A photo essay by James Bielo and Jana Mathews
It was hardly a surprise when the Holy Land Experience (HLE) permanently closed in August 2021. Fans and critics alike had witnessed HLE’s protracted decline. Located eleven miles northeast of Walt Disney World, the bible-themed attraction had been a controversial member of Orlando’s theme park community since 2001. Founded by a Messianic Jewish entrepreneur, Marvin Rosenthal, the fifteen-acre site featured a scale model of first-century Jerusalem; an interactive museum that housed the largest collection of biblical artifacts outside the Vatican at the time of its opening; and several reconstructed biblical sites, including Herod’s Temple and the Garden of Gethsemane. Costumed actors re-enacted biblical scenes, making theatrical performance a defining element of the site.
Zion’s Hope, Rosenthal’s ministry, struggled to keep pace with the financial demands of operating a full-time park. After spiraling eight million dollars into debt, HLE was purchased for $32 million in 2007 by Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), a charismatic televangelism ministry headed by Paul and Jan Crouch. The new owners immediately set about putting their stamp on the place. For Jan, whose signature look included a pink bouffant hairdo, long manicured nails, and sequined dresses, this meant redecorating in her own aesthetic image. Angels sparkled and plush purple carpets lined the floors.
Holy Land Experience’s pious history
From the beginning, HLE relied on a mixed audience for ticket sales. Alongside evangelical church groups and faith-based fans who came expressly to visit the site, a portion of the early clientele were tourists who spontaneously added HLE to their Orlando theme park itinerary. HLE discovered that curiosity has a limited price point: individuals who were willing to pony up twenty dollars for an admission ticket in 2007 were unwilling to dole out fifty just a few years later. For faith-based visitors, the ticket price hike had an upside: crowds thinned and became more homogenous. As Jill Stevenson notes, being surrounded by other visitors also primed for a spiritual experience significantly increases the odds that you will have one too.
While the park explicitly encouraged displays of affective piety, it didn’t exclusively depend on the inherent contagiousness of emotion to do all the heavy lifting. HLE took its mission to immerse visitors in the world of the bible seriously by staging theatrical performances that intentionally broke the fourth wall. The most notable example was the park’s signature play—The Passion of Jesus—in which audience members were written into the script as small but important characters. Up until 2012, the play was staged in an open-air theater designed to look like Calvary. In this version of the performance, audience members were strategically placed close enough to the performers to sling insults at Satan (and have him respond) and be splattered with Jesus’s (fake) blood during the gruesome pre-crucifixion scourging.
Despite the play’s popularity and success at provoking audiences to tears and cheers at choreographed moments, HLE moved most of its plays, including the Passion, from their unique outdoor settings to a shared indoor stage. The 2000-seat Church of All Nations offered the creature comforts of air conditioning and plush seating, but sacrificed elements of immersion and interactivity. The new theatre setting created an opportunity for individual visitors to construct their own affective scripts. While well-intentioned, this was ultimately a miscalculation. For faith-based visitors who are accustomed to the collective effervescence of a closely-knit crowd, agency can be a burden more so than a gift.
Relocating the theatre performances also transformed the park’s biblical replicas, emptying them of the actor’s lived presence. This further troubled the visitor experience. Contemporary evangelical engagement with the bible prizes applicability to the reader’s everyday life. While some still nerd out on the details of first century Holy Land topography and architecture, evangelical Biblicism is more focused on scripture’s personal relevance than its historical details. HLE’s biblical replicas became less legible when Herod, Moses, Jesus and the rest moved inside. The result was a new cognitive distance between visitors and the materialized bible. Individuals came to HLE expecting to feel as though they were stepping onto familiar terrain, but instead found themselves in a strange place where the landmarks were not easily recognizable.
The consolidation of HLE’s theatrical performances to a single stage initiated a process of economizing and decluttering that culminated in July 2016. One month after Jan Crouch’s death (Paul had passed in 2013), HLE held a massive estate sale that auctioned off a warehouse full of stage props, devotional objects, and religious décor. Despite the outward indications that HLE was liquidating in anticipation of closing, the park limped along for five more years.
HLE reported annual operating deficits of roughly $5 million during its final years. In addition to these chronic financial woes, HLE had long been mired in allegations of abusing tax-exempt privileges, as well as cultural and religious insensitivity. Still, even those who stridently disagreed with HLE’s ideology and bristled over its tax benefits didn’t set off celebratory fireworks when the park closed. The local response was respectfully somber. For a city literally built around theme parks, the loss of one—regardless of how hokey or distasteful one might find it—highlights the fragility of a tourist economy. Even if local residents accept that nothing lasts forever, HLE’s remains pose a problem. The site is located along a main freeway artery (Interstate 4) that runs through the city. HLE was—and still is—an unavoidable landmark. Even locals who had never been inside the park could describe its contents in detail because so much of the attraction can be seen from the top of the freeway off-ramp.
It is difficult to look down into the now abandoned site—or drive its perimeter—and not see a metaphor for the specific brand of evangelical Christianity that TBN and the Crouches expounded. It is equally hard not to find a reverse metaphor in what lies in store for HLE. In 2021, Orlando-based AdventHealth acquired the property for $32 million and announced plans to build a freestanding ER and medical building. Founded by the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, AdventHealth is one of the largest health care systems in the United States, and identifies first and foremost as a ministry whose purpose is to extend “the healing ministry of Christ.”
If the idea of a faith-based medical facility being built atop the rubble of a bible-themed amusement park strikes you as strangely appropriate, it should. After all, western civilization has a long history of erecting churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples on top of the ruins of other religious sites. This change may also have economic implications, as better-paying healthcare jobs replace the service and entertainment labor attached to the theme park industry.
The story of HLE also resonates with a broader history of bible-themed attractions in North America. Since the late 19th century, several hundred sites have drawn crowds with environments that transform the written words of scripture into experiential, choreographed settings. Some of these sites closely identify with classifications like “theme park,” “museum,” or “garden,” while others jumble familiar genres. Like HLE, most have mixed devotion, education, entertainment, and evangelism in creative and theologically particular ways.
The history of materializing the Bible is, in part, a history of closure. Sites become non-extant for a host of reasons: energetic founders die, legal troubles arise, property is damaged, land is sold, finances become unsustainable, novelty wears off. While quite a few sites have endured much longer than HLE, they have also been less elaborate. Most sites have been smaller than HLE’s 15 acres; many have operated seasonally rather than year-round; few sites offered the all-day programming HLE did; and, while many have relied primarily on volunteer labor, HLE employed roughly 160 people in its closing year. In the broader context of materializing the Bible, HLE’s 20-year run in a competitive theme park market is exceptional.
The afterlife of bible-theme attractions
When sites close, the death or afterlife of their material remains poses a revealing problem. In some cases, whatever was in place deteriorates — an eroding remainder of a failed or concluded endeavor. For example, Holy Land, USA in Bedford, Virginia has sat abandoned since its closure in 2009 after 37 years. The material of other sites become refuse, erased from existence save what documentation might remain in photographs, film, or writing.
Reverend John Ruth’s Drive-Thru Bible Garden in Woodville, Georgia is a heartbreaking case: 43 years of creative labor wiped away. Other sites are declared heritage objects and the preservation of their materiality is legally ensured. A recent example is located in Ste. Anne-de-Beaupre, Quebec: a 16,200-square foot painting, “Jerusalem on the Day of the Crucifixion,” housed in a cyclorama building. Painted in 1887 and installed in the cyclorama in 1895, it is the world’s oldest remaining example of its kind. When the family who has owned the attraction since 1957 listed it for sale in 2017, the Quebec Ministry of Culture intervened. Still other sites are purchased for renewal. Holy Land, USA in Waterbury, Connecticut is an emblematic example: acquired by local business owners in 2013 after corroding in place for nearly 30 years.
Erosion, erasure, preservation, and revitalization are four possibilities, though they are less common than a fifth option: recontextualization. The history of materializing the Bible is replete with examples of closure followed by the movement of materials to a new home. Sizeable and segmented portions of sites are relocated, often to another biblically-themed attraction. HLE participated in this. Christus Gardens operated in Gatlinburg, Tennessee for 48 years before closing. Its centerpiece, a series of life-size biblical dioramas, relocated to HLE in 2008. If past parks provide precedent, then it’s likely that the material displays comprising HLE will reappear again somewhere new. And if they do, how will they be framed for visitors? Christus Gardens always emphasized the historicity of its dioramas. Visitor brochures advertised that “the same company that did costume design for such famous motion pictures as Quo Vadis and Ben Hur” completed the clothing for their figures. Yet, when recontextualized at HLE the Orlando park recalibrated their legitimacy. A placard at the start of the display read: “You are now entering Christus Gardens Wax Museum. The figures are antiques, the costumes are art pieces. They do not portray authentic biblical attire. Please enjoy this rare and beautiful collection as art and museum pieces.”
Will we remember Holy Land Experience?
We can all be on the lookout for how the materials that composed HLE might circulate locally, nationally, or even globally. Also yet to be determined is how HLE will be remembered. This is arguably a more complex question, as the social memory of HLE is something that will work out among different publics, at different scales, and may shift over time. We can look again to other materializing the Bible attractions for some possibilities.
Will HLE be forgotten? This has been the fate of Bible Walk in Collier Township, Pennsylvania. Opened in 1979 and existing only for two years, this quarter-mile pathway featured 32 biblical dioramas. The figures eventually landed at a biblical wax museum in Mansfield, Ohio, but the original site bears no mention of its presence. Will HLE live in infamy? Consider Heritage USA, the evangelical theme park home of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s Praise the Lord ministries. Despite being well attended from 1979 until 1989, the park abruptly closed amid the ministry’s legal problems and filed for bankruptcy. Today, the park’s name is inseparable from the Bakkers’ televangelism scandals. Or, will HLE spark fond nostalgia? This has proven to be true for Waterbury’s Holy Land. The site’s from-a-distance reputation is defined by classifications of “kitsch”: an oddity to be gawked at, an object of bemusement and/or lampooning. But locally, it has been sorely missed by many and its restoration is a source of celebratory hope in a city ravaged by the global relocation of industrial labor.
How will HLE be remembered? Time will tell, of course, but what’s certain is that attending to the processes of its remembering will offer revealing insight. For that reason, if no other, HLE will continue to matter for anyone interested in the public presence of religion, the material practice of religion, and the social life of religious tourism.
All work at The Commons is published under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/
Jana Mathews is a professor of medieval literature at Rollins College (Winter Park, FL). Her research on premodern single-sex communities (nuns, beguines) most recently gave rise to an unexpected book on collegiate fraternities and sororities. The Benefits of Friends: Inside the Complicated World of Today’s Sororities and Fraternities is forthcoming in September 2022 with the University of North Carolina Press.