It is a muggy, overcast Good Friday as we veer off exit 78 on our pilgrimage to The Holy Land. Or rather, The Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida. Created by Marv Rosenthal, Bible teacher, President and CEO of Zion’s Hope, it’s billed as a “Bible Adventure Park.” The website beckons visitors with the slogan:
“Come see Jerusalem in Orlando!”
A Religious Theme Park! Jerusalem just minutes from Epcot Center and The Magic Kingdom! It seems too ludicrous to be true. I am curious to see what types of people are intrigued enough by this prospect that they’d part with good money to see an industrial plastic replica of The Holy Land.
My boyfriend, Mike, is doing the driving. He is at best a half-willing participant in my quest for all things kitschy or bizarre. But he has often found himself in places that hold little appeal to him, such as the Medieval Times Jousting Tournament, the “Furfright” Furry convention and Dolly Parton’s Dixieland Stampede. He’s usually pretty understanding. But right now he’s pissed because unlike the actual Holy Land, which is bordered by the Wailing Wall, this Holy Land is bordered by a very clogged Interstate 4. The drive here from my parents’ place in St. Pete Beach has been dismal.
Soon we see the “ancient” city looming in the distance, just past the Super Target and Circuit City. We turn into the parking lot and are handed a flyer that reads:
Before you step through the Jerusalem City Gate and begin your journey back in time, please read the following information...
-All bags, backpacks and packages are subject to search prior to entering The Holy Land Experience
-The following items are not permitted inside The Holy Land Experience: Coolers, outside food or drinks, pets, children’s wagons, bathing suits, costumes, alcohol, illegal drugs, weapons or other items that may be deemed inappropriate
-Smoking is not permitted once you have entered through the Jerusalem City Gate
While the “no costumes” rule denies us the right to wear clown shoes or a Wonder Woman lasso, the real tragedy is that we can’t take booze in. Since I had been pretty certain there would be no booze offered in The Holy Land, not even the watery Budweiser offered up at other theme parks, we had stopped off at ABC Liquors and picked up a small bottle of Smirnoff. I had hoped to spike our soft drinks. This no longer being an option, what with the threat of the security guards rifling through our bags, I screw off the Smirnoff cap and we each take three strong belts of vodka in the car. We have the feeling this is not an Experience to be faced stone cold sober.
Walking through the parking lot, I get a sense of the clientele with whom I am about to mingle. There are several bumper stickers offering tips like, “Let Our Children Pray In School,” “If You Can Read This, Your Mother Didn’t Abort You,” and “Never Drive Faster Than Angels Can Fly.” There are also buses from various churches and Bible camps.
When we reach the ticket booth, we find that due to Good Friday and the upcoming Resurrection, there is a 33% discount. We can also sign up for the “Jerusalem Gold” yearlong pass. The cheerful guy behind us thinks it’s a good deal. Along with our tickets I am given another flyer that reads:
BEHAVIORAL POLICY STATEMENT:
The Holy Land Experience is a Christian facility that purposes to exalt and uplift our Lord Jesus Christ. For that reason, the standard of The Holy Land Experience is distinctive and different from other, secular facilities in the area.
Guests may not enter in any kind of costume and will not be permitted to enter if, in our view, the dress is immodest...Guests may not wear halter-tops, short shorts or bathing suits.
Then in bold face:
WE RESERVE THE RIGHT TO ASK ANYONE TO LEAVE WHO IS, IN OUR JUDGMENT, WEARING INAPPROPRIATE OR IMMODEST ATTIRE.
“It’s a good thing we left our matching thong bikinis at home,” Mike mutters.
Under WORSHIP CODE we are informed that they “reserve the right to remove anyone (or any group of people) from the facilities if their religious activity, in our judgment, causes a disturbance.” Under BEHAVIOR CODE we are instructed that “drunkenness and lewd and lascivious conduct” are not allowed.
It would appear that they’ve had problems in the past with snake handlers and Ted Kennedy.
We walk up to the faux-stone City Gate and are greeted by a man dressed like an extra from a Cecil B. DeMille biblical picture, except for his scuffed boat shoes.
“Welcome to the Holy Land,” he says majestically.
There is a turnstile, which, aside from being out of keeping with the “days of yore” theme, seems unnecessary. There aren’t hoards of lepers or, for that matter, customers bombarding the place.
We are now in the Jerusalem Street Market, greeted by other Holy Land employees draped in robes. They all exude artificial joy, except for the morose guy selling pretzels. This isn’t Yankee Stadium, and pretzels don’t appear to be hot sellers. People poke around in little huts and kiosks rifling through the purses and wooden crafts for sale. I notice that while the employees wear Biblical clothing, the patrons wear fanny packs, white sneakers and Christian themed T-shirts. One guy with a bulging gut sports one depicting a deer that poses the question, “ARE YOU HUNTING FOR GOD?”
Another woman is wearing a smiley-face shirt that states, “My Happy Hour is Spent With God.”
Mike and I look at each other and he mumbles, “I wonder if He can get me a gin and tonic.”
I am pleased that we are just in time for the tail end of a musical performance at Herod’s Temple. They are spinning around, singing into Madonna-style headsets and waving colored flags in unison like it is a Debbie Allen choreographed Oscar number. The music sounds like a jingle for new detergent.
Who are these people? Do they call themselves actors? Are they all secretly hoping to hang up their Jerusalem garb for a guest spot on Law and Order?
We set off for the Dromedary Depot, and see some listless camels. There are no rides at this theme park. No “Plague of Loc-O-Motion,” no “Isaac and Ishmael’s Whirl-A-Gig,” no “Walk on Water Slide.” You cannot even ride the camels here. Kids are wandering around wearing brightly colored headdresses that I guess are meant to look Biblical. But they have disappointed looks on their faces, as though they’d rather have taken exit 62 for Disney World. No matter how cool you try to make wearing a cheap dishcloth on your head seem to a six year old, it’s no Mickey Mouse hat.
From the depot we head to the Calvary’s Garden Tomb, where we peer in and see a stone bed with white blanket. The sign next to it says, “He is not here. He is risen.”
Mike is apparently going to remain in his sour mood because he says, “Huh. Well, if He’s not using it anymore, maybe I’ll take a nap. Meet you back here in an hour.”
A very large woman in a “Jesus Is WHASSUP! In My Life” T-shirt shoots him a nasty look. He’d better pipe down or we’ll get booted. I’m fairly certain surly commentary qualifies as “inappropriate behavior.” I figure I’d better offer up something to take the edge off his attitude, and suggest we go to the Oasis Café for some coffee. Looking at the menu, I am torn between getting the “Dead Sea Float” (root beer and ice cream) or the “Caesar’s Delight” (strawberry shortcake with whipped cream.) For heartier fare, there are the suspiciously phallic looking Jaffa Dogs and the Gladiator Burgers.
Mike scowls. “Oh, now I remember. That’s from Luke 12:44: ‘Come All Ye Faithful and Sell Fat Christians Hamburgers.'”
This earns us another nasty look, this time by a man wearing a “JESUS: THAT IS MY FINAL ANSWER” T-shirt. It occurs to me that I’d better hurry up and see the sights because his big mouth is sure to banish us from the Holy Land. We sit down by the window, and I notice the family next to us is bowing their heads in prayer. By the looks of the food, I’m not sure if this is to give thanks or ward off heartburn.
As I study the Holy Land map and munch on my Caesar’s Delight, Mike glares at everyone who comes within his eyeshot. He really isn’t taking this well.
“We’re leaving at six, right?”
I nod noncommittally and head off to the bathroom, where they have piped in some lively Biblical music. While it’s nice, it does nothing to drown out the flatulent noises coming from the next stall.
We’re off again, and I decide to go to the Shofar Shop to look at the souvenirs. There are Holy Land Experience mouse pads, ponchos and magnets. A handy ATM with the Holy Land Experience on the screen. Silk ties with The Lord’s Prayer printed on them, as well as scenes of the Lion and Lamb lying together, and Noah’s Ark dwarfed by a huge rainbow.
There is a pile of yarmulkes, since this is a place for both Jews and Christians, although I have yet to see any “Moses is My Homeboy” T-shirts. There is a table filled with picture frames featuring a skunk smelling a flower that reads: “Jesus is Our Heart’s Reward.” There are many books with names like “Your Eternal Reward,” “The Rapture Question Answered,” and “What Cults Believe.” I spy Mike over in the corner reading something called “Hell’s Best Kept Secret.”
Near the Shofar Shop is a huge model of Jerusalem, with little plastic people on it. They are posed, doing various chores, or jauntily meeting up with friends in the town square. It’s a real hotbed of activity. A real, live man wearing archeological attire is standing in the middle of the model, offering a religious history lesson. He is surrounded by a rapt audience, and pauses periodically to get a rousing “AMEN” from them. Somehow I don’t think this would have worked for my 10th grade American history teacher, who had enough trouble just getting us to stay awake. I stick around to listen for a while and Mike heads for the outdoors. When I find him ten minutes later, he is sulking on a bench in the Royal Portico. He points off into the distance and says, “Well, would you look at that? There’s a clear view of the 7-11 from the Holy Land. Hosanna!”
We head back to Herod’s Temple since I want to see the next production called “Centurion.” People are all getting seats in the Plaza of the Nations in front of The Temple. The sky is getting really murky, and I know it will rain soon. Others sense it, too, but they are not about to miss “Centurion.” Instead, they fashion ingenious rain hats out of their gift shop bags and pull out ponchos from other theme parks: Disney World, Sea World. One man wraps his cowboy hat in a plastic shower cap, dons a Mickey Mouse poncho while his wife coos, “Big Daddy says ‘Let the rain come!'”
An employee draped in baby blue robe and Birkenstocks carries a wicker basket stuffed full of Cheetos bags.
“Cheetos for sale! Cheetos and Italian ices!”
“Ah yes,” Mike begins. “Let us all rejoice in how Jesus fed 500 people with just five bags of Cheetos and two Italian ices.”
I look up at the darkening sky. Unlike Big Daddy, I do not have weather resistant attire. I start to worry about the elements, and decide to buy a poncho from the Old Scroll Shop. When I return to the Plaza of the Nations it has officially started to rain.
“It’s Good Friday, of course it has to rain,” says one woman with a giggle.
Soon we are given the sad news that the performance is delayed for 15 minutes. I look at the “Scroll of Events” and see that a performance about Moses and The Burning Bush is about to commence at the Shofar Auditorium. We head there and take a seat at the back. This one isn’t as fun. No colored flags and songs. It’s just some boring man preaching at a podium. But I don’t mind sitting for a while since the Shofar Auditorium is air-conditioned. We are soon followed by Big Daddy. Apparently the rain came and Big Daddy didn’t actually like it. I tune out a little until the preacher mentions that God said to Moses that he could appear anywhere, in any form: “Any old bush will do.”
I sense the launch of a new bumper sticker slogan and we decide to get the hell out of there.
It is pouring outside now, and thunder is clapping like the belching of some pagan God who would not be welcome in this theme park. I rush to the line for the Scriptorium Center For Biblical Antiquities. Mike runs with me, swearing at his new shoes. The line is long, but there is shelter from the rain, along with monitors broadcasting Biblical trivia questions such as, “What is the oldest city in Israel?” People cheer when they get the answers right and groan when they get them wrong. A little girl drops her ice cream.
Mike has had it and says he will not be joining me in the Scriptorium. He hangs around in the corner as I finally edge up to the front of the line. We must enter in groups, because this is a guided tour. As we near the main door, we see a wooden sign that says: THE NEXT JOURNEY WILL BEGIN AT.
Under it there is a digital clock counting down the minutes. At the precise moment, a woman dressed in a monk’s outfit and huaraches appears. She says solemnly, “You are about to embark on what may be the most important journey of your life.” As I am wearing a purple poncho with the words HOLY LAND EXPERIENCE embossed on it, I sincerely hope she is mistaken. My group and I enter, and are instructed to sit in a circle. The lady monk leaves. The lights are dimmed and a very serious voice over the intercom system tells us about the most important book of all time, loved by many cultures and people, and how it came to be that way.
I can’t help thinking of Jackie Collins’s “Hollywood Wives.”
Another door magically opens and we enter the next room. The point of this tour is to show us how the Bible was first written down and distributed. We see Gutenberg’s press, watch Luther nailing his 95 theses and are spoken to by an animatronic John Wycliffe. I covet his maroon, fur trimmed jacket, and feel very low-rent by comparison in my stinky plastic poncho. He tells us “Lollards” to flee through the fireplace and it feels almost thrilling.
Finally, we enter a dark room with heavy velvet curtains lining the walls. One by one the curtains rise up and we see pictures of Biblical figures: Moses, Paul, David, John. They all speak to us in the same booming voice used in bombastic action movie trailers. I half expect to see Bruce Willis enter the room. Then the two tablets of the Ten Commandments come bursting out of the ceiling. As a deep, scary voice announces each Commandment, it lights up in orange lettering.
Another door opens and we wind up in a modern room. There is a plastic ficus plant and some sit-com style furniture, including a wine rack that is predictably empty. On cue, the TV, fax machine, and phone go off. A more well-adjusted sounding voice tells us that the world is very busy, and to remember what really matters in life.
Naturally, we empty out into another gift shop.
I nearly bump into a woman standing next to a shelf of cassock-clad teddy bears marked by a “Bearnardo, the Scribal Bear!” sign. She is actually sobbing, she has been so moved by the Scriptorium Journey. I walk out and find Mike. The tour has taken 45 minutes. By the look on his face, I know I’ve pushed it to the limit.
“Can we go now?” he snaps.
I agree and we head back to the City Gate. The employee’s shift must have changed, because there is a new, sort of creepy tall guy who says, “Shalom. Thank you for visiting the Holy Land.”
As we find ourselves in yet another traffic jam on I-4, Mike doesn’t say a word. I figure he is really angry with me. I have oversaturated him with kitsch. This has been the final straw. I knew he didn’t want to go to The Holy Land Experience, but I didn’t expect this. I try to think of how to make it up to him: body shots at a tiki bar, or maybe a trip to the dog track.
After half an hour of silence, it becomes clear that his anger had nothing at all to do with kitsch, or me for that matter. I guess I had forgotten that he was an altar boy. I had forgotten his problems with the Catholic Church. But I had also forgotten how we still attend church services twice a year, and he takes communion seriously, closing his eyes as he crosses himself.
So I feel that I’ve been very shallow for finding humor in all this when he says, “What the hell is wrong with these people? How can they just hand this shyster Marv Rosenthal money? Eating burgers they don’t need and buying knick knacks they can’t afford? For what? To say they’re good, Christian people? Doesn’t anyone remember how Jesus cast out the moneymakers from the temple? I kept expecting a big plastic Jesus to come shooting out of that big plastic theme park and unleash his wrath on us.”
And as we drive back towards the beach, past all the Hooters restaurants, bowling alleys and outlet malls, it occurs to me that not all religious thought is pithy enough to fit on a T-shirt.