There are a lot of Christian tourist attractions around the world, and I've visited a pretty varied selection of them.
I've watched a life-size animatronic Jesus ascend to the heavens at a wax museum in Kentucky. I've been to a zoo in the UK with signage that says the reason birds sing is to “praise their maker." I've looked longingly over the fence of a Bible-themed mini golf course in Kentucky because it was closed on the day I tried to visit. And so on.
Despite their variety, there's one thing that has unified every Christian attraction I've visited: They have all been, without exception, unbelievably boring.
A few months back, I wrote about my trip to Ark Encounter, a $100 million Noah's ark–themed theme park in Kentucky. It was very dull, and I said so in my write-up. After publication, I got some comments and messages from people saying that I was obviously going to find it uninteresting because I'm not a Christian, and the attraction isn't designed for my cynical non-Christian brain. That it’s not the $100 million Christian theme park that's boring. It’s me.
Which makes sense, I suppose. I have never once gone to one of these things expecting it to be fun, and have never been surprised when it wasn’t. And, if I’m being totally honest, I’m not sure that I'm a very fun person. Like, on more than one occasion, I’ve lied about having a cold so that I wouldn't have to sing at karaoke, and sometimes, at parties, I pretend I need to go to the bathroom so I can just hide out in there for a couple of minutes, staring at the wall and not having to talk to anyone.
So when I visited Noah's Ark Hong Kong, a beachfront Creationist theme park on a tiny island right next to Disneyland, I wanted to be fair, and make sure I did everything I possibly could to ensure I had a good time.
Luckily (depressingly?), there are a lot of guides online that explain how to have fun at the park. I read a bunch of them. Some contained some pretty questionable tips ("Wear a ridiculous outfit, or a graphic tee with a silly message"), but, for the most part, they all boiled down to the same thing: Keep a positive outlook and never worry about looking stupid, which sounded like something I could do. (To be safe, I also downed a couple of canned cocktails before I went.)
Noah’s Ark Hong Kong opened in 2009, and it has a pretty grim history. It was developed by an Evangelical Christian property developer named Thomas Kwok, a member of Asia’s third-wealthiest family who recently got through serving a five-year prison sentence for his involvement in a government bribery scheme (which was not related to the Ark).
The tiny island the Ark sits on used to be home to a small fishing village called Ma Wan, but the village’s occupants were forcefully relocated to make way for the development of the Ark and a park that’s attached to it. The majority of the village’s structures still sit abandoned and rotting just to the west of the Ark. Some of their walls are painted with slogans protesting the evictions. According to documents that were unearthed over the course of Kwok’s bribery trial, Noah's Ark and its park were “only an excuse” to evict the villagers and make way for a luxury residential development Kwok wanted to build on the same island.
After I arrived at the Ark, it didn't take long to realize enjoying myself was going to be difficult—several things happened to nudge my brain from "I'M GOING TO HAVE FUN IN HERE!" to "I'M GOING TO DIE IN HERE!"
When you enter the Ark, you have to pass through one of those mandatory photo ops they have at tourist traps, where they take a photo of you in front of a backdrop, then print it out and thrust it into your hand to try to guilt you into buying it. But when I walked in, there was no one manning it. I thought maybe the staff had just stepped away for a moment, so I hung out soaking up the song that was playing in there (it was sort of like that “one, two, Freddy’s coming for you” song, but about Noah). No one ever appeared. I walked through the first couple of rooms of the exhibit to see if I could see any staff or guests, but the place was completely deserted. It felt very S01 E01 of The Walking Dead. I suppose the real Noah's ark didn't have a lot of people on board, either, so it could have just been super immersive branding.
Once I’d resigned myself to the fact that I was alone in there, I started to read the signs on the exhibits, but I kept getting distracted by rustling and footsteps coming from just around the corner from where I was standing. When I went to try and find the source of the sounds, there was no one there.
I stopped to use the bathroom—a huge, cavernous space in which I was the only occupant. As I entered, I passed a sign on the door that read, “BEWARE SOMEONE BEHIND.” Rationally, I knew this was probably just a translation issue. But, thanks to the lack of people around and the sinister children’s Muzak that was being pumped into all areas of the Ark, it was impossible for me to stop myself from constantly checking over my shoulder, looking for someone of whom I should beware.
In one area, a glass display case was illuminated by the red bulb of a heat lamp. When I approached, a toucan leaped down from a nook at the back of the enclosure and squawked at me. For the rest of my time in the room, it sat, bathed in red light, following me with its gaze. Which was way creepier than I think I'm making it sound.
About halfway through the Ark, I thankfully encountered some people: A family that was maybe British and a couple of staff members.
They were in an area devoted to the theoretical logistics of Noah’s ark (the one in the Bible, not its eponymous theme park). It had some English-subtitled videos that explained things like how the ark might have been ventilated and what kind of wood it might have been made of. I tried as hard as I could to find the fun in them. I forced a positive outlook onto myself. I leaned into the slight alcohol buzz I still had. But I’m pretty sure it’s objectively impossible to find any kind of joy in a video with subtitles like, “The tenon is inserted into a hole cut in the mortise with perfect-fit interlocking faces.”
Next was a room with a bunch of displays devoted to amazing animal feats, some real, like three dolphins that saved the life of a sailor in the 70s, and some made up, like the tortoise and the hare. There’s a chance this room was fun at some point in its past, as there were a bunch of buttons under the displays that presumably once were part of an interactive element. On my visit, pressing them did nothing.
The next series of exhibits didn’t seem to have any unifying theme. There was a display case filled with Noah’s ark toys and merch (not fun), a wall explaining the global flood myths that exist in various cultures around the world (not fun), a big display on insects (not fun), a meteorite (kinda cool, honestly), and some video games (I played one called How Much Do You Cost? that told me the raw materials in my body are worth $442.46, which was definitely confusing and ominous, but I'm not sure it was fun).
The final room of the park seemed custom-designed to trigger my specific anxieties.
I think the theme was, roughly, “How the human race is screwing up planet Earth, and why that means you’re going to die.” The titles of the exhibits on the walls included “A supervolcanic eruption = Global nuclear winter?” and “Be alarmed by climate change: the Doomsday Clock is about to strike midnight.” I tried out an interactive computer exhibit that started with the question “What will happen to your city in 2100?” The answer was a short animation showing a sad cartoon polar bear on a landmass that was gradually swallowed by rising ocean waters.
The area also contained the entrance to a “4D” film (the four dimensions being, presumably, video, audio, very slightly shaky floor, and smoke machine) called Is There an Ark for Our Future? I had 10 minutes to kill before the next showtime, which I spent pacing around the room, looking at photos of endangered species and melting ice caps and generally panicking about the future.
Part of the exhibit had been covered up by the construction of a gift shop, offering some respite from the doom and gloom. But if you looked through the gaps in the shelves of stuffed animals and dinosaur toys, you could still see the old photos of Hurricane Katrina and refugee camps.
It was time for the film. A montage of the ongoing death of our planet played across multiple screens. There were shots of 9/11, famine, war, and factory smokestacks. An animated anthropomorphic Earth was shown looking at the footage and crying. Onscreen text talked about the “countless lives” that have been destroyed by gunfire.
The film ended with cartoon Earth meeting Noah, and Noah asking cartoon Earth whether it thought the story of his ark could serve as a lesson for humanity. The only way I could think to interpret this is that Noah was saying that, because of all the messed-up things the human race is doing, the world would be a better place if humanity were, once again, almost totally wiped out.
After walking out of the park, I looked at the beach that the Ark is built on—a beach built atop the homes of the forcefully relocated, and became entranced by the waves of Hong Kong's heavily polluted waterways gently lapping at its shores, which exist because a super rich person wanted to get a little bit super richer by displacing an entire community. As I stared at all the people milling around, eating their snacks probably made from ingredients that are destroying our planet out of the plastic wrappers that will outlive us by hundreds of years, I thought, That really wasn't very fun.
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