After boarding the Ark, one of the first things I see is a woman shoveling kettle corn into her mouth while gazing at a pair of caged wax dinosaurs. She's wearing a "Jesus Loves the Ark Encounter" t-shirt and is gently reminded by a staff member to please keep her hands—and her phone—out of the exhibit, which is blocked off with wooden pegs. She settles on taking a selfie with the one of the sauropods, its tail curling into the frame.
This is the third weekend that the Ark Encounter—the $100 million Christian theme park near Williamstown, Kentucky—has been open. The crowning attraction is obviously the 510-foot-long ark ("That's over a football field!" said the bus driver who shuttled us from parking lot to guest services), built by Answers in Genesis founder Ken Ham. It's based on specifications written in the Old Testament account of Noah, who legendarily brought animals in pairs onto a gigantic boat and tended to them during a worldwide flood that lasted 40 days and nights.
The hulking structure has already created a fair amount of controversy in its short existence. Stories of alleged government tax breaks and potentially exclusionary hiring processes have flooded (sorry, couldn't pass that one up) the local media. Many mainstream Christians have since come forward to say that Ham's views, namely his assertion that Earth is only 6,000 years old, don't represent their own. Even Bill Nye—the bowtied man of science himself—paid a visit to the attraction, and left with the impression that it was "much more troubling or disturbing than [he] thought it would be." Maybe it was the sign about unicorns that set him off?
Regardless, I didn't come today to debate theology. I came to check out the food.
The Encounter's tagline is "Bigger than Imagination," which is evident in the sheer size of the ship and the elaborate exhibits within. Does that purported creativity extend into the kitchen that will be used to feed the over 2 million annual visitors that park founders anticipate? After spending an hour in line watching an Ark pre-show video on loop, then weaving through three decks worth of boisterous youth groups and mannequins of Noah and family, I was ready to find out.
To do so required getting off the ark and heading across a gravely expanse to Emzara's Kitchen (the name given to Noah's wife in one of the non-canonical books of scripture). As I head over, my phone buzzes. It's my dad asking if I plan on getting a "Ken Ham and Cheese Sandwich." #DadJokes for the win.
Dan Anderson, who oversees operations for the Ark Encounter, has agreed to meet me in front of the two-story restaurant.
"About how many people does this place hold?" I ask, gesturing to the structure.
Anderson, a husky guy in a collared shirt, gives a gentle sigh: "1,500 total, about 900 on the first floor."
He's exhausted. It's a choking 105 degrees outside, and the Ark is currently holding a "40 Day, 40 Nights" special, during which the park will be open until midnight for that length of time He explains that during these first few weeks, there have been no peak times. It's simply been hectic all day long.
"But I actually enjoy high-volume like this," Anderson says. "It makes the days go faster, makes the financials easier."
Anderson comes from an operations background. Ironically, he worked at a zoo before signing on with the Ark Encounter project in April 2013. Since that time he has hired and trained 85 new employees for dining services alone.
"Any attraction is really the same—whether it is a zoo or a theme park or an amusement park—you're just dealing with the public," Anderson says. "My particular bent really is volume, and you just use best practices. This particular restaurant is designed with one purpose, and that is to feed as many people as possible as quickly as possible."
He explains that around the perimeter of the dining area are small computerised ordering stations that can be turned on and off. There are different lanes that lead to the different cashiers, which can be opened and closed based on crowd size.
"This facility's design was really based around the question, 'How can we get as many people fed as possible?'" he says.
Anderson says that since the Ark is still in its early stages, there are several outdoor kiosks that will roll out ("large skillets, shish kebabs, that kind of stuff," he says) over the next few months. There are also several other menu items that will be added to Emzara's—for example, fries covered with various toppings like Philly cheesesteak accoutrements, and "Noah's chili and cheese."
I'd checked out the website for Emzara's on the drive over. It's pretty basic, advertising "comfort food like burgers, chicken tenders, and pizza." But still, part of me is hoping for something a little more fantastical, or at least punny—something to make the $40 ticket and $10 parking worth it. Unicorn kebabs, a "two-by-two" double cheeseburger, even just some of those dino-shaped chicken nuggets that my elementary school cafeteria served.
But it soon becomes apparent that Emzara's really is more an exercise in function, rather than form. As soon as I walk in, I'm face-to-face with a toothy-grinned hostess standing in front of a mounted elk.
She hands me a laminated menu and ushers me to one of the six slow-moving lines that lead to the counter.
As I wait, I glance at my options. Up at the top of the menu, there are three kinds of "Sacks": Cheeseburger, Bacon Cheeseburger and Chicken Tender. These are meals that, quite literally, come in a paper sack. To add some spice, they are served with Sidewinder Fries (curled like the snake) or Kettle Chips. Then there are the non-sack meals: personal pan pizzas, a Southwest veggie salad, a chicken bacon wrap.
I decide on a cheeseburger sack and sidewinder fries, though I opt out of a $9.99 refillable souvenir bottle. In case you're curious, Pepsi is apparently Noah's soda brand of choice. The decor on the first floor consists of an array of taxidermied animals—a morbid Rainforest Cafe, of sorts—so I make my way to the second floor patio which, according to my map, will provide a "spectacular view of the bow end of the Ark."
While sitting nose-to-nose with the Ark is something I won't soon forget, I can't say the same for the burger. It's not bad, just basic—mass-produced concession stand fare that somehow seems more disappointing given the outlandish setting. I wrap up what's left of my burger and drop it in the trash as pass all the families with their respective sacks, and then trudge back to the parking shuttle. Though I'm not really sure what I was expecting, the meal was a letdown.
I wasn't asking for a miracle, per se—but some mayonnaise would have been nice.