Now that the furor has died down about some covert plan to convert Jews, it's possible to look at Holy Land Experience as its owners wanted people to: As another theme park in Orlando. How does it stack up?
Pretty good, if you don't miss the rides (and some people do). For Christians who know their Bible, Holy Land can be inspiring support for lifelong beliefs. And a chance to see Bible stories come to life.
For anyone with a bit of curiosity about the book's themes, it can still be an intriguing, eye-filling, 15-acre walk back through 20 centuries.
For people who don't care about the Bible, or for those who want rides and visceral thrills, Holy Land might be a boring Experience. They may also be annoyed by the polite but persistent attempts to get them to become Christians.
The founders, Marvin and David Rosenthal, actually call Holy Land a "living museum," teaching people by immersing them in copies of key sites in New Testament-era Palestine. The plaster looks like Jerusalem limestone; the column capitals look like real gold; the buildings look aged and weathered. Occasionally there are touches of true creativity, bolstered by computers and lighting effects. Zion's Hope, the sponsoring organization, has spent its $15 million well.
First in, you get confronted by Middle Eastern-sounding incidental music and the bleats of sheep and goats. This is Holy Land's sliver of the souk. The vestpocket marketplace is cleverly laid out to suggest nooks and narrow alleys. Street vendors, swathed in rough robes, hawk from carts laden with guidebooks and cans of Sprite. Emerging through an archway, you are drawn to the Wilderness Tabernacle, a high-tech re-creation of the huge tent of worship that the Children of Israel carried with them through the Sinai desert Holy Land personnel, wearing the white robes and puffy headpieces of old-time priests, demonstrate the rituals of burning incense and offering sacrifices. There's a simulation of the Pillar of Cloud -- the manifestation of God, as told in the Book of Exodus -- achieved with spinning lights inside an upward-blasting column of artificial fog. It looks like a small, internally lighted whirlwind.
It's one of several cool special effects, created by ITEC Entertainment, which also worked with Disney and Universal. Another is The Seed of Promise, a sweeping video of the "plan of redemption" as shown by Rosenthal's reading of the Bible.
The high-definition video starts with a computer-animated Creation, narrated by an artificially bass-boosted voice of the deity. There's also an Ashkenazic-looking Abraham and a daringly nude Adam and Eve (though mostly concealed by foliage). The story then moves on to Jesus and the Rapture for all Christian believers.
After the theater, the next doorway leads to a beautiful model of ancient Jerusalem, around 66 A.D. Built to something like railroad scale, the walled city covers 25 by 49 feet, about the size of a decent two-bedroom apartment. So incredibly detailed is this model that you can see individual animal hides tanning on tiny racks. Holy Land lecturers stand beside the Temple courtyard, laser pointer in hand, and bounce the red spot over places of interest.
There are other nice touches. The gleaming golden roofline of the Temple is ornamented with bas-relief pomegranates and bunches of grapes. Inside the Oasis Springs Café, a small fountain bubbles up in a spring, flanked by clay water jars; then it flows right through the front wall into a well beside the café entrance.
The performers at each show are the same half-dozen people hustling from one sketch to another. They're all young, earnest and talented, although one was slightly overwrought as the Apostle Thomas. Some even have a vaguely Middle Eastern look, clearly meant to enhance the ambience of authenticity. Their songs, though, are standard church issue: O Lamb of God; Love, Crucified, Arose.
Many are teens from surrounding churches, and they do seem to pour their hearts into the work. Greg Neumeyer, playing a priest, came with his wife from Colorado Springs just to perform at Holy Land.
Swathed in blue and white robes and headdress, he pauses between blowing his shofar at the Temple and his hosting duties at the Wilderness Tabernacle. "This is a dream come true," he says, beaming with positive joy. "I get to teach the Old Testament in a native environment."
Two features are still ahead for next year. One is the Qumran Cave, a copy of the caverns where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in 1947. That's planned for a July opening. The other is the "Scriptorium," a museum of biblical manuscripts planned for an opening early next year. An extended loan from the Robert Van Kampen familyof Michigan, the collection is so large that only 20 percent of it will be on display at any given time.
For all the emphasis on accuracy, though, some of the designs are intentional fudges. The big stone park entrance borrows from both the Jaffa Gate and the Damascus Gate. And in the Jerusalem scale model, the tomb of Jesus could be either of the two most popular sites: Gordon's Calvary, where Protestants say Jesus died; or the site of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the correct place according to Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. Holy Land personnel say they didn't want to take sides.
Remember all those objections by Jews that the park is meant to convert them to Christianity? Well, it's easy to see how they could think that. Just about every display and performance is angled to show that Judaism was Christianity's forebear, and that Christianity is the fulfillment of Judaism.
At the Empty Tomb display, a dark-haired young woman in first-century robes sings of Jesus as "Hashem" and "Adonai," two Hebrew names for God. And in the Wilderness Tabernacle show, an unseen narrator wonders aloud if the ancient sacrificial system is only a "rehearsal toward a time when God will provide a perfect lamb of sacrifice."
Holy Land Experience owners Marvin Rosenthal and his son, David, are, after all "messianic Jews," as some Jewish converts to Christianity call themselves. Their organization, Zion's Hope, supports missionaries to the Middle East, conducts tours of Israel and publishes a bimonthly periodical, Zion's Fire. So if you think they want your soul for Jesus, you're right.
In fact, Jews seem to be staying away. Maybe it's because I came on a Sunday, but Holy Land Experience seemed filled with locals from Baptist, Pentecostal or Jewish-style, messianic churches. The few Jews present were clearly converts. For them, the appeal was a simple reinforcement of their beliefs.
"Omigosh, it's very real, very direct," says Belinda Figueroa, a resident of nearby Winter Park, watching a gospel group sing at the Temple. "You expect that at church, but not here."
To me, the contemporary gospel group, in red ties and black shirts, looks out of place on the steps of the first century Temple. Another performance looks more apropos, with the robed cast re-enacting the dedication of the baby Jesus at the Temple.The two gift shops are surprisingly upscale. Aside from the obligatory Holy Land Experience T-shirts, there's little in the way of the usual cheap-looking items from Taiwan. There are a lot of books at the Old Scroll Shop: guides to Jerusalem and Galilee and evangelical books by people like J. I. Packer and Marvin Rosenthal himself. The shop has finely wrought candlesticks and nativity scenes, with the distinctive sharp-edged, two-toned grain of olivewood.
Next door, Methusaleh's Mosaics has beautifully detailed gold and silver replicas of Eastern Orthodox artworks, such as a mosaic of Jerusalem copied from one in a church in Jordan. Also at the store is a gorgeous coffee table book of David Roberts' 19th century watercolors of the Holy Land; a smaller, less expensive softcover edition is available as well.
The Rosenthals are joyous about the capacity crowds in Holy Land Experience. Bible lectures two or three times a week on the premises draw 400 to 500 people. The Rosenthals hope to expand on the success with a larger auditorium sometime in the future.
James D. Davis can be reached at email@example.com or 954-356-4730.