The Holy Land Experience: Florida's Christian theme park

And lo, Tanya Gold went forth unto The Holy Land Experience in the land of Florida, and there she beheld Jesus, and a donkey. And the blow-dries were good

The Guardian, UK/December 23, 2011

The main entrance to "The Holy Land Experience" theme park. Photograph: Kevin Wisniewski/Rex Features

The Holy Land Experience is a religious fundamentalist theme park in Orlando, Florida. It was founded in 2001 by Marvin Rosenthal, a Jewish-born Baptist minister, whose Zion's Hope organisation likes to convert Jews to Christianity; it was picketed by the Jewish Defence League on its opening day, although they didn't actually have the guts to invade and occupy it. It then passed, for $37m in 2007, to Paul and Jan Crouch, who own the Trinity Broadcasting Network and are the biggest figures in International God TV.

I emailed in advance, asking to interview the park owners and the staff. A few days later a reply came – they don't give interviews. It was signed off "Blessings". Nor can I interview (stalk) any of the customers, presumably because coming here is a religious experience and they don't want liberal (godless) journalists interfering. But I will get 10% off the $35 admission.

The entrance is a shrunken copy of the Damascus Gate in old Jerusalem; it is quite like old Jerusalem except there are no members of the Israeli Defence Force sitting on the wall. Perhaps the Israeli Defence Force could have been represented by gnomes or cardboard cutouts, because the Holy Land Experience is full of cardboard cutouts of Jesus looking young, hot and very toothy, as if commerce would not tolerate an ugly Jesus, no matter how devout the consumers.

"This entire Holy Land theme park is under 24-hour surveillance," says a sign. I knew that.

Now it would be easy to dismiss the Holy Land Experience as a temple for a cult – except I have already been to Disneyworld. And, for an hour at least, I like the Holy Land Experience just because it isn't the Magic Kingdom. (I have yet to discover they are the essentially the same place, with a different god.) Even the 50 cents I am charged for water in the cafe and the Salvation Report I can fill in - "Father, I know I am a sinner and I ask you to forgive me" – do not really bother me, even if the additional question on the Praise Report – "What channel/cable station are you watching?" – feels like marketing, not salvation.

The park is a series of Biblical sets with gift shops in between. ("In my Father's house there are many gift shops.") There is a pre-Hamas Jerusalem street market (no guns), a Calvary in an amphitheatre and an enormous Temple which is all white and gold, pure North London Jewish Renaissance, although I suspect the designers didn't know that. It is so clean and shiny it seems blow-dried. Jericho, meanwhile, is relegated to the car park. Is it some kind of metaphor, or even political statement, that the occupied territories are in the car park?

There is also a fake Coliseum, which will be a Church (of all the Nations - not open yet) and a tableau of Jesus's life, where everyone, even a random horse, is wearing polyester. So far, this is a Monty Python movie with no gags. The few visitors, all elderly white couples, wander around listlessly, as if on rails. No one makes eye contact; one man wears a T-shirt saying, "I love my wife." To find action of any kind, I have to go into the gift shop.

The gift shop sells make-up bags decorated with crosses, movies (Once Upon a Stable, Escape From Hell) and a library of the musings of Paul Crouch's favourite preachers, including his own effort, The Shadow of the Apocalypse, which posits, through a friend called Larry, the idea that Psalm 23 verse 4 is encoded to predict 9/11. (Larry also found the word "anthrax" hidden in Malachi 2:10.) The most striking object, however, is a portrait of Jesus Christ wearing boxing gloves. He is a very late 1980s and dependent-on-his-dentist Jesus.

The woman working there is dressed as a first century Jew, standing behind a cash till. But Orlando is like that: cognitive dissonance between motorways. Is Jesus for sale?

"No," she says, and tells me it is based on a male model called Fabio. I looked Fabio up and he looks like a tin of corned beef with a head. The shop woman thinks it is irreverent. (He is topless.)

"Jesus is not your buddy," she says. So why is it here?

"Jan put it there," she says, "and you don't mess with Jan."

This is Jan Crouch, and no written word could contain her. Look her up on YouTube. She is like an evil Dolly Parton, although if you read Paul Crouch's biography, Hello World! – it's in the gift shop, inevitably – you may possibly forgive everything. "She began to withdraw into a melancholy state ... for days she would sit in her bedroom without dressing or eating," Crouch writes of Jan's experience of depression, "My boys remember this time most painfully … [they] had to literally learn to cook and wash clothes."

I tell the shop woman I have just been to Disneyworld. Has she? "No," she says, "I wanted to. I asked God. But he said no." But it doesn't matter, she adds sighing, because Disneyworld is full of "gays pawing each other". So she probably wouldn't like it. That is the thing about Religious Fundamentalists. Just when you think they are OK because they are well-mannered or kindly looking, or simply don't hit you with a stick, they remind you of their intolerance. Don't cross them, in a pun or anywhere else.

There are no roller coasters at the Holy Land Experience and no plastic dinosaurs. Apart from the fake bits of Israel, which remind me that Americans would rather build a foreign land in America than actually travel there (unless there are the funds to invade), the main attractions are the plays. This leads to the incredible headline I found on a website: Catch Jesus Being Crucified Six Times a Week.

How often do you get to say you're going to the Last Supper? There are 10 Last Suppers a day here; the 16.15 one is the last Last Supper. We sit round a dining table in a very glossy rustic hovel. It reminds me of Mel Brooks's History of the World, where Brooks played a waiter at the Last Supper: "Judas! Do you want a beverage? Are you all together or is it separate checks?" Jesus walks in. He has all the glamour of a daytime TV star; apparently he moonlights on a cooking channel, although I may be confused because there is more than one Jesus on the payroll here. He is mumbling. I can't hear him through his blow-dry. I think he is saying, "My dear children, how I have longed to share this Passover meal with you."

If I sound petty, I will say I object to Christian Fundamentalism for two reasons. It is oppressive of women, gays and itself generally because it insists man is inherently, rather than habitually, sinful. It offers only one way to salvation and no North London pluralist could accept that. It is also too specific: they know all the details, except the name of the donkey. Personally, I would never deny the existence of God. The existence of Simon Heffer implies a universe where anything is possible.

And so I walk into a very clean and air-conditioned auditorium for The Four Women Who Loved Jesus. It is a surprisingly slick play, with four women standing outside the prison where Jesus is held, telling their stories, which are essentially portraits of misogyny, featuring insane repetition of the word "Jesus". Eventually Jesus appears – he really is hot – and forgives them and I am reminded of what a great story the foundation myth of Christianity is, speaking to both our self-hatred and our fear of death; psychologically it's got everything, even a donkey.

I even weep during the prostitute's tale, except they don't call her a prostitute. At the Holy Land Experience, she's relegated to a mere harlot, for reasons of taste. Anyway I am a sucker for any female tale of redemption. At the end a man appears with a microphone. He says his name is Tom. "Aren't you glad that Jesus loves us?" he asks. The audience half-murmur yes; as far as gestures of faith go, I would say it is a four. As we leave an elderly woman with a gentle voice pats me on the shoulder. "I could see it touched you," she says. (How? She was sitting behind me.) "God bless you."

The Passion is the Big Event – in the Magic Kingdom they would call it a super-headliner, although it would star The Mouse, not The Baby. We sit on stone mushrooms and the crowd, now swelled to families with children, begins to wake up. They open their cameras and listen to an announcement: "Paul and Jan Crouch thank you for coming and for loving Jesus. We ask you to love your neighbour as yourself and switch off your mobile phone."

We are also told we cannot leave before the end of the performance. At Disneyworld you could leave. Goofy might throw you a dirty look, but you could leave.

Hot Jesus is betrayed, stripped, attached to a cross and followed by Satan, who looks like Darth Maul from Star Wars. He is wearing a toy snake; otherwise, the production values are amazing. I feel I am at a very glitzy performance of a medieval passion play – which I am. Everyone raises their cameras for the crucifixion, which always seemed to me a strangely sadistic symbol for an expression of faith. A little girl in red is crying; people rise and shout "Jesus!" Then they sit down again. It is a very muted passion, over-baked in the sun.

Thank God He is resurrected. Because the little girl has stopped crying. We enter the Temple for the Resurrection, because a crucifixion without a resurrection is like finishing Jane Eyre after the bigamous marriage – no happy narrative bump to send you on your way to TGI Friday's.

I am certain the Temple has been very recently hoovered. Angels (white and gold, they match the set) sing and wave their golden wings. Jesus walks in, wearing a 40ft -long purple velvet cape and a plastic crown. We all stand up – some to raise their bibles in the air and shout "Jesus!", which I have only ever seen in movies – and some to see over the people raising their bibles in the air and shouting "Jesus!" A man dashes forward to free Jesus's cloak. It is caught on a handbag. Jesus hurls Satan to the floor and then I watch Bethlehem's Miracle Night, which has a stereotypical greedy Jew, which is a bit much from the Crouches, and some people dressed as sheep.

At the end comes the pitch. "Tonight you can be born again," says a man. "We would love to pray for your children, for your finances or, if you would like an infilling of the Holy Spirit or maybe a renewal of praise and worship, I will ask our staff to make our way out." The staff pick up signs that say Holy Spirit and Salvation.

"Take advantage of these markers," the man says. "Tonight could be the night when God intervenes in your life." Everyone poses for photographs with the sheep; fewer go for prayers.

On the way out, I pass a woman with three children. She pushes her son – is he seven, eight? – towards a costumed preacher, who is not dressed as a sheep.

"Jesus is knocking on your heart," says the man to the child, "And who lets him in?"

The boy looks tense, and says, "I do".

"Amen," says his mother, "Amen."

And that is the Holy Land Experience. I feel like I have watched 18 Steven Spielberg films in a row.

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