Holy Land Experience: Far Worse than Creation Museum

A.A. Gill makes good sport of Kentucky’s Creation Museum over at Vanity Fair. A $27 million non-museum highlighting very Christian dioramas of biblical scenarios and humanist-refuting tableaux, the joint makes for an easy target. “This place doesn’t just take on evolution — it squares off with geology, anthropology, paleontology, history, chemistry, astronomy, zoology, biology, and good taste.” Gill’s hilarious, though his target couldn’t be more of a setup, and his contempt for anyone not coastally slim, slick, and smart eventually gets a little embarrassing. Even the Washington Post’s Ian Shapira can’t help tut-tutting at the plight of the poor (non-evolving) monkey in this barrel. In fact, there’s a much better mark for this kind of ire: Orlando’s Holy Land Experience theme park. I’ve made the pilgrimage, and verily, it sucketh.

(‘DiggThis’)The HLE was originally conceived and constructed (for $15 million in 2001) by Zion’s Hope, an evangelical organization which is quite literally a Jews for Jesus outfit. These are Jewish folks who believe in Jesus as the real-deal son of God, and they built this theme park so they could re-enact the crucifixion several times a day. Interpret those levels of irony how ye may. Sadly, in this muddle of stereotypes the group apparently lost touch with their original ethnicity’s clichéd handle on financial affairs, as they went heavily into debt on park operations. So it was that the HLE got sold to the solidly Christian Trinity Broadcasting in 2007 for $37 million (who’s good with money now, gentiles?). The state of Florida had for years challenged the park’s churchy tax-exempt status until some devout legislators passed a bill specifically exempting them. However, the bill required them to hold free-admission days, which the HLE was very wary of doing, or at least wary of announcing. The last free day did generate quite the mob, and hey look, they’re donating February 1’s ticket revenues to Haiti relief.

I won’t bore you with all the various fun Jerusalemiania one can experience at the HLE; see for yourself. And the place doesn’t have the mouth-breather laff potential of the Creation Museum because it isn’t about grandly insisting on the grand truth of grandly insane biblical anecdotes. Rather, it’s about taking what is mythically and dramatically interesting about Judeo-Christianity and transforming it into abject tedium. The worst thing about the Holy Land Experience isn’t that it’s dogmatically religious. The worst thing is that it’s a boring, boring theme park.

Of course there are no rides. It’s like Busch Gardens without the incongruous non-garden roller coasters. What I remember most about the walk-through Scriptorium attraction that illustrates the history of the bible’s physical compilation and publication was that it ended with a cryptic non sequitur. After passing numerous scrolls and meticulously animatronic scenes of scribes and saints and Gutenberg presses, you end up at a mysterious door to modern times. On the other side is … an uninhabited contemporary apartment. It looks so mundane that I and my fellow travelers (an equally baffled group of senior citizens) assumed we had stumbled into staff quarters by mistake. Then a guy in a monk’s robe (what?) appeared and congenially directed us to the exit. Only there did we see a placard spelling out the lesson: there was no bible lying around in this modern apartment! How terrible it all is without a bible! Apparently that’s as bad as it gets. There was a TV however.

Even the regularly staged torment of Jesus isn’t much to see, though they didn’t skimp on the blood when it comes time for the money shot. The Jesii employed by the HLE are big into public sermons, gentle smiling, and period cosplay. Their dialogue sounded word for word from King James when I visited, but I often wondered if they were ever given talking points (especially when the new ownership came in). As I recall there was even a bit with the talking column of fire — a red and pink bedsheet whipping over a fan. But eventually you get to the climax, which is gory enough to suit even the most violent super-Christian bloody Jesus t-shirt. The crowd is kept at a discreet distance in case anybody’s disbelief is so extremely suspended that they attempt to change history and save the Savior from the Roman lash. The actual crucifying doesn’t involve a pretense of nailing through hands and feet, but there’s lots and lots of energetic whipping.

The crowd has a weird energy watching this. Lots of cameras, some devotional murmuring. In addition to the old folks, you also have lots of foreigners. A few kids, who are obviously as bored by this as they are by the Ben Franklin impersonator who lectures you at Disney’s Epcot. History really is boring, even about God stuff, even (maybe especially) at a theme park. Imagine being brought to Orlando as a kid, within walking distance of seriously hot shit thrill rides, and instead you’re stuck someplace that’s somehow even worse than church.

I really wanted to slip the knife to the Holy Land Experience when I wrote it up for travel coverage back in the day, much like Gill does for the Creation Museum. But at least the latter is more honest, in its way, despite the ludicrous claim of museum-hood right in the name. But the HLE is more sad, terrible disappointment than spectacle of provincial hokum. Besides, no kids will likely have their expectations of fun dashed by visiting the Creation Museum like they do at the HLE’s alleged “theme park.” After all, museums are supposed to be boring.

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