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Saturday, April 28, 2012

Bible Land - An Ironic Pilgrimage to The Holy Land Experience Theme Park


My family wanted to come to Orlando for our vacation this year.  Coming here allowed us to visit my wife’s dad and step mom.  We don’t see them very often since they moved to Florida. And my daughter was most excited to visit the Harry Potter part of the Universal Studios theme park.  That was a dream come true for her.  Me, I’m just happy to be with my wife and kids as they’re having fun.  I could do without the theme parks and the crowds.  I don’t care for all that. I don’t like crowds. Not at all. I’m too much of an introvert to enjoy the crowds. But since we’d chosen Orlando for our vacation, I decided that I would make the most of the opportunity. After spending two days with my family at Universal Studios and the Islands of Adventure, I went (by myself) to visit the Holy Land Experience themepark.  



Outside the main gate of the park – along the side walks is a “recreation of the garden described in Genesis.”  This "authentically reproduced" parking lot Eden was populated with various smiling animals to welcome the park guests as they arrived in their large tour group buses.  Though all the brochures and guide books list the ticket price as $35 dollars – it’s actually $40 at the gate.  Fortunately I had a $2 off coupon.  The woman at the ticket booth was a little put out when I presented my coupon.  She didn’t smile at me like the parking lot Eden animals did.


Things I Learned at the Holy Land Experience Theme Park

1) Everyone in the bible had a Bedazzler.

The staff of the park wore ‘biblical’ costumes and each one was more bedazzled than the last; with spangles and beads and jewels and glitter and fringe on every robe and turban and sandal.  It’s part of their “if you can’t have quality go for quantity” scheme of decoration.  In this same vein – many of the buildings’ walls were painted gold and adorned with brilliant white pillars. And there were plaster sculptures of angles and baby Jesus’ every two feet.  I tripped over baby Jesus more than once during the afternoon I spent at the Holy Land Experience. 

Stupid plaster baby Jesus…

2) The fifth Gospel is the Gospel according to Mel Gibson.

There are no thrill-rides at The Holy Land Experience. There are no exotic animals.  But there are shows, several shows throughout the day in half a dozen venues within the relatively small park.  The highlighted daily show is the live drama The Passion / We Shall Behold Him an hour long portrayal of Jesus’ “agony, death, resurrection, and glorious return!”  I found it to be a bewilderingly unfocused production, with pre-recorded music playing at painfully loud volume and cast members shouting and running about the stage at random.  

And many of the scenes and lines of dialogue were lifted from Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ.  There was the black robed “Satan” figure that followed Jesus from the garden of Gethsemane to Golgotha.  The flogging sequence included the line spoken by one of the Roman soldiers in Gibson’s movie “he embraces his own cross” and had Jesus’ mother and Mary Magdalene mopping up the blood.

And on weekends (Fridays and Saturdays – the park is closed on Sundays) after 5:00 the public is invited to come to the park – free admission – to watch Mel Gibson’s passion movie on a gigantic LED screen.

3) Jerusalem was crowded

Actually this may have been the most authentic thing about the Holy Land Experience attempt to recreate a biblical atmosphere.  The streets and walkways of the park were narrow and crowded filled with people speaking in a variety of languages.  I think that if they’d had had more money the designers of the park would have made it larger, but the park is tiny by comparison with the other nearby theme parks. The only thing missing were the animals. 

In the center of the park was an imposing recreation of Solomon’s temple.   No. Imposing is the wrong word.  It’s only a façade for photos and the occasional musical number.  What’s really impressive is the Ark of the Covenant show – impressive for the way that the wilderness tabernacle is shoehorned into an unmarked corner of the park.  I missed two show times because I couldn’t find it hidden behind the Smile of a Child Adventure Land where screaming children were climbing on a fiberglass mockup of Noah’s Ark and through the belly of Jonah’s whale.

4) I’m not as cynical as I could be, but I’m trying

I went to the park recognizing that, for me, it was an ironic sort of pilgrimage.  I went to the park knowing that I am critical and cynical and maybe more than a little jaded. I went knowing that I have absolutely no respect for the park’s owners, Trinity Broadcast Network (TBN).  But I went trying to have a “holy land experience” at the park despite myself.  I didn’t succeed too well. But there were two highlights.  (Well not maybe not that much… but something like highlights…)

The first was the communion with Jesus.  Just within the park entrance is a recreation of the Upper Room chapel built by the crusaders (strangely this cenacle is located within a concrete recreation of the caves of Qumran).  At fifteen minute intervals groups are ushered into the darkened chamber and invited to share communion with Jesus.  It’s grape juice and stale crackers with a 2nd rate actor, but if there is such a thing as transubstantiation then perhaps Jesus was present even in those feeble elements.  (and I got to keep the souvenir wooden communion cup...) 

I heard my own thoughts echoed in the voice of a dissatisfied woman behind me. “This isn’t accurate.  This is not a recreation of the first century…” And there I was trying to release my own disgust with much of what passes for Christianity in America today...  

The other somewhat interesting exhibit at the park was the Scriptorium – which boasts that it holds the “4th largest Bible collection in the world” (4th largest collection in private ownership, that is…) The presentation was lame – (knock off animatronics didn’t help) but the books themselves were impressive.  Bibles printed in Greek, Hebrew, Coptic, Slavonic, Syriac, Armenian, Dutch, German, Algonquin, and etc…  One of the books on display was the so-called “Martyr’s Bible” from 1537. It was on display, opened to pages stained with the blood of the Englishman who died carrying it.  To see the word of God so carefully copied and transmitted through the centuries in these carefully preserved pages was something of an antidote to the simulacrum presented in the rest of the park.



Bibleland by Daniel Amos, 1994

We're going out to Bibleland
by a Motel 6, and a burger stand
oasis there in the desert sand
We'll play all day on the Family Plan
in Bibleland

There's a fifty foot cross and a pearly door
a lions den where the lions roar
a manger scene on a revolving floor
a leper and a christian book store
in Bibleland

And something beautiful, something clean
behind the shabby bible scenes
Something real that built a dream
called Bibleland....

Midgets dressed up as Peter and Paul
a Christian rock band by the wailing wall
that Goliath guy makes us feel so small!
takes a half an hour just to see it all
It's Bibleland

A river of life and a pit of doom
Noah's arcade and an upper room
Canoes cross the Jordan, there's an empty tomb
and three shows daily starring Debby Boone
in Bibleland

In the ruins and the waste
lurks the shadow of a perfect place
the mark of God on a stranger's face
in Bibleland
Bibleland
Bibleland
Bibleland.....

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