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Orlando's Strangest Theme Park Is All About Jesus and Jesus Related Merchandise

We went to Holy Land Experience, the oddest, cheapest, most devout theme park you'll ever see.
March 12, 2014, 5:30pm

A scene from Passion - We Shall Behold Him Play, courtesy of Holy Land Experience.

The daily Passion of the Christ play at the Holy Land Experience is clearly the meal ticket for the Christian theme park. You don’t have much of a choice; all the other attractions close for the 80-minute play. To ram the point home even more, the narrator declares beforehand: “This is the most important play you will ever see.”

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Before it starts though, there’s another notification. Please, everybody, don’t hit the devil. “His name is Eric. He’s just an actor,” says our folksy emcee. “I say this because a couple of weeks ago we had a woman slap the devil and one of his minions.” There’s another disclaimer. “Also, it’s an actor playing Jesus,” he says. “His name is Les, and he’s done tremendous service to the Lord. And God hears him, hears his prayers and does wonderful things through him. A little while ago someone came in here wearing a hearing aid and left without it.”

This was to be the final moment of our experience at the Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida, probably the oddest theme park in a city of theme parks.

The Jesus biography, officially known as The Passion—We Shall Behold Him, or “the most important play you’ll ever see,” is the centrepiece of the revamped park. It was founded by a converted Jew, Marvin Rosenthal and opened in 2001. Marv clearly wasn’t a great businessman and sold the park six years later to concentrate full-time on his Zion’s Hope ministries, which ironically seems to be about reminding everyone (especially Jews) that we’re going to hell because Jesus is coming soon.

The Church of All Nations, with baptism bool. Photo courtesy of the author.

Now the park is run by Trinity Broadcasting Network, whose founder, Paul Crouch, died a couple of months ago. The headquarters of TBN are located right next door. As part of admission package, a pleasant woman said “Shalom,” and thrust a handful of dedicatory pamphlets to him into our hands.

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Crouch was nothing if not a shrewd businessman, though. It costs $45 for one-day pass, $70 if you need the two days to get the full experience. When my girlfriend, Pascale, and I started walking through the park, it was tough to see where our hard-earned cash had gone. The “gleaming, six-story replica of Herod’s Temple” we’d been promised was typical Florida construction (cheap). The “authentic Jerusalem marketplace” was about the size of three parking spots, and was cordoned off and inaccessible anyway. There’s no rides either; and some of the attractions were a tad underwhelming. “18. Whipping Post” was a wooden post with a cardboard cutout of a bloodied Jesus being whipped, red paint liberally smeared all over it. We walked to “24. The Jesus Boat,” which appeared to be a car-sized vaguely boat-shaped plastic object. More cutouts, this time of fishing disciples.

A cardboard cutout of the actor playing Jesus at Holy Land Experience. Photo courtesy of the author.

The workers offered a friendly “Shalom” when we approached them. Hundreds of Roman soldier statues are scattered throughout the park, as are at least five nativity scenes, a Garden of Eden loaded with almost-lifesize animals, and always, from everywhere, godawful Christian rock blasting through the speakers. Cheesy presentations about how the Bible was the perfect written word of God, passed down flawlessly throughout the ages, are easily found.

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Jesus was cropping up everywhere. He was baptizing people at noon in the wading pool in front of the Church of All Nations auditorium, where we watched the plays, giving park-goers communion at five points in the day, in a “setting reminiscent of the last supper.” The play we saw before the Passion was called Forgiven, centring around the lives of King David and Bathsheba, Gomer and Hosea, and Saul/Paul. At the end, they all stood on stage together, and the surprise entrant was Jesus, who walked up to the stage, hugging and forgiving them all. “I forgive you David,” he said, wrapping his arms around the person who’d died in 1000 B.C.

Jesus is omnipotent in the gift shop. This one was the real Jesus, though. His flock packed the store, too. The gift shop does great business, selling all things Holy Land Experience on the cheap. We brought back an iPhone case ($3), three resurrection nightlights ($2 each), and a Holy Land Experience pint glass ($6). People were loading up their carts. They also like proselytizing to Jews; we picked up a “messianic prayer shawl,” or tallit ($15), which was embroidered with a Jesus fish, a cross, and passages from the New Testament. “That’s really offensive,” my girlfriend whispered to me. So we bought one. Then we spotted Christ in the flesh to the left of the register; this version of Christ, a few feet from the cashier, wasn’t quite so interested in purging the moneylenders from the temple. Folks were lining up to have their photos taken with him. I was all set to do the same, but then I realized Jesus was praying with everybody he had his photo taken, so we skipped it.

Photo by the author.

The next gift shop we visited is where we picked up a monk teddy bear, “Bearnardo” ($9) as a gift for my 30-year-old sister. We narrowly avoided being prayed for. The man ahead of us, a pastor, engaged in a lengthy prayer session with the cashier before passing over his Visa. We got to the cash.

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“How’s it going?” I asked.

“I am well,” said our cashier, “because I am blessed by the light of our Lord. Yourself?”

“I’m good,” and quickly thrust the cash at him.

So, back to the play. The last part of our day, we were half-dizzy and half-disappointed when we got into the theatre.

It was about halfway through the play that something really odd started happening. Jesus started healing people. At first in the play, as they ran through a greatest hits of Jesus. He healed a leper, whom we had seen manning the gift shop cash earlier, and a blind man, and finally made the actor playing Lazarus rise from the dead. The crowd cheered.

But then Jesus started moving into the crowd. “Does anybody have back pain? Stand up!” And people, (many or most of them elderly) starting standing up. Not the actors though, the people who had paid to see the show. And they started holding out their hands to actor Jesus, calling for him to come and help them. Except he wasn’t really actor Jesus anymore; I don’t think it occurred to most people that this wasn’t actually the corporeal incarnation of their God, but actually an actor named Les. And Les kept improvising. “Back pain be loosened!” he screamed. “Herniated discs sliding back inwards. Vertebrae realigning. Torn muscles healing!”

And he moved on from affliction to affliction, healing bum knees (“Meniscus healing!), nerve damage (“Nerves regenerating!”) and more, different waves of the crowd springing to their feet with each promised miracle. And I don’t know if Michael knew of his own limitations after a bit, because he started telling people which chronic back pain that they should lean and bend their backs so they’d know how the pain was gone.

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We were feeling mildly uncomfortable at this point. “I’m a little scared,” I said to Pascale, because there was a palpable energy in the room and we didn’t know how far it would go. Had it been a Saturday, when all 2,000 seats would have been filled, it might have been chaos, hundreds of grannies with knees popping as they stood up to receive the healing of God, through the conduit of actor Jesus.

Eventually Jesus stopped healing crowd members. But the play itself was strange beyond just the healing bit. Christian music was blasting at full volume the whole time, and the characters, played by the friendly ticket agents and guides who’d been greeting us with “Shalom!” throughout the day, were scattered all about the auditorium. The devil, inevitably trailed by crawling demons wearing skin-tight full body black suits, spoke through a kind of voicebox, a little like what Darth Vader sounds like (he looked a bit like him too) and was almost always on stage. When Jesus was crucified, he screamed “Victory is mine!” a few times, cackling maniacally to the dismay of the audience.

On the other hand, when Jesus was born, there were at least eight people wearing full-on white angel robes and wings spinning and dancing on stage, while on the giant wraparound projection screen behind it they broadcast a gigantic close-up of a newborn baby’s face, a 20-foot approximation of what the Saviour’s visage might have looked like if he was born in the 21stcentury, and was white.

The crucifixion scene. Photo courtesy of Holy Land Experience.

The final scene was a depiction of the book of Revelation, which most churches try their best to ignore because it’s the craziest book of the Bible, and no one can make sense of it. This one started with pulsating 1980s style rock, and the Devil driving a motorcycle. With Jesus’s crucifixion, the message was that the Devil had won. (“Victory is miiiiiinnnnneeee!”he screamed again) Then Jesus came out, and starting pumping his fist to the crowd. And the crowd went nuts, aided by the speakers pumping in pre-recorded audience cheering and whistles, getting their entry-fee’s worth of entertainment.

Les/Jesus eventually defeated Devil/Erik, making him kneel, and then exited, only to come back wearing a crown, a golden robe with a train around 30 metres long and sparkly, like we’d seen in the mock-ups of the play’s characters in the Chrestus Gardens wax museum earlier. All of the cast members came to be with Jesus in heaven, more random crazy shit flashed on the screen behind, and finally the curtains closed. Pascale and I breathed sighs of relief.

“Well,” I said, “I think that was worth $45.”

“Yes,” she said, looking slightly shell-shocked.

The emcee came out to lead prayers for the audience, but we got the hell out of there first.