The Holy Land Experience, Orlando, Florida
What Would Jesus Don?
Mary Magdalene let loose with a BeDazzler.
That was my first thought as I entered the Christus Wax Figure display at The Holy Land Experience. I learned later that the figures came from the now defunct Christus Gardens in Gatlinburg, Tennessee – a religious roadside attraction that shut its doors in 2008 after 49 years of waxing poetic on the life of Jesus.
The displays have now been resurrected in this little piece of Christian heaven alongside Orlando’s I-4, and in this incarnation the HLE couturiers have amped up the volume on the garb. One part gaudy, two parts garish, it screams…awesome! Unless you’re a Holy Land purist, in which case it just screams.
At Christus Gardens, the figures sported more demure threads appropriate for the time. Here, it’s the Amish meets André Leon Talley.
Eat This in Memory of Me
Since I hadn’t had breakfast, I was hungry enough to eat the leg off the Lamb of God, so I headed to the cafeteria with hopes of heavenly manna. Sadly, there were no fishes and loaves on the menu, but there were plenty of burgers and fries. I settled on the Goliath burger (slingshot sold separately), with David-sized fries. Fearing accusations of gluttony, I stayed away from the Chocolate Corruption cake.
All God’s children may very well get into heaven, but not many make it to the Smile of a Child Adventure Land at HLE. Mostly because there’s not a lot to do, save the giant turd-shaped rock-climbing wall.
But I’m puzzled why more kids didn’t jump at the chance to toss a beanbag at the heart of Satan.
It’s easy to see why they steered clear of the Children of All Nations (at least I think that’s what it was called). Think It’s a Small World After All in miniature, but instead of Disney’s annoying trademark song, it’s annoying hymns of praise and devotion. Non-stop. The beanbags would get more use here.
The whale from Jonah and the Whale fame looked promising…
…but inside were two of the few teenagers I saw at the park. I think they were looking for a spot to sneak a smoke. That’s Jonah on your left.
Even the cooling mist provided by Moses parting the Red Sea failed to lure the faithful.
The Gift of God
If there is one place where the flock congregates at HLE, it’s in the gift shops. There are several throughout the park. And while I did not walk away with the Evangecube or the Holy Land Fan/Water Spritzer, I did find some funny greeting cards and a Gund Teddy Bear. In a monk’s outfit of course.
The Agony in the Garden
Said to be the place where Jesus and his disciples prayed the night before he was crucified, and where that ne’er-do- well Judas planted that fateful kiss, The Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem lies at the foot of the Mount of Olives. I went there in 1999. It was beautiful. It offered lush gardens and tranquil spots for quiet reflection and prayer.
The Garden of Gethsemane at HLE offers none of these. It resembles the foyer of a Greek restaurant. I felt betrayed. So in that respect, I suppose HLE succeeded.
The Holy Land Experience also offers the opportunity to place your prayers in a giant plastic mock-up of Jerusalem’s Western Wall. Prayers are flown once a month to the Holy Land and placed in the cracks of the actual Western Wall.
Inauthentic? Initially, that’s what I thought. Then I discovered you can do it online. The folks at AISH.com will let you type your message straight from the comfort of your home and a student of Aish HaTorah will print it out and place it in the wall for you. You can even tweet it. Just send a DM to @wallprayers. (I’m not kidding.)
At least the Holy Land Experience makes you put pen to paper.
Good Things Come to Those Who Wait
It’s easy to throw stones at The Holy Land Experience — religious types say it takes too many liberties, non-religious types say it’s too cheesy. But there is some good to be had at the park.
The Passion/We Shall Behold Him show at the 2000-seat Church of All Nations auditorium is a well-oiled stage production. The lighting, costumes, and staging alone make it worth the hour.
The Scriptorium, which houses the world’s fourth-largest collection of bibles, is informative and well laid out, and would be even better if you weren’t trapped in it for 55 minutes (seriously, the doors do not open once the show starts).
And the Sing for the King Karaoke was an unexpected feel-good highlight featuring armchair gospel singers giving it their all.
Holy or Hokey?
The Holy Land Experience has certainly grown from its humble beginnings. At the outset, characters were dressed in plain garb more befitting the time of Jesus, plays were performed outside to much smaller crowds, and there was a decidedly less glitzy air to the whole business. But people stopped coming, and it was sold to the Trinity Broadcasting Network.
Now in an effort to drive up numbers, the garb is more glamorous, the shows are more theatrical, and the shops are…well, just more. And that seems to offend their base.
So, has The Holy Land Experience gone too far? In my opinion, they haven’t gone far enough.
If part of their mission is “to proclaim the Gospel to as many people as possible” then they are clearly preaching to the converted. Shepherding aging Christians around a plasticized and bejewelled Holy Land only serves to offend aging Christians. If they are shooting for the true Holy Land Experience with a more accurate depiction of the times, then bury the place in sand, stick in a couple of live camels, and smear some goat’s blood on the doors. Perhaps even a public stoning every hour on the hour. Throw in some duelling Pharisees and Sadducees, and you got yourself a holy land. Authenticity accompli.
But if they are going for the tire-kickers – the unwashed masses — then they need to up their game a smidge. Get that potato chip that looks like Jesus, bring in that painting of the Virgin Mary that cries blood, start selling Pope on a rope, and watch the throngs storm the turnstile.
There was even a chap in the UK who claimed to have an image of JC burned into his frying pan. I’d pay to see that. And I’m betting lots more would too. Serve them all Grilled Cheesus sandwiches, and the HLE will soon find themselves in a sea of lookie-loos ripe for conversion.
Now that would be an experience.
If you haven’t already, check out The Holy Land Experience: Part One
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I was in Orlando as part of the Aeroplan Welcome Aboard Event – and flight reserved exclusively for Aeroplan and CIBC Aero Card holders. Learn more about Aeroplan rewards at www.aeroplan.com.