ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Jesus Christ is crucified and resurrected here six days a week.
Snarling Roman soldiers whip and drag him, and somber audience members watch. Some quietly weep at a pageant bloody and cruel.
It is the grand finale at the Holy Land Experience, and not the attraction most tourists envision in an Orlando vacation. Just miles from Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando and SeaWorld in this city’s overstimulated tourist corridor, Holy Land has in its six years of operation aimed to recreate Jerusalem of Biblical times.
It is often referred to as a “Christian theme park,” but the park offers lectures, not rides, making it feel more like a trip to church. Its officers prefer to call it a “living Biblical museum” and until last month, the nonprofit operation was troubled. Management changed hands, its founder left and attendance was flat. But suddenly, a savior appeared.
Trinity Broadcasting Network, a California-based Christian empire with 12,500 worldwide TV and cable affiliates, took over Holy Land and its estimated $8 million mortgage. Both are nonprofit organizations, so Trinity describes the deal as a “marriage” rather than a purchase, saying little money changed hands.
Already, ticket sales are up 25 percent, owing to mentions on the new parent’s broadcasts, and an expansion is planned. It will include new shows, a general freshening and a new Trinity television studio, where movies and TV shows will be filmed and furnish even more publicity.
“We believe that the way this came together it was designed by God for us to continue the way we need to,” park president Tom Powell said. “I don’t think the end result is because of anything any person did. I think it’s the end result of what everyone here was asking for.”
Holy Land previously had almost no advertising budget, relying on word-of-mouth testimonials and tourists who happened to drive by.
The park has a “scriptorium,” an opulent-looking building with an enormous collection of rare Bibles and artifacts. Powell said it is the largest of its kind outside the Vatican.
Other stops include a scale model of Jerusalem, an exhibit on the Dead Sea Scrolls and a model of the garden tomb where Christ was supposedly buried.
Vendors and actors wear head coverings and billowing cotton rags, and gift shops sell Bibles and other Christian items. Among them are a genealogical map linking Adam to Jesus, handbags, necklaces and T-shirts. It also sells yarmulkes and menorahs – a nod to its founder.
The attraction opened in 2001, the vision of a New Jersey preacher who came South to expand his reach. It was controversial because the Rev. Marvin Rosenthal is a Baptist born Jewish, and now considers himself a “Hebrew Christian” or “Messianic Jew.” That means he believes Jesus is the Messiah, contrary to traditional Jewish beliefs. Some local Jews were upset he was creating an attraction, and their conflict made international news when the park started.
“We were given tremendous promotion by the fact that there were a few voices that didn’t want to see us open the facility,” Rosenthal said. “Consequently, the media got wind of that and I wound up being on most of the networks. Good Morning America, Good Night America, Good Afternoon America, The O’Reilly Factor. I had people coming from Russia, from Israel, from South America, from Europe. Out of that event we received what had to be many millions of dollars worth of publicity.”
Rosenthal left Holy Land two years ago, saying it was simply time to move on. He now runs a Clermont-based ministry called Zion’s Hope and has no contact with the park.
Trinity didn’t intend to get into the Biblical attraction business, but was looking for an Orlando location for a new TV production studio, chief of staff Paul Crouch Jr. said.
Now the organization will build it at Holy Land, and could make TV and movie filming a part of the guest experience.
“We can use the Holy Land Experience as a backlot, almost like Universal Studios does. It’ll be a faith-based version of Universal Studios,” Crouch said. “We can shoot movies there, we can do concerts, we can do TV shows.”
Holy Land’s offerings change regularly, many of them outdoor shows. Recent performances range from The Ministry of Jesus, a 15-minute act where Christ heals a blind man and inspires a tax collector, to a 30-minute Southern gospel concert and the resurrection itself.
Audience members are encouraged to participate. Jesus walked among them with a wireless microphone, calling children and picking one up. Excited parents with digital and disposable cameras crept forward as their kids fidgeted and kicked at sand.
Lisa Bell, 42, husband David Bell, 50, and their 2-year-old son came from Ripley, Tenn., after seeing Holy Land on Trinity. She said they didn’t consider attending the other parks.
“Oh no. Jesus was just holding him,” Lisa Bell said, nodding to her sunburned son. “He knows who Jesus is.”
The park relies heavily on donations from benefactors, foundations and visitors slipping money into boxes scattered around the park, saying ticket sales doesn’t cover costs. Admission prices have risen from less than $20 originally to $35 to $40 today.
Powell said not all visitors are Christian, and some have never even been to church before. Fourteen Hindu monks passed through the other day, he said.
Crouch says he thinks of Holy Land as a ministry, not a theme park.
“When I went there for the first time about six or seven months ago, I didn’t go there to be entertained and I didn’t see a theme park taking place. I saw people praying for each other, I saw Bible studies going on, I saw teaching going on,” he said. “At the end of the day, I felt like I had gone to church, not just gone to Disneyland.”