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The Holy Land Experience – Introduction

When The Holy Land Experience, Orlando's newest theme park, opened in
February 2001, it garnered worldwide publicity, much of it tinged with controversy. It received hoots and sniggers from secularists for whom religion is, at best, a quaint anachronism. It also took flak from some religious leaders who took exception to the very idea of the new park.

Aside from referring one and all to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, I do not wish to get involved in whatever controversy there may be about The Holy Land Experience. I would, however, like to report that, taken on its own terms, it is a remarkably successful endeavor.

Using popular media for religious messages has a long and honorable tradition, from the mystery plays of medieval Europe, that sought to teach Bible stories to the illiterate, to the Mitzvah-Mobiles of modern day New York that reach out to lapsed Jews. So why not a theme park that seeks to bring to life the Jerusalem of the time of Jesus Christ and teach, nay preach, a religious message to those who come to gawk? It may not be for everyone but the medium just might get the message across to people unlikely to pull out and dust off that Gideons Bible in their motel room.

Reflecting the Jewish heritage of its founder, Marvin Rosenthal, The Holy Land Experience originally placed considerable emphasis on the Jewishness of Jesus and his milieu. While the current owner, Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), has directed the park's current focus squarely towards the evangelical Christian audience the network serves, the park staff still greets you with a hearty "Shalom!" Ancient Hebrew hymns highlight some of the live performances, several of the exhibits pay homage to the Judaic traditions of the Old Testament, and Jewish prayer shawls and menorahs are sold in the gift shops. Much of the merchandise is imported from Israel.

The Holy Land Experience is not a large park, just 15 acres, about the size of a small "land" at one of the major Orlando parks. It is also worth noting that, scenically, The Holy Land Experience is extremely well executed. The lead design firm was ITEC Entertainment Corp., the same outfit responsible for much of the theming of Islands of Adventure over at Universal Orlando. They've also done work for Disney and their experience shows, although they were obviously working with a more limited budget here. Still, the results are impressive and The Holy Land Experience compares favorably with other "minor" parks in the Orlando area.

Those drawn to the evangelical Christian message will find a visit to The Holy Land Experience to be enlightening and moving. Secular sceptics are unlikely to be swayed, and kids of any faith may wonder why Mickey has better toys than Jesus. But religious belief or religious yearning are not prerequisites for admission, and non-believers should not dismiss The Holy Land Experience out of hand. Lovers of history, theology, or archeology will find much of interest, and the park is as scenic and well-maintained as any in town.

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