Several years ago a colleague of mine suggested a road trip for the graduate students to the Holy Land Experience, What better way to relax for budding religious historians than a theme park that included recreations of Herod's Temple and Jerusalem as well as biblically-themed souvenirs? Orlando was not actually that far from Tallahassee, and I immediately fell in love with the idea (it would allow me to make a pilgrimage to the Mouse as well). However, the trip was not meant to be. My spouse could not imagine a worse vacation than hanging out with scholar-tourists in replicated religious environments, even if the park had ice cream.
Thus, my dream of the Holy Land Experience was delayed (possibly permanently). Luckily for me, Newsweek provides an interesting take on the park and its guests. In "Crucifixion and Ice Cream," Joan Branham, an associate professor of Art History at Providence College, tackles the aesthetic as well as audience participation. She writes:
Amid cell phones ringing, video cams rolling and ice cream melting under the Florida sun, a blood-spattered Jesus stumbles through the crowd on his way to Golgotha, where nasty Roman soldiers strip him, nail him to the cross and crucify him—while perspiring tourists look on in Bermuda shorts. After the resurrection sequence, visitors applaud and line up for a photo op, not with Mickey or Minnie, but a disciple or bloody-handed yet friendly centurion. Welcome to Orlando's most unusual theme park, the Holy Land Experience.
Built in 2001 at a cost of $16 million, the Holy Land Experience recreates the ancient city of Jerusalem to "take you 2,000 years back in time to the world of the Bible" where "it brings to life ancient Israel." Dominating the theme park is a towering replica of Herod's Temple, much like Cinderella's Castle just down Interstate 4. Also on display are recreations of the Qumran caves (site of the Dead Sea Scrolls), the Garden Tomb of Jesus, the Wilderness Tabernacle with an Ark of the Covenant light and sound show and a Byzantine Scriptorium where tourists learn about the history of Bible production. A gift shop sells Star of David necklaces with Christian crosses embedded in them and olive wood from the real Holy Land.
In 2007, Trinity Broadcast Network (the world's largest religious channel, based in Santa Ana, Calif.) bought the park and softened the language that once targeted Jews "to graciously proclaim to all people … the need for personal salvation through Jesus." TBN chief of staff Paul Crouch Jr. says "any and all are welcome" at the park. "All types have been there: Jewish, all Christian denominations, Catholic nuns, Mennonites … The park wants people educated in the Torah, the Wilderness Tabernacle, but there is a Messianic element."
(Newsweek also provides a video of the Crucifixion re-enactment and Branham's commentary. The audience, it seems, is not sure how to react to the event.)
So, I have yet to coerce my significant other into a trip to the Holy Land Experience, but his will seems to be slipping. My summer vacation, instead, includes a defense and teaching, but all the while I will be angling for a trip to a faux Jerusalem and a stopover at the land of the Mouse.