There aren't any rides at the Holy Land Experience theme park. No parting-the-Dead-Sea log flume, no walk-on-water park, no Revelations Roller Coaster. The restaurant does not have communion wafer nachos, and Jesus is not walking around shaking hands and curing carpal tunnel. Let's just clear that up right now.
I'm a big believer in the saying, "If you don't like (fill in the blank: topless clubs, tattoo parlors, church), don't go, but don't spoil it for everyone else," but I just had to check out Orlando's newest attraction, not out of the desire to shoot Jesus fish in a barrel, but out of genuine curiosity. The park had generated controversy among Jewish groups who see Zion's Hope, the evangelical Christian ministry whose baby it is, as targeting Jews specifically for conversion. Trying to convert people doesn't seem to me much different from cornering a nondrinker at a party and nudging them until they agree to do a shot with you. Nobody likes a pest.
But then, evangelical Christians aren't widely known for saying, "Eh, what the hey, live and let live." They want to convert everybody. To go to a religious theme park and not expect it to be Churchy McCheese is like going to a jazz club and not expecting it to be all smoky. I went on their turf with every intention of taking their offerings at face value, even if it would be filtered through the sense of humor that God gave me.
Blessings in disguise
My friend Doug was not so sure about God giving me anything and told me, when I felt sick going in (from a simple lack of eating), "You're like that kid in "The Omen." You're a bad seed on holy ground and you're sick and you're going to to spend the whole day in the Holy Crapper." But we passed through the Jerusalem Gates with no problem and went right into the Temple Market Place, where there were people dressed in period costume, saying, "Shalom!" and doing carpentry. There were not any specific Bible characters, just types, like a Levite priest and a gladiator with whom you could get your picture taken, like Tigger, except to make you smile the gladiator said, "Pay your taxes to Caesar!"
There is far, far too much in Holy Land to cover here. It's brimming with objects, multimedia presentations and re-creations, like the Calvary Gardens Tomb, the place from which Jesus mysteriously took a powder. You go into the cave and there's a slab with an empty sheet and a sign that says, "He is not here for He has risen." It could have used one of those little clocks that say, "Sorry, we're out. Back in 2,000 years (give or take)."
We also watched a movie, a flashy epic called "The Seed of Promise," which told the Bible story and blamed the pickle humanity is in on Adam, which I thought was a nice twist, as Eve usually bares the brunt. Personally I blame the apple incident on God. If you put two kids in a room with a cake and say, "Don't eat any," and you expect an intact cake on your return, you shouldn't be in charge.
We also hit the Oasis Cafe, where they were serving Hebrew National hot dogs, Goliath and Goliath Junior burgers (why not just a David burger?) and Middle Eastern food to the tune of belly-dance music. We could have used a few actual belly dancers, and we were pretty sure they were around back in the day, but they didn't make the cut.
The gift shop had all the requisite things like candles, nativity scenes, Sea of Galilee mouse pads and lots of books, one of which was called "What Every Jewish Person Should Ask," by David M. Levy. It begins with a spiel about your waning faith as a Jew ("as an adult, Judaism did not meet your spiritual needs") and ends with, "If you would like to discuss the decision you just made in accepting Jesus as your Messiah ..." and a way to contact Mr. Levy. Like the olive trees and the time-worn facades, it was just another detail.
Everything in Holy Land is both educational and evangelical and we wanted to see it all, but after a solid four hours we felt we'd been there 40 days and 40 nights. Like twitchy kids ready to bust out of Sunday school, we didn't feel much Christian charity toward anyone.
But we got what we came for: a look. And for what it is, Holy Land does what it promises to do. If you're allergic to the religious angle, you might be happier someplace else. With rides.
Although some might say the greased poll to hell you're on is going to be the ride of your life.