It seems that Ark Encounter, the $100 million Noah’s Ark theme park in Kentucky, isn’t doing so great.
According to the Louisville Courier Journal, around 860,000 tickets were sold for the Ark between July 2017 and June 2018, which falls pretty far short of the 2 million in annual ticket sales predicted by Ken Ham, the Ark’s creator, before it opened. (A spokesperson for the attraction told the Courier Journal that ticket sales did not reflect the number of people who visited due to annual passes and free tickets for under fives. They put the actual number closer to a million.)
Ham has previously blamed multiple factors for the underwhelming performance of the attraction. From local business owners to atheists. But is there a simpler explanation? Is it possible that people don’t want to visit the Ark because it sucks?
Before examining this, it's worth looking at what the makers of the Ark were going for when they embarked upon the project. According to Ham, the aim was to produce something so entertaining it would attract Christians and non-Christians alike. "How do you reach the general public in a bigger way?" he asked in an interview last year with the Washington Post. "Why not attractions that people will come to the way they go to Disney or Universal or the Smithsonian?" Which, presumably, is why he hired Patrick Marsh, an attractions designer who has worked on Universal Studios and the Sanrio theme park in Japan, to work on the Ark.
So is the Ark likely to draw in visitors in the same way as Disney or Universal or the Smithsonian? I visited to find out:
GETTING TO THE ARK
Once I’d paid $61.48 (!!!) for my entry ticket and parking, I boarded the shuttle bus that takes you from the parking lot to the Ark, which is located on the other side of some hills.
The Ark—which you first glimpse as the bus crests a hill—is genuinely impressive. As advertised, it is a very, very large replica of Noah’s Ark.
IS IT FUN ENOUGH TO CONVERT YOU TO A CREATIONIST BELIEF SYSTEM? Not really. Beyond the initial “wow, that’s big” the Ark elicits, it doesn’t offer much entertainment value. It’s just a large building in a shape you don't typically see large buildings in. It’d be a bit like taking one of those uncontacted Amazonian tribespeople to see an empty Best Buy. They’d almost certainly think the structure was interesting, but I doubt they’d want to have to pay $61.48 to spend a day there.
ENTRY TO THE ARK
As you enter the Ark, you go through an extremely optimistic queueing area. Like the kind they have at theme parks that switch back on themselves to cram as many people as possible into a small space. If I had to guess, I would estimate the area could hold a thousand-ish people. When I walked through, there were around ten of us in there.
Then you enter the first section of the Ark. Which, weirdly, is another queueing area, this time themed to look like an animal storage hold. There was room for an extra couple of hundred people. It also did not need that space when I visited.
IS IT FUN ENOUGH TO CONVERT YOU TO A CREATIONIST BELIEF SYSTEM? No. But I guess it doesn't really matter because it seems unlikely anyone will ever actually have to wait in either area.
THE ANIMAL HOLD
The first proper exhibit on the Ark is a room containing lots of wooden cages with model animals in them.
IS IT FUN ENOUGH TO CONVERT YOU TO A CREATIONIST BELIEF SYSTEM? Not really. The animals aren't interactive and don't move or anything. Maybe if you were some kind of model animal enthusiast it would be cool to see?
The original plan was, apparently, to have live animals in this section. Which would've presumably meant hundreds of distressed, loud, shitting animals crammed into cages in a small space with no natural light. Depending on your tolerance for animal cruelty, that could have been an interesting spectacle, I guess.
THE PRE-FLOOD WORLD
Content-wise, this area has massive potential. It shows what the world was like before the flood, which was apparently lots of people vs. dinosaur gladiator battles, human sacrifices, and people getting eaten by sharks.
But, unfortunately, with the exception of three dioramas, all of that is depicted using a bunch of pictures and text on boards stuck to the wall.
IS IT FUN ENOUGH TO CONVERT YOU TO A CREATIONIST BELIEF SYSTEM? No. I can’t imagine it would’ve taken a massive chunk out of their overall budget to make this section a dark ride or a haunted house or something.
A BUNCH OF SIGNS ON A WALL
Once you're done reading the signs on the wall of the pre-flood world section, you head on to the next attraction: a bunch of signs on walls. These signs go over things like the shortcomings of evolution and how Noah and his family might have theoretically dealt with things like waste disposal and ventilation. There are also some wax figures of Noah's family.
IS IT FUN ENOUGH TO CONVERT YOU TO A CREATIONIST BELIEF SYSTEM? No. People do not want to read signs on walls. Look at Disney World's Epcot. There's a ride called Test Track, which teaches you about automotive design but is also a roller coaster type thing that goes 65 MPH. It generally has a wait time of about an hour. A couple of hundred feet away, there's a museum-style exhibition hall devoted to explaining technological breakthroughs that's so quiet, you could dump a body in there and it would go unnoticed for days.
THE ARK'S LIVING QUARTERS
Then it’s on to the living quarters—a series of rooms showing how Noah and his family might have lived. There’s a sign as you enter explaining that they’ve had to take artistic license while designing the area, because the Bible doesn't give much info on this topic.
They could’ve used that artistic license to make something cool, like Biblical Wakanda. But instead, they made up a name for Noah’s wife (Emzara) and created an exhibit on looms, the single least entertaining object on earth.
IS IT FUN ENOUGH TO CONVERT YOU TO A CREATIONIST BELIEF SYSTEM? No. You can see fake bedrooms and living rooms in an IKEA for free. And you don't have to read a single word about looms while doing it.
SPOOKY ANIMAL ENCOUNTER
This is a couple of dark tunnels that features some taxidermy animals and spooky sound effects.
IS IT FUN ENOUGH TO CONVERT YOU TO A CREATIONIST BELIEF SYSTEM? It's probably the most entertaining thing on the ship, but it doesn't quite manage to be entertaining in the traditional sense. Just when looked at comparative to its surroundings.
FAIRY TALE ARK
As you can see in the picture above, the entrance for this area, which is surrounded by giant cutesy animals, looks promising.
But it’s a bait and switch. This exhibit is actually designed to teach you that cutesy animals, like the kind of cutesy animals that enticed you into the exhibit, are evil. Because children's books that tell the story of the Ark—i.e. the story of a Neolithic man building a boat large enough to carry two representatives of every species on earth—undermine it by making it seem implausible.
IS IT FUN ENOUGH TO CONVERT YOU TO A CREATIONIST BELIEF SYSTEM? Categorically no. And frankly cruel to all the poor, bored kids that are tricked into entering.
The Ark has two screening areas that, during my visit, played two movies on loop.
The first, The Noah Interview, is set in the time of Noah, and shows him being interviewed about the Ark by a journalist from his local paper. Noah is handsome, level-headed, and nice. The reporter is mean, has a British accent, and says things like, “How long have you been working on this… little project?“ while rolling her eyes. The moody CGI backdrop the interview takes place against looks like a Linkin Park video.
The other film, As in the Days of Noah, features the same actors, but is set in the present day, with a staff member from Ark Encounter being interviewed by a reporter from a New York tabloid that runs stories with titles like “Best Sex Change Surgeons on the East Coast” and “Start Walking Ladies! Sharia Law Means Male Drivers Only!” and “Hipsters Aren’t Cool Anymore.”
IS IT FUN ENOUGH TO CONVERT YOU TO A CREATIONIST BELIEF SYSTEM? The only entertainment here is unintentional, so probably not. Unless you convert ironically.
And then it's time for signs again. Room after room after room of signs. More signs than have ever been gathered in one place before. More signs than all the Women's Marches combined. Signs with titles like "Cross-Continent Deposition" and "Paraconformities" and "Polsystrate Fossils" and "The Enigmatic Stonehenge."
IS IT FUN ENOUGH TO CONVERT YOU TO A CREATIONIST BELIEF SYSTEM? No. No no. I challenge you to think of an activity less entertaining than reading a sign about whatever a polsystrate fossil is.
A CHRISTIAN GRAPHIC NOVEL
One of the newer additions to the Ark is an exhibit made to look like a graphic novel that tells the story of some college kids questioning their faith (spoiler alert: God turns out to be cool, actually).
IS IT FUN ENOUGH TO CONVERT YOU TO A CREATIONIST BELIEF SYSTEM? Ken Ham described the exhibit as “like walking through the pages of a book.” An alternative description would be “like reading a bunch of signs stuck to a wall.”
Once you're outside the Ark, you can go to a zoo area with zebras and camels and some petting-zoo type animals like donkeys and goats. There are, of course, signs—this time explaining why each animal disproves evolution.
IS IT FUN ENOUGH TO CONVERT YOU TO A CREATIONIST BELIEF SYSTEM? I guess it depends on how you feel about zoos. Seeing animals in captivity makes me kind of sad, so if I’m going to go to one I’d like to see something a bit more exciting than a goat.
Also outside are ziplines that you can ride for an additional charge of $49 to $119. I didn’t ride them because ziplines are notoriously unfun. With the exception of zipline instructors and American Gladiators, there is not a person alive who has gone ziplining more than once.
Anti-LGBTQ bigotry is a big attraction at the theme park, and is smattered generously throughout.
All people who volunteer or work at the park are required to sign a “statement of faith” which explicitly prohibits them from employment if they’re gay, bi, or a person who has “attempt[ed] to alter [their] gender by surgery or appearance.”
During my visit, I saw multiple ads for something the Ark is hosting called “Sacred: Embracing God’s Design for Sexuality” which appears to be some sort of transphobic gay conversion event.
Not satisfied with robbing queer people of employment and their identities, Ken Ham also has an ongoing campaign to “take back the rainbow,” which is promoted through a nighttime rainbow light show, and merchandise available in the gift shop.
IS IT FUN ENOUGH TO CONVERT YOU TO A CREATIONIST BELIEF SYSTEM? According to Gallup, the number of people who dislike LGBTQ people is falling each year. To incorporate it so extensively into your attraction seems like probably a bad use of resources.
IS THE ARK FUN ENOUGH TO CONVERT YOU TO A CREATIONIST BELIEF SYSTEM? No. It is, essentially, a $100 million sign storage unit that costs $50 to visit (plus parking).
Which is kind of a bummer. All kids, even ones dragged to creationist attractions by their parents, deserve to have fun. Just because your parents would rather spend their money on this nonsense than Six Flags or a PS4 game, it doesn’t mean you deserve to have a miserable childhood.
It had previously been reported that the makers of the Ark were planning an expansion that would include a Ten Plagues of Egypt thrill ride. But Patrick Kanewske, a spokesperson for the attraction, told me the ride is on ice while they focus on building a new auditorium, a retail and dining area, and a Tower of Babel building which contain "several different exhibits that talk to the Biblical account of the flood."
It sounds unlikely, but hopefully at least one of these will have slightly less signs.
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