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Hotdogs in Zion

A day of revelations at Orlando’s Christian theme park

At the Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida, Jesus is crucified most afternoons around 5 p.m. On the day I visited last fall, things were humming along right on time, if remarkably quickly. Six minutes after the redeemer’s bloodied corpse was carried into the tomb, a shout—“I am alive!”—proclaimed his return. A gold-spangled, virile-looking Jesus emerged from a cloud of smoke to announce that the sick shall be healed, and then kicked off a Hallelujah dance party.

Miracles are the stock-in-trade of this Christian theme park, which welcomes about a quarter-million people per year. They might come to the Holy Land Experience (HLE for short) out of faith or fascination or a misplaced sense of irony, but they all pay fifty dollars for entry, and some will spend a little extra for a “My Cup Overflows Refillable Souvenir Cup.” In return, they get a curious kind of history lesson, plus a dose of American prosperity theology, which turns spending into a higher calling and spiritual pathos into gaudy pageantry.

The park presents itself as an edutaining romp through life in the time of Jesus. Historically, that places it two thousand years back in a Roman and Jewish Jerusalem—where, as any student of Judea knows, an eatery called the Oasis Palms Café serves up a “Yom Kippur Plate” of barbecued turkey, collard greens, and cornbread. The dish is practically a non sequitur; Jews fast on Yom Kippur, a sub-Wikipedian level of knowledge that might be expected even from the most backwater of theme park designers. I wasn’t feeling ambitious enough to track every blown historical reference and interpretative liberty, but as I walked through the Jerusalem Street Market, I saw more than a few, along with groan-worthy attempts to play up the Jewish, or Hebrew, character of this not-quite-hyperreal place. A large gilded edifice, a replica of the Second Temple, looms over much of the park. One of the smaller theaters is called the Shofar Auditorium. A banquet hall is named for Queen Esther. In a room of imitation artifacts, what appears to be a tefillin box, which religious Jews wear on their foreheads during prayer, is labeled as a “Titalist Head Board.” Low-wage workers in Levantine robes dispense greetings of “shalom” with the overwrought earnestness of people who know only one word in a foreign language.

All this starts to make a certain kind of sense once you realize that HLE is owned by the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), the same fundraising, faith-healing Christian media corporation that brought us televangelists John Hagee, Jim Bakker, and Pat Robertson. When TBN bought the park in 2007 for $37 million, it was steeped in the Messianic Judaism and rapture readiness of Marv Rosenthal, founder of both HLE and a group called Zion’s Hope. (Rosenthal’s mission? Convert Jews to Christianity and inform “the Bible-believing Church” of “the place of Israel in both history and prophecy.”) To these theological currents, which still run forcefully throughout the park, TBN has added a fountain-and-lights show, a remodeled Noah’s Ark for the kids, and production facilities for the occasional taping of the network’s flagship program, “Praise the Lord.”

For more than forty years, TBN executives have chaperoned trips to Israel for Christian believers who wish to pray for (and vacation in) the holy land. Now, the holy land is stateside, and stocked with snack food “directly from Israel!” In the shops you can buy a tallit, a Jewish prayer shawl, or a mezuzah, a small vessel containing a Hebrew prayer scroll traditionally mounted on doorposts. These once-sacred objects are available for purchase alongside an overwhelming amount of Jesus tchotchkes, from chocolate bars to clothing to off-brand herbal supplements. In TBN’s prosperity-gospel empire, which makes conspicuous consumption in the service of the ministry both an act of faith and an investment in one’s own future blessings, there is no sacred/profane dichotomy. (As former TBN personality Clarence McClendon used to say, “Get Jesus on that credit card!”) While buying my seven-dollar smoked HLE beer glass, I admired an oil painting hanging near the cash register. It showed Jesus as a divine Rocky, standing proudly against the ropes; one of his gloves was painted with the word Mercy.

Jesus’s Uppercut

What was once known as dinner-party anti-Semitism has been replaced with an oily form of philo-Semitism—hawkish politicians genuflecting before casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson, Book of Revelation readers stumping for Greater Israel. Somewhere in this list you could find a place for American evangelicals who appreciate Jews for having “given them” Jesus, an awkward pose (you’re welcome?) that HLE, with its indiscriminate—though never less than enthusiastic!—bricolage of Jewish referents, comes close to expressing.

HLE is the sort of place where you see people wearing T-shirts that read, “I didn’t fight for your freedom so you could take away mine.” But it’s too easy to dismiss the park as a ridiculous outgrowth of the evangelical entertainment complex. HLE is that, not to mention an unsettling chance for a Jew like me (albeit one of a fairly conventional secular, leftist character) to see what evangelical Christians, of a certain stripe, want from Jews and Israel. Yet somehow, this bewildering theme park resists crude jokes or finger-pointing.

One cheerful park employee told me she “just loves Jesus and likes talking to people about Him,” so working there is a pleasure, a daily exercising of her faith. Official brochures boast of healing miracles performed on the grounds, of tumors and emphysema squashed by prayer. HLE attracts an earnest, conservative crowd, vacationers who, perhaps like TBN’s television viewers, want their entertainment to reflect their evangelical Christian values.

Even with the weight of the world’s largest religion behind it, the theme park manages to project a hokey, underdog appeal.

Though a TBN executive in an aspirational mood once described the park as “a faith-based version of Universal Studios,” it has much more in common with Orlando’s cut-rate regional offerings, such as Gatorland, Dinosaur World, or Fun Spot. It takes a certain amount of intention to go to these smaller parks. They exist in the gaps between the vast tracts owned by Orlando’s big two, enticing tourists who want something a little cheaper, a little weirder and seedier. You have to resist the blandishments of Disney World or Universal Studios and all the relative convenience they provide. You have to want to go there (and maybe rent a car too).

Even with the weight of its parent company (and the world’s largest religion) behind it, the Holy Land Experience manages to project a hokey, underdog appeal. After sampling an Elijah Flatbread Pizza and browsing in the Solomon’s Treasures gift shop (“Experience 1st Century shopping”), I developed sympathy for whoever jiggered this thing together, imagining some naive TBN employee grasping for a sense of history in the contradictions of strip-mall Biblicalism. With its gold and its crystal and enough needless bling to make Gaddafi jealous—particularly in one bathroom, where a random gilded throne sits strangely close to the porcelain one—the place feels not a little cornpone. I began to wonder whose fantasy, exactly, I was walking through.


An imitation temple at the Holy Land Experience.
© Michael Libby On the steps of the Second Temple at the Holy Land Experience, bling-laden camels bring offerings to baby Jesus.

Theme parks, like casinos, are triumphs of deception through masterplanning, as every good American has discovered at some point or other on Florida’s compulsory vacation row. They are designed to lure consumers in, trap them there with narcotizing entertainments, and spit them out hours later, their pockets noticeably lighter. And like casinos, theme parks are difficult to leave. When I asked an employee of Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort last fall how to get to the lobby, she said that I would have to take a shuttle. Even if I could manage to navigate the endless scroll of identical pink colonial villas, the long walk would do me in—the resort was just that vast. It’s difficult to exaggerate the scale of these properties, which have the self-contained immensity of military bases. The Caribbean Beach Resort is one of Disney’s mid-tier hotels, yet it has its own forty-five-acre lake.

At only fifteen acres, the Holy Land Experience could fit inside that Disney lake, with room to spare. HLE may not be a municipality unto itself, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be coercive. I caught a whiff of get-saved menace when I asked about the Scriptorium, where HLE keeps a collection of purported artifacts, including early Bibles and ancient scrolls. An attendant told me that entrance required submitting to a forty-five-minute tour. The unfaithful, or simply those with small bladders that tend to runneth over, would not be allowed to leave. Naturally, I passed.

I was in Florida tagging along with an old friend who works in theme park design—a profession that, at least to this word-processing stiff, looks suspiciously enjoyable. Every year he goes to the annual meeting of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, or IAAPA, the big industry confab and trade show. Over five days each November, thousands of theme park and design professionals network, drink, and stumble through an overpacked Orange County Convention Center. The floor show features everything from state-of-the-art ride systems to cheap haunted house gags. I saw a bowling alley company endorsed by Vanilla Ice, and the dead husk of the Sega corporation revived in the service of a smartphone-dispensing arcade game. One company claimed to offer the world’s first 3D-printed gummy candy. Others hawked boutique forms of insurance or specialized coverings for electrical wiring. The occasional booth babe beckoned the assembled geekdom to try a new photo app or virtual reality system. A massive inflatable castle promised to be light-years better than the ones from our collective nostalgia.

In the evenings there were open bars sponsored by trade groups and design firms. At one of these parties, I met a man named Eiran Gazit, the entrepreneur responsible for Mini Israel, a popular Israeli theme park that’s much like it sounds. (Walking through it feels like being in a very large diorama.) I told Gazit that I had been to the Holy Land Experience and asked what he thought of it, particularly a painstakingly detailed model of ancient Jerusalem tucked next to the Gold, Frankincense & Myrrh gift shop. Gazit’s eyes lit up with professional admiration: “It’s the best model of Jerusalem I’ve ever seen,” he said.

That is one of the paradoxes of HLE. The place is in most respects a mess, operating in weird tonal registers, creating a fantasy pastiche of Christian fable and cosplay. But there is also some genuine skill on display, some gestures toward historicity and creating an immersive experience. Like Gazit, I thought that the Jerusalem model, which would fill a studio apartment, was very good, as was the docent who described the model in a witty monologue.

It doesn’t hurt that faith creates its own standards of authenticity. If historicity isn’t your thing, HLE has prayer sessions and daily baptisms. According to the pacific faces of tourists and the online reviews from fans reflecting on their sixth ecstatic visit, the park is capable of disseminating a unique diversionary pleasure, one that can come only from melding the R&R of family vacation with the moral certainty of religious worship. HLE may not have Mickey Mouse or a monorail or a fireworks show—though with TBN’s cash reserves and theatrical flair, fireworks can’t be far behind—but it has the self-fulfilling strength of Christian devotion.

Wax statues at the Holy Land Experience.
© Michael Libby In the Christus Gardens display, wax centurions stand guard at Calvary.

Christ of the Commons

When I was told that some senior HLE staff were attending IAAPA, I at first had trouble picturing them mingling with Disney imagineers or technicians from million-dollar Vegas spectacles, even if they do work in the same industry, dealing in the same basic palette of technologies, narrative techniques, and amusement park conventions. But the more I thought about it, the more I recognized that HLE has an edge in at least one important area, and I’m not talking about the bundles they save via their religious tax exemption, although that must goose the budget pretty nicely.

As Disney and Universal face off in a veritable arms race, they’re fighting for land, talent, and most of all, intellectual property. While Disney is the traditional pole-setter in all things amusement, Universal (hardly a cash-strapped also-ran, since it’s owned by Comcast) has been catching up in recent years, thanks to its canny exploitation of the Harry Potter universe. Recently, Universal announced a deal to build attractions based on Nintendo games, and it also retains some theme park rights to Marvel characters—a nagging worry for Disney, which paid more than $4 billion to acquire Marvel in 2009, but because of this pre-existing deal, can’t build rides in Orlando for the superheroes it now owns.

HLE, by contrast, doesn’t need a licensing deal for its primary superhero: Jesus is in the public domain. The stories and prophecies of the Bible, unfettered by copyright, can be broken apart into children’s play areas, climbing walls (with the Ten Commandments mounted, for some peculiar reason, at the top), King David musicals, and dimly lit tableaux of wax-figure Jesus presiding over the Last Supper.

Conveniently, the spin-off opportunities are endless, at least until the Second Coming. Western civilization’s major theological text can be reenvisioned as The Action Bible, a graphic novel with a “thrilling climax.” Jesus is like the ultimate superhero action franchise, infinitely rebootable and adaptable to any medium, from a TV fundraiser to a live action procession of the cross through a humid Florida afternoon. He need only be ascribed a refreshed set of qualities, talents, and achievements, along with the requisite traumatic origin story, and he might go on living forever.

An elaborate throne sits inside a public restroom.
© Michael Libby Inexplicable, gaudy luxuries are a hallmark of HLE, even in the bathroom.

No Clocks in Heaven

Biblical exegesis and theme park design are necessarily imaginative pursuits, with a lot on the line; no one wants to get the start date of the end times wrong, or let through a dreary hint of the real world to escape-minded vacationers. At the Holy Land Experience, theme park pageantry and Biblical literalism (itself a kind of fantasy) come together best in the extravagant live shows, about King David and Bathsheba, or Paul’s “thorn in the flesh.” During the “The Passion of the Christ Live Drama,” I sat in a surprisingly well-appointed auditorium that could seat two thousand people, although only a few hundred were there at the time.

Much of the park shuts down during the Passion show, which visitors are strongly encouraged to attend. To my left a young boy, perhaps ten years old, sat with his parents. He was studying a large cotton Jesus doll, recently purchased. He wore a T-shirt for, the website of the Voice of Martyrs, which tracks the persecution of Christians worldwide. On my right sat two thirtysomething women, who closely followed the proceedings and periodically raised their hands in ecstatic affirmation.

The Satan of the Holy Land Experience is a marvelous creation, kitted out in ripped leather and chains—very Alice Cooper-goes-to-Florida.

The show began with a round of “Hava Nagila” (why not?) and a character named Rivka greeting various confreres with “shalom,” again and again. Rivka shalomed the audience, who shalomed back. “Your Hebrew is delicious,” she said. We laughed.

The familiar stages of Jesus’s life were presented with song and bathos. Here it’s worth noting that, however hackneyed the content, there was a dutiful professionalism about the show, which in 2013 won an award from the IAAPA. The production values would stand up against many stage shows at bigger parks. The actors had fine voices, and many performed with the kind of enthusiasm that could only come with true faith, which seems required in this sort of production. Like the rest of HLE, it is not a place for cynicism or guile. (Still, there may be a different kind of subterfuge at work: in a 2012 lawsuit, a former TBN financial officer alleged that the company encourages employees to become ordained as ministers so as to save on Social Security taxes.)

Technical competence aside, the show was still, at times, bizarre. During one song-and-dance number, after Jesus performed a miracle of healing on one of his followers, he descended from the stage to perform the same miracle on the crowd—that is, on us. I was seated high up in the amphitheater; many of the patrons in the floor area, which Jesus had begun picking his way through, were elderly or disabled, some in wheelchairs. Jesus called out assorted organs and diseases. “Who has something wrong with their liver?” he asked. Some hands went up. He dashed from one pale, wrinkled face to another, holding his hands over each, and then shouting, in baritone sing-song, “I cast you out!” He continued through a litany of conditions, some of them oddly specific. “Who has COPD? I cast you out!” “Who has sickle cell anemia? I cast you out!” The crowd, scattered through the cavernous auditorium, surged with the energy of shared belief, of faith.

Jesus’s rabble-rousing earned him the enmity of some powerful people, including, in the Holy Land Experience rendition, the Jewish high priest. As Satan hovered in the background, Pontius Pilate debated what to do about his Jesus problem. He didn’t want to execute him, he said. That wasn’t good enough for the high priest, who demanded that Pilate sentence Jesus to death. After a polite flicker of indecision, Pilate agreed. Thus, the Jews, in HLE’s unsubtle narrative, killed Jesus.

Later, during what may have been an amped-up Jesus-in-the-Garden-of-Gethsemane scene, or perhaps an out-of-order depiction of Jesus in the wilderness, the distinction being beside the point by now, Satan appeared again. The Satan of the Holy Land Experience is a marvelous creation, kitted out in ripped leather, a tank top, runny eyeliner, chains—very Alice Cooper-goes-to-Florida. Swaggering, serpentine, and campy, he is altogether too appealing to be the great villain in the cosmology of two-billion-plus souls. As lightning flashed and the tech crew made ample use of its fog machines, Satan and Jesus sang songs and traded threats, like two wrestlers warming up the crowd. Then, in a move that surprised me but also seemed consistent with the show’s sensibility (and the Rocky painting), a fist fight broke out between Satan and Jesus. After a few jabs, a strong hook, Jesus won in a knockout. The crowd roared its appreciation.

When the crucifixion finally came, nearly an hour after the show began, there was little that wouldn’t be found this side of a Mel Gibson flick or Billy Graham rally. Jesus, having been condemned by the Jewish high priest and then Pilate, was nailed to a cross, a thief alongside him. His penitent followers wailed and lamented his fate. A dramatic score crashed through the sound system. As it is written, the King of the Jews died and was welcomed into heaven, where he forgave the centurion who killed him. His followers joined him, and they began to sing. The audience, recognizing the hymn, joined in. A voice encouraged us to come forward and pray. The two women next to me raced down the steps to the front of the stage, where they crouched in child’s pose alongside other tourists, burying their faces in their arms. Jesus and his followers came up to them, touching them gently on their shoulders and backs. They leaned over them and whispered in their ears, praying together. They made promises I couldn’t hear. They seemed happy to stay like that for as long as the world would allow it.