Will Florida’s ‘Holy Land’ survive another Christmas?
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Reporter's notebookLike the Bible's ancient Egyptians, HLE experienced seven years of relative famine

Will Florida’s ‘Holy Land’ survive another Christmas?

The Jesus Christ-themed Holy Land Experience is celebrating 15 years, but some neighbors claim the theme park is facing financial Armageddon

  • Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida, a Bible-themed Christian tourist attraction on December 8, 2016 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)
    Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida, a Bible-themed Christian tourist attraction on December 8, 2016 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)
  • Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida, a Bible-themed Christian tourist attraction on December 8, 2016. King Solomon's Temple hovers above the theme park. (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)
    Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida, a Bible-themed Christian tourist attraction on December 8, 2016. King Solomon's Temple hovers above the theme park. (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)
  • Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida, a Bible-themed Christian tourist attraction on December 8, 2016. Performers playing Jesus and the High Priest are on a walk outside the Bible museum. (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)
    Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida, a Bible-themed Christian tourist attraction on December 8, 2016. Performers playing Jesus and the High Priest are on a walk outside the Bible museum. (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)
  • Illustrative: Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida, a Bible-themed Christian tourist attraction on December 8, 2016. The entrance to the Temple of King Solomon in Jerusalem. (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)
    Illustrative: Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida, a Bible-themed Christian tourist attraction on December 8, 2016. The entrance to the Temple of King Solomon in Jerusalem. (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)
  • Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida, a Bible-themed Christian tourist attraction on December 8, 2016. The 'Wilderness Tabernacle' reenactment includes a high priest performing rituals detailed in the Old Testament. (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)
    Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida, a Bible-themed Christian tourist attraction on December 8, 2016. The 'Wilderness Tabernacle' reenactment includes a high priest performing rituals detailed in the Old Testament. (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)
  • Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida, a Bible-themed Christian tourist attraction on December 8, 2016. A fountain outside the mock Roman coliseum. (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)
    Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida, a Bible-themed Christian tourist attraction on December 8, 2016. A fountain outside the mock Roman coliseum. (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)
  • Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida, a Bible-themed Christian tourist attraction on December 8, 2016. Performers reenact scenes from the Old and New Testaments. (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)
    Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida, a Bible-themed Christian tourist attraction on December 8, 2016. Performers reenact scenes from the Old and New Testaments. (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)
  • Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida, a Bible-themed Christian tourist attraction on December 8, 2016. Visitors learn about Jerusalem during the time of Jesus. (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)
    Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida, a Bible-themed Christian tourist attraction on December 8, 2016. Visitors learn about Jerusalem during the time of Jesus. (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)
  • A view from outside the Holy Land Experience theme park in Orlando, Fla. (Uriel Heilman)
    A view from outside the Holy Land Experience theme park in Orlando, Fla. (Uriel Heilman)

ORLANDO, Florida — There is no other theme park like it in Florida. Instead of rides, Holy Land Experience takes visitors on a wild journey to ancient Israel. And in place of Mickey and Minnie, you’re much more likely to find a wandering Jesus and Mary.

Envision an Epcot Center international pavilion based on the New Testament, and expect to find the Ten Commandments in surprising places. Toss in a Hava Negila and a Hail Mary, mix, repeat.

The Bible is writ big here, and Israeli folk tunes about Jerusalem co-exist with songs about Jesus on the park’s sound system. Tucked into an interchange, Holy Land Experience (HLE) is not large by Orlando standards, but pieces of the set dominate views from Highway 400. King Solomon’s gold-rimmed temple hovers close to a Roman-style coliseum, and giraffe necks protrude from Noah’s Ark.

According to several Orlando media outlets, all this Biblical splendor might soon come to an end. The theme park has sold off lavish furniture and Jesus statues, closed several gift shops, and encountered other difficulties, as reported by the Orlando Sentinel in a series of 2016 articles.

“Struggling with a sea of red ink in recent financial reports, Holy Land Experience is selling hundreds of ornate couches, thrones, angel’s wings, nativity statues, costumes — and even a Harley-Davidson motorcycle,” according to a July article in the Sentinel. The theme park’s financial future is supposedly quite murky, according to an Orlando Weekly article.

The truth is more complex than the headlines, according to HLE spokesperson John Casoria. In an interview with The Times of Israel, Casoria said the theme park’s future is as bright as Florida’s sun, including plans to expand the site’s use as a set for the world’s largest broadcaster of Christian television.

“The Orlando Sentinel has not had a positive story about us since 2001,” said Casoria, who claimed the newspaper’s editors are not fans of the evangelical Christian attraction. The park was founded in 2001 by Jewish-born Baptist minister Marvin Rosenthal.

Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida, a Bible-themed Christian tourist attraction on December 8, 2016. King Solomon's Temple hovers above the theme park. (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)
Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida, a Bible-themed Christian tourist attraction on December 8, 2016. King Solomon’s Temple hovers above the theme park. (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

Admitting the park saw “an economic hit” following the 2009 Stock Market collapse, Casoria said HLE “holds a unique place” among Florida tourist attractions — including the structure of its revenue stream.

Owned by the California-based Trinity Broadcast Network (TBN), the park is funded by the network as a nonprofit organization. One day a year, HLE must open its doors to the public free of charge. On other days, visitors dole out $50 to schmooze with an array of colorfully dressed ancient Jerusalemites who say shalom, todah, and kol tov.

Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida, a Bible-themed Christian tourist attraction on December 8, 2016. Visitors post notes on a wooden crucifix. (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)
Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida, a Bible-themed Christian tourist attraction on December 8, 2016. Visitors post notes on a wooden crucifix. (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

 

Spokesperson Casoria, who is a company attorney for TBN, said the network’s Bible-based foray into tourism represents a “hybrid situation,” with both theme park and broadcast expenses.

“When we look internally at Holy Land Experience, we’ve made it so it either breaks even or has a slight positive,” said Casoria. “We completely reinvest that into the park.”

A ‘trip,’ but no rides

To indulge in the full Holy Land Experience, visitors must commit to several hours of attending performances and following the roaming cast around the park.

During The Times of Israel’s recent Thursday morning visit, patrons streamed through security at the mock Zion Gate after purchasing tickets. A bus of local high school students arrived in purple shirts, and there were far more seniors than one might see at Wet ‘n Wild water park down the street.

Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida, a Bible-themed Christian tourist attraction on December 8, 2016. The 'Wilderness Tabernacle' reenactment includes a high priest performing rituals detailed in the Old Testament. (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)
Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida, a Bible-themed Christian tourist attraction on December 8, 2016. The ‘Wilderness Tabernacle’ reenactment includes a high priest performing rituals detailed in the Old Testament. (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

The theme park’s academic highlight is the historic Bible-packed Scriptorium, where visitors must commit to a 45-minute guided tour of several thousand manuscripts, scrolls, and other religious artifacts from the Van Kampen Collection. Elsewhere in one of the oldest areas of the park, at the “Wilderness Tabernacle” reenactment a High Priest performs sacred rituals tied to the words, “He is risen,” which are spelled out in bushes alongside the Sea of Galilee.

The special effects in some HLE reenactments are impressive, but the park lacks what makes nearly every Orlando attraction tick: rides. At just 15 acres, the entire Bible is crammed into a lot the size of some corn mazes. Across town, Epcot Center’s parking lot spans a whopping 141 acres.

Instead of roller-coasters and monorails, HLE offers “a quality experience people cannot get elsewhere,” said Casoria.

“If you want a different experience that is a heartfelt experience, that touches your faith, then come to HLE and we can provide that to you,” said Casoria.

Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida, a Bible-themed Christian tourist attraction on December 8, 2016. A fountain outside the mock Roman coliseum. (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)
Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida, a Bible-themed Christian tourist attraction on December 8, 2016. A fountain outside the mock Roman coliseum. (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

A ‘come to Jesus moment’ in 2007

 

Like the Bible’s ancient Egyptians, HLE experienced seven years of relative famine before coming into its own. A hopeful 2001 opening was followed by tepid ticket sales, and the park remained in prototype mode until 2007, when Trinity Broadcast Network purchased it for $37 million. The transaction initiated the start of bumper crop years in 2008.

After briefly considering turning the park into a back-lot for Christian television, the new owners decided to go all-in on their investment. Thanks to that choice, today’s HLE now has lots of Vegas-like mirrors and gold trim — and plenty of shopping. But the park also added mini-golf for children, cooking demonstrations, and Bible studies, proving its versatility under what Casoria called TBN’s “shifted vision” for the site.

According to Casoria, the park’s original owners “had a vision of what they wanted, but they did not know how to take it to the next level or market it,” he said.

Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida, a Bible-themed Christian tourist attraction on December 8, 2016. The entrance to the Temple of King Solomon in Jerusalem. (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)
Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida, a Bible-themed Christian tourist attraction on December 8, 2016. The entrance to the Temple of King Solomon in Jerusalem. (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

Local media reports to the contrary, Holy Land Experience appears here to stay. The park is not dependent on ticket sales like most Orlando attractions, allowing it to stick to its core message of Jesus bringing salvation. There have been talks with the government of Israel for a potential loan of Dead Sea Scroll fragments, and the property will host more concerts and conventions in the years ahead, said Casoria.

Like the multiplication of fish and loaves, it does not seem to matter how many thrones, Jesus statues or angel wings are sold off by HLE. Amid dozens of more trendy attractions in Orlando, the park is a mainstay for Christian TV viewers familiar with its gorgeous sets, giving HLE a broadcast reach well beyond its 200,000 annual visitors.

“We are expanding the scope of the park, not shrinking it,” said Casoria. “We see Holy Land Experience having a long and fruitful future.”

Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida, a Bible-themed Christian tourist attraction on December 8, 2016. Performers playing Jesus and the High Priest are on a walk outside the Bible museum. (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)
Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida, a Bible-themed Christian tourist attraction on December 8, 2016. Performers playing Jesus and the High Priest are on a walk outside the Bible museum. (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)
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