christian child being sacrificed: that
would have started a pogrom), ran off and magically appeared on a grassy
hill with blue sky and rolling clouds behind it.
Flash to two sad guys walking down the road. The
camera faced them from the perspective of a traveler. It turned out he’s
Jesus, newly risen from the dead, who reassured them He’s O.K. and led
them to a conveniently located wooden picnic table for lunch. I expected
Yogi and Boo Boo in a cameo.
Next Jesus (shown from the back) replaced the lamb on
the grassy hill. Men, women, and children from all walks of life and many
lands—an international “Village People”—walked towards Him wearing
glassy stares and beatific smiles. Jesus greeted them like a rock star on
his way to the stage. My feet suddenly became cold and clammy, and it
wasn’t chills running down my spine. I looked down to discover dry ice
smoke rolling across the floor to simulate clouds and make us part of the
movie action. I fled before frostbite could set in.
One of the goals of The Holy Land Experience, subtly
(and not so subtly) stated, is the conversion of Jews to Christianity.
Unlike Woody Allen, who marries shiksas, former Jew Marv Rosenthal deals
with his Jewish identity and guilt problems by turning Christian, then
pleading with Christians to forgive him for being “chosen,” to accept
Judaism as their own roots, and to see Jews as next in line for
redemption. It’s theological “I agree, don’t hit me, you’ll break
my glasses.” It all nicely dovetails with George W. Bush’s view of
America. A man who believes in the government funding of faith-based
charity should love the idea of faith-based amusement parks. It also
addresses what he considers to be the very real problem of unconverted
Jews going to hell.
Even though it shares the same goal as the Spanish
Inquisition, which was free, The Holy Land Experience accepts VISA,
MasterCard, Amex, Discover, personal checks with proper identification,
and cash. (Naturally there are no ATMs.) It is also is less stressful, and
more user-friendly and entertaining than the Inquisition ever was. All in
all, it’s the perfect Bush-era field trip for your local voucher/charter
Beth Birnbaum is a freelance writer and stand-up
comedian in New York City.