The horses were my first clue that something was wrong.
I thought it would be a piece of cake. It's just a five-minute drive from my home, practically right next door. Besides, how many people were really going to show up for this?
But the horses proved I'd made a major miscalculation. It isn't every day that you see mounted officers trotting down Vineland Road. Then the throngs of kids in private-school uniforms walking down the sidewalk — and the helicopter hovering overhead. By the time I'd been waved past the hastily erected "Park Full" placards and spotted the swath of traffic clogging I-4 in both directions as far as the eye could see, I'd realized that this wasn't going to be any ordinary afternoon in the first century anno Domini.
Welcome to "Free Day" at the Holy Land Experience.
If you haven't heard the gospel of Orlando's only Christian theme park, pull up a pew. In the beginning there was Marvin Rosenthal, a nice Jewish boy from Jersey turned Baptist minister. Marv wanted to share the "good news" with his fellow "chosen people," in hopes they too would choose bacon cheeseburgers over lox and bagels. So he took $15 million and 15 acres, built a biblically themed attraction and saw that it was good.
But then Rosenthal realized that it's easier to separate day from night or sea from sky than it is to separate tourists (particularly his target demographic) from their cash. And lo, there was financial darkness upon the Land, as the Orange County Property Appraiser brought down his wrath, vengeance and assessments for back taxes. Verily then the Florida legislature did slay appraiser Bill Donegan with a sweetheart tax exemption, and the park was purchased by the "prosperity gospel"—evangelizing Trinity Broadcasting Network. Hallelujah, amen.
Which brings us to last Tuesday's epic clusterfuck, an unintended consequence of the Legislature's requirement that the attraction waive its entrance fee (currently $35 adult, $20 kids) for one day each year. For the last few years, that date was a relative secret, advertised only over TBN's own television station. This year, thanks to the tenacity of Sentinel business columnist Beth Kassab, word of this year's giveaway spread far and wide. The result: Despite arriving within minutes of opening, I was far behind the 1,700 guests allowed in before the park hit maximum capacity and the 5,000 others who were given rain checks to return later this month.
When I returned later in the day, most of those early birds were long gone, but I still had to park in a grass field and hike across the highway. I arrived too late for most of the "attractions," such as they are: There are no rides, only shows, exhibits and films. But I confirmed they were mostly unchanged from my last visit in 2004. Back then, I found the park theologically unpersuasive but aesthetically competent. Though tiny (the size of one "land" in a major theme park) it's designed with near-Disney detail (courtesy of Islands of Adventure designers ITEC) and features numerous fascinating historical artifacts and recreations. But to further its religious agenda, Holy Land often presents said items in a manner contrary to their indigenous intention. For example, in the Wilderness Tabernacle an elaborately costumed actor desecrates the most sacred Jewish Yom Kippur ritual every 30 minutes, accompanied by Raiders of the Lost Ark light-and-smoke effects.
I arrived in time for the day's final performance of Behold the Lamb, the park's revised signature passion play in which Christ is crucified twice a day. The half-hour pageant is performed in the Shofar Auditorium, which was a drab lecture hall on my last visit; now it's outfitted with enough mirrored walls and smoke machines to start a nightclub. In the show, an impressively emotive cast careens through J.C.'s final hours: Picture Passion of the Christ: Live on Stage! with a little less gore. They stick fairly close to the canonical scripture, except for egregiously extra-textual episodes of Caiaphas directing Roman tortures; the Sanhedrin high priest is painted as so anti-historically evil that he practically twirls his mustache. After the resurrection, angels in satin robes and shiny wings danced to "inspirational" music. Then Jesus walked down the aisle, wearing a long purple robe and giant rhinestone crown that would make Liberace squeal with envy, and the standing-room audience in front of me lost their collective shit. I slipped out the back (past the beautifully detailed model of ancient Jerusalem) before anyone in the weeping and wailing crowd realized I wasn't one of the flock.
Holy Land and TBN clearly profited from this free-for-all, judging by the massive bundles of $9.99 BibleQuest playsets I saw going out the door (not to mention $7.50 Chick-fil-A sandwiches). And you can't buy the kind of national publicity the day generated. The only people who lost out were, yet again, Orlando's average taxpayers: stuck sitting in traffic while the faithful got theirs for firstname.lastname@example.org