Orlando Theme Park Mixes Christianity, Judaism

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.  (Article continued below...)

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.

The synthesis of Christian evangelism, public commercialism and representation of Jewish history has sparked a number of debates, mainly around the park's original raison d'être. The park was built by Zion's Hope, a Christian ministry whose mission is "to graciously proclaim to the Jewish people their need for personal salvation through Jesus the Messiah." Many Jewish leaders have perceived this mission, gracious or not, as disrespectful to the integrity of the Jewish religion.

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."

Crouch says TBN, which is sprucing up the park and upgrading its shows, will use the Holy Land Experience as a backdrop for TV shows and movies, creating a "faith-based Universal Studios." Once financially struggling, the facility is now operating in the black and sees 1,500 to 2,500 visitors every day, according to TBN.

Walking through the Orlando turnstiles, the visitor experiences a certain tension between Christianity and Judaism. On the one hand, Christian supersessionism—the position that asserts Christianity as superior to Judaism and its rightful successor—is alive and well at the Holy Land Experience. But also at play is a strange juxtaposition of Jewish and Christian landmarks in a complex theological landscape that merges the two religious traditions into one make-believe, synthetic construct.