TR: The Holy Land Experience (Orlando, FL), 4/9/05
Why did I visit the Holy Land Experience?
This theme park in Orlando seems to be geared towards Christian people who worship the Lord and the Bible. I don’t consider myself religious. Religion never appealed to me. When I went to church, I was like Homer Simpson – I fell asleep! If church were more like the one in The Blues Brothers, where people are singing and dancing on Sundays, perhaps I would be more interested in attending. After viewing The Passion of the Christ, some of my friends say that it has renewed their faith in the Lord. My response to the movie was, “Cool, blood and gore! Yeah, baby, yeah!” I did see the musical “Godspell” a few years ago. Although I gained a better understanding of the Bible, I still was not going to convert. I don’t mean to offend anyone, but I view the Bible as modern mythology. The Good Book has interesting stories, but it isn’t something I would base my life on. I do respect and appreciate all religious beliefs.
Even though I was not one of the faithful, I was still interested in visiting the Holy Land Experience. First, the design team who was responsible for creating Islands of Adventure worked on the Holy Land Experience. If they did such an incredible job on Universal’s theme park, I wondered what they did with the Holy Land Experience. The second reason why I visited is the most important. The Holy Land Experience attracted a lot of controversy when it first opened a few years ago. I wanted to see what the fuss was all about. I tried to visit during the theme park’s first year of operation, but a torrential thunderstorm prevented me from visiting. The park had shut down early due to the storms. Over the years, more important things prevented me from visiting. Also over the years, I had forgotten what all the controversy was about, but I still had the desire to visit.
I decided to visit the Holy Land Experience on a Saturday in April. The park wasn’t a major Orlando park, so I was expecting the big crowds to be at the Magic Kingdom and away from where I’ll be. The Holy Land Experience is located off exit 78 on Interstate 4. Because the park is so close to the Interstate, you can see the entire layout as you drive. Regular admission to the park is $29.99, but I had bought my tickets ahead of time at www.ticketmania.com for $25.75.
I arrived at the Holy Land Experience a little after 9 am and there were about a half a dozen people in the parking lot. I had hoped crowds would stay low. The park is fashioned after the city of Jerusalem. The main entrance is the city gate. The entrance did not have any signage that you were entering the Holy Land Experience.
The park has a similar layout to the Walt Disney World theme parks. You enter through a “Main Street USA” area of shops. The main “castle” icon is the Temple of the Great King (Herod’s Temple). The attractions are laid around the park. The theme park is about the size of one of the “lands” at the Magic Kingdom.
As I entered the park, I walked past the shops in Jerusalem Street Market (save shopping for later!). The street market looked pretty neat. I’ve never been to Jerusalem, but it looked pretty accurate. I don’t think Jerusalem had a pretzel and drink stand, though. I felt a little uncomfortable when I first entered. I felt a little out of place, since I wasn’t religious. I should just run out and ride the Incredible Hulk Coaster! However, I had paid $25.75 to get in, so I might as well see what it’s like.
A park employee said that the Wilderness Tabernacle show was going to begin, so I followed the small crowd to the show building. The Wilderness Tabernacle was a stage demonstration of the tabernacle that God had commanded His followers to build. You may have built a model of this in Sunday school. It was a nice presentation, but it almost put me to sleep. It’s like church over again! The part that I do remember is the Ark of the Covenant in the worship area of the tabernacle. It let off a huge smoke stream. I thought it would be like Raiders of the Lost Ark. I almost closed my eyes because I was afraid I would melt like a candle and then explode. Alas, that did not happen. You can buy a DVD or video of the Wilderness Tabernacle show in the gift shop.
The show guide had indicated a historical presentation at the Plaza of Nations in Herod’s Temple at 10:15 am. I headed over there since it was near show time. I wasn’t sure what the historical presentation was, but it ended up being an employee walking back and forth on the stage, explaining what Herod’s Temple was. I don’t remember much about the presentation, but I do remember there was very little shade, it was hot, and a steady stream of people walked out on the show. The presentation almost put me to sleep!
The next show was Praise Through the Ages at 10:45 am. Since this was the only show on the guide that was coming up, nearly all of the park guests headed to the Shofar Auditorium to see it. In the waiting area of the Shofar Auditorium was a model of Jerusalem, 66 A.D. It was a very large model and nicely done. If you wanted more of the model, you could buy the DVD or video in the gift shop across the way.
Praise Through the Ages was a multi-media production that showed how music and art have been used to praise God. It was mostly a musical presentation of different praise songs through time. The music started through ancient times and monks, went through the Renaissance and the Romantic age, headed through Southern Gospel, and ended at Contemporary Christian music. The performers sang well and were very talented. The Southern gospel performance was my favorite. I listen to Southern gospel, not to praise the Lord, but because I think it has a good beat and you can dance to it. I got the Contemporary Christian song stuck in my head all day. I was busy humming, “Lord, You are good and Your spirit endureth forever.” That’s the It’s the Small World song of the Holy Land Experience!
The next show was Centurion at 12:15 pm. Even though it was early, I decided to eat since I figured the food line would get worse throughout the day. The park had about four locations for food. Two were stands. One was the pretzel stand in the Jerusalem market. Another stand was in front of the Shofar Auditorium and it had some wraps and snacks. The park had two counter service restaurants: The Oasis Palms Café and the Royal Portico Eatery. The Royal Portico Eatery was mainly an ice cream shop. I chose the Oasis Palm Café for a real lunch. This café had no sign or any indication that it was a restaurant. I didn’t know where it was until someone opened the door and I found food inside. The café had wraps, salads, chicken dishes, and the good old theme park standby, the hamburger. The hamburger was called the Golitah Burger and was pretty good for theme park food. If there were a David Burger, it would probably be a White Castle-looking burger.
Centurion was about to start, so I headed over to snag a good seat. Before the show started, two employees walked around and sold turkey legs, water, and a fruit drink. When the employee sold a guest a turkey leg, she gave the guest a plate. I don’t think I’ve seen that before. When I get a turkey leg at the Port of Entry at Islands of Adventure, I have to hold it like a caveman! Who needs a plate for a carnivorous pleasure?
Centurion was a musical about a Roman centurion who is hunting down the Jewish Messiah, but the centurion needs him to cure his dying servant. Since it is a theme park, we know the story will have a happy ending. Like Praise Through the Ages, the performers were quite talented dancers and singers. The Jewish Messiah was given a five-minute song and dance number. You’d think he was important! The actor who played the Jewish Messiah really looked like Jesus! He had the hair, the beard, everything! I wondered if he had problem walking around in Sam’s Club. There he is, rolling his cart down Wal-Mart aisles, and someone shouts out, “It’s Jesus!” Now if Jesus is in Sam’s Club, the question I ask is why Jesus wants to buy 100 rolls of toilet paper?
Inside Herod’s Temple was the Theatre of Life. It runs a film called “Seed of Promise,” but the theatre was closed during Centurion. The performers used the theatre as a dressing room. As soon as Centurion ended, the performers left the theatre and it opened again. I decided to check out the film. The park guide described the film as “an original film that powerfully communicates God’s master plan for redeeming mankind.” The film showed a crucifixion and hammer pounding the spikes into people’s wrists (ouch, that’s got to hurt!), Adam and Eve (Eve was sporting a nice bikini tan), and Abraham’s story. I couldn’t figure out what “God’s master plan for redeeming mankind” was, though.
I headed over to the Scriptorium next. It was a 55-minute walking tour that was the history of the Bible. The Scriptorium was divided into a series of rooms that was themed to the specific time period that was being presented. A recording described the period and how it relates to the Bible. Each room had Biblical antiques in protective glass cases. The journey began in Mesopotamia and ended in modern times. It was pretty interesting to learn about the history of the Bible and see Biblical antiques. I never knew that the Bible was being written in the cradle of civilization. The Scriptorium also showed what people did for the Bible. Around the 17th or 18th century in Europe, people were being hunted down and killed for trying to present another version of the Bible. It’s a good thing you don’t see that in the United States. Thank the founding fathers for freedom of religion! In the group that I was in, there were a few young kids who seemed bored throughout the presentation. The Scriptorium exited into the Ex Libris gift shop.
I walked around the Holy Land Experience and checked out the different gift shops. The park has a small children’s area called Qaboo and Company. This area consisted of a rocking-climbing wall, an archaeological dig, a tapestry showing a knock-off of Aladdin and Jasmine, and a gift shop that showed religious videos with animation that was worse than Filmation. A small animal area consisted of camels, goats, ponies, lambs, and chickens. An employee was feeding milk in a baby’s bottle to a lamb. He passed the bottle to the park guests so they could feed the lamb for a few moments. I had missed seeing the dramatic vignette “The Ministry of Jesus” and the musical Vu Dolorosa Passion because I had to meet friends at Universal Studios’ Mardi Gras later that afternoon.
As I walked around the Holy Land Experience, employees were saying “Shalom” at me. The performer in the Wilderness Tabernacle explained that “Shalom” would be heard throughout the park all day. It means “Peace,” but it can also mean “Hello” or “goodbye.” It’s like a Hawaiian saying to you “Aloha.” The employee’s costumes looked very accurate for Jerusalem, right down to the footwear. When I’m at the Lost Continent in Islands of Adventure, the Team Members there are dressed like knights or peasants, but if you look down, they’re wearing Nikes! At the Holy Land Experience, the employees were wearing brown sandals. I don’t know if they had Tevas in Jerusalem, but it looked a lot better than sneakers.
The Holy Land Experience did assume you had a working knowledge of the Bible. Many times as performers were setting up the scene for the Wilderness Tabernacle or the historical presentation at Herod’s Temple, they said, “As you know, the Bible said this” or “As we all know, the Bible said that.” I had leafed though Bibles while staying at hotels, but I never really read it. I felt a little lost sometimes during these presentations.
We all have different religious beliefs. We may worship Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, the Boston Red Sox, or Kevin Boles. No matter what your religion, I think it’s good to at least understand the Bible. The Bible has been a key or a large part of many historical events. For example, brave men and women boarded the Mayflower, crossed the treacherous Atlantic Ocean, and landed around present-day Massachusetts because they wanted to worship as they wanted. The Holy Land Experience gave me a better understanding of Biblical mythology. It didn’t convert me, though. I believe that the faithful will become more faithful after a visit. Others may wish they were riding Dueling Dragons instead. The presentation was well done and the park looked great, but I couldn’t help thinking the Holy Land Experience was church with a $29.99 admission charge. In the meantime, I think I will watch “Godspell” again and sing a rousing chorus of “Day by Day.”
For more information on the Holy Land Experience, please visit www.holylandexperience.com.