I passed through the ancient gates of Jerusalem. Okay, it was an automated turnstile that gobbled up the $29.99 ticket I purchased minutes before. Still, when churned through the dramatic stone entrance, women in head scarves and tunics welcomed me with a sincere Shalom that dripped a bit with the syrupy twinge of an attenuated southern accent. I chose to ignore this point of historical inaccuracy, just as I had overlooked the tour buses camped out in the parking lot. Shalom I replied in return, and readied myself for the Holy Land Experience, Orlando.
The Middle East of Biblical Times Has Come to Us
In the great American tradition of global exploration without ever leaving our comfort zone or producing a passport, the Middle East of Biblical Times has come to us – complete with parking lot attendants wishing "a blessed day" to all who drive in. What took so long, really? One afternoon in Las Vegas and you can knock Paris and Venice off your list. Cultural immersion (and inebriation) is as simple as consuming a beer from every country at the Epcot Center’s "World Showcase". A spin on "It’s a Small World" at Magic Kingdom is like attending a cheery U.N. summer camp. The Great Wall of China model at nearby Kissimee’s "Splendid China" may have rivaled as the most ancient place you could experience outside the U.S. without actually leaving the U.S., if it hadn’t shut down two years earlier.
The park, supported by a not-for-profit Christian ministry, is now in its sixth year of offering the Holy Land Experience. It is the front runner for fantasy American exploration. I had to see it for myself to believe it. My fellow traveler, Peter (ok, I dragged him along as a witness), and I hit the walled city early to avoid the desert heat. Much like Fantasy Island, I could almost hear someone whisper through the still Palm trees: “Places everyone, places”. The head-scarfed woman at the concession stand had only just flipped on the lazy rotating hot pretzel cage as Peter called out Shalom to her. Older people with grandchildren in tow, milled around waiting for the dazzling performances, dramatic musicals and biblical re-enactments to begin.
First stop – Holy Land Jersualem Model A.D. 66
First stop – Holy Land Jerusalem Model A.D. 66, the world’s largest indoor model of Jerusalem (according to the brochure). It was large alright; however the grand scale was dwarfed by a rotund man standing in the middle of this city in miniature. Here, 30-minute presentations about the city’s landmarks and the final days of Jesus are offered by Biblical Archeologists". Outfitted in khaki shorts, field vests and safari hats, they look as if they just ended a shift at neighboring Bush Gardens. Beyond the sprawling city was the first of the park’s four gift shops. The Shofar Shop was stocked with "fine and distinctive gifts" like books, CDs, bags of mini-pitas for $1.00, and Roman guard costumes for the kids to stage their own Crucifixion at home I imagined. How neat.
A visit to the Scriptorium Center for Biblical Antiquities was next. We were greeted by a friendly host layered in the full Holy Land period costume, only a bit more convincing than the bathrobes and towels we wore as kids for biblical skits at my Catholic grade school. He made pleasant enough conversation, asking everyone where they were from, replying with Holy Land humor, “Ah Chicago, I’ll have to unhitch the Camel and get up there one of these days.” We had arrived at the perfect time he informed us, this one-hour exhibit gets very crowded in the afternoon. Sixty minutes in the Scriptorium with no escape? On the sly, Peter and I gave each other the nod to sneak away.
On our way from the Scriptorium, we staged a photo shoot in front of the manmade lake where the dramatic message HE IS RISEN fashioned from shrubs rose from the lake’s bank. Holy topiary! This unique landscaping begged to eat up all my disposable camera exposures. We eventually tore ourselves away, though, and headed to the Great Temple where a presentation – with a more reasonable 15-minute length – was getting underway. An ex-Bush Garden attired Biblical Archeologist stood center stage with the horseshoe of Roman Columns, and a six-story replica of Herod’s Golden Temple as his backdrop. He asked for a show of hands for first time visitors and those returning. There were a surprising number of repeat visitors, or "The Faithful", as he joked.
The presentation began with some actual history of Herod’s temple, followed by commentary that the temple was a false representation of God for Jews at the time. The historical presentation wheels were starting to wobble on the tracks. Then the train completely derailed and a full sermon was delivered on accepting Jesus Christ, not being blinded by false gods. The Biblical Archeologist provided a helpful present day scenario to illustrate this: Say a secret service agent knocked on your door and announced that the President, Mr. George Bush, was out in the car in front of your house and needed a place to stay. You wouldn’t turn the president away, would you? Well, just as you wouldn’t turn George Bush away, you wouldn’t turn Christ away, either. People in the audience listened and nodded along. Herod, false idols, George Bush and Jesus Christ – all in the same story, not Holy Land humor. I was feeling a bit woozy, not due to the climbing heat. Peter and I shared a less disguised nod to move the heck on.
First, we needed to snap a few more shots. We stopped at Calvary’s Garden Tomb, a small cave carved into a rock with an oversized pizza-shaped stone rolled off to one side of the entrance. Despite the signs warning against this, Peter had me photograph him inside the tomb. A sweet grandpa-type offered to take our picture together in front of the "The Ten Commandments" tablet displayed at The Wilderness Tabernacle. A few shots of crowds shuffling into see the Seed of Promise movie, photos of Peter in Roman guard gear concluded our Holy Land Experience. It was time to head back to the parking lot and be blessed a few more times by the park attendants.
There is Mecca, the Vatican, Mt. Fuji, the Ganges River, Bodh Gaya, now this squeaky clean, well-manicured version of one of the world’s most revered places. "The Simpson’s" parodied a place like this with Ned Flanders’ "Praiseland Amusement Park", a Christian organization went ahead and made it real(ish). At the intersection of commerce and Christianity, you’ll discover distant travel and religion neatly packaged as only a theme-park loving nation could do. Shalom.