Arts and Culture

One Jew’s Orlando dilemma: Mickey Mouse or Jesus Christ?

One of the many figurines of Jesus at the Holy Land Experience theme park in Orlando, Fla. (Uriel Heilman)

ORLANDO, Fla. (JTA) – Mickey Mouse or Jesus Christ?

That was the choice I faced on a recent trip to Orlando to write a pair of stories for JTA – one about kosher vacationing at Disney World, the other about the biblical theme park Holy Land Experience.

With a steady rain falling, I convinced my skeptical wife to postpone Mickey and join me at Holy Land. We’ll just steer the kids clear of the New Testament paraphernalia and focus on the Old Testament stuff, I told her. No problem.

Then we drove up and saw Jesus — larger than life, flanked by the wise men, towering over the 7-Eleven at the highway turnoff, just down the road from the Wet ‘n Wild water park. In the parking lot, we were surrounded by sculptures of trumpeting angels, scenes from Bethlehem and a life-size replica of a Jerusalem Old City gate inscribed with the Ten Commandments.

“Jesus saves,” read the flier handed us by a security guard.

We weren’t even at the gate and my wife had seen enough.

“No way,” she said.

If I was going to the Holy Land, it would be alone. I soldiered on.

“Shalom!” boomed the toga-clad man behind the counter, giving me a blank look when I responded with some Hebrew patter.

“It’s 50 bucks for admission,” he said. “God bless.”

I forked over my credit card and joined the couple in “Star Wars” ponchos headed for the promised land.

The Holy Land Experience is a mix of life-size re-creations and exhibits about the Holy Land some 2,000 years ago along with a heavy dose of Christian evangelism, all tightly wrapped in theme park kitsch.

There are replicas of the ancient temple in Jerusalem, a table where you can experience the Last Supper, a reproduction of the Bethlehem cave where Jesus purportedly was born, too many life-size dioramas featuring Jesus to count and several live shows daily all starring Christianity’s leading man.

The brainchild of Marvin J. Rosenthal, a Jew who became a Baptist minister, Holy Land opened in 2001 to “proclaim the Gospel to as many people as possible and to help believers have a better understanding of the Judaistic roots out of which Christianity grew.” After the park’s opening, Jewish groups condemned the mix of Jewish and Christian themes and theology, saying it distorted Jewish history and religion.

Fifteen years on, the muddling of religions remains. One 20-minute presentation featuring the Yom Kippur service at the ancient temple in Jerusalem hews surprisingly closely to the Talmudic accounting of the ritual. A staffer-actor appropriately named Aaron performs the service, sacrificing a bull at the tabernacle, entering the holy of holies and throwing incense upon the Ark of the Covenant.

But then the show closes with a voice-over suggesting that the Yom Kippur atonement rituals are just a dry run for Jesus, who would atone for mankind’s sins.

Even by the standards of Orlando, the park, which the Trinity Broadcasting Network bought from Rosenthal in 2007, is particularly garish. Staffers are clad head to toe in toga-like costumes. The buildings are coated in gold-colored paint. A plastic figure of John the Baptist looks vaguely like Beyonce.

A view from outside the Holy Land Experience theme park in Orlando, Fla. (Uriel Heilman)
A view from outside the Holy Land Experience theme park in Orlando, Fla. (Uriel Heilman)

Jesus sculptures, cutouts and wax-like figures lurk everywhere. Here he is walking on water. There he is clad in a tallit prayer shawl, skulking in the bushes. Here he is posing awkwardly with a little girl in front of a plastic peacock. The slogans proclaiming “He is Risen” are unavoidable – scrawled in blood-like red, etched in ersatz stone, carved out of hedges.

In the gift shop, grape juice from the real holy land and prayer shawls are for sale alongside communion wafers (not gluten-free, a label warns) and “Jesus loves you” pens. There are $3 Star of David necklaces and yarmulkes adorned with American and Israeli flags and plenty of theme park paraphernalia: Holy Land wet wipes, Holy Land lip balm (made in China), Roman soldier fridge magnets.

Wandering into one exhibit, I found dozens of believers having an intense spiritual moment – eyes closed, hands extended heavenward. It was the Last Supper, and I was invited to stay. No thanks, I’m not that hungry.

Another exhibit was a model of Jerusalem circa 66 C.E., complete with hundreds of 2-inch figurines, pint-sized homes and a scale replica of the temple. Four times a day, a guide narrates visitors through the model, explaining everything from temple construction to “the events of the passion of the Christ.”

When my guide, Thom, asked for questions at the tour’s end, I raised my hand.

“So, who killed Jesus, the Jews or the Romans?”

He paused.

“It was a concerted effort,” Thom said. “The Jews wanted him dead, the Romans provided the means. No one had bloodless hands.”

In need of a break, I headed past the Shofar Auditorium and into Esther’s Banquet Hall. Among the menu items: the Yom Kippur Plate (pulled turkey barbecue, collards and cornbread), a Samson foot-long hot dog and Land of Milk (no honey), white or chocolate. A refillable souvenir cup was dubbed My Cup Overflows.

I stumbled outside, sipping my drink under the sun that had suddenly emerged from the rainclouds. Hallelujah.

There was plenty more to see, but the hour was getting late and I had had enough. I skipped past the Christus Gardens, past the costumed woman exhorting me to join an automated tour of the Scriptorium of biblical manuscripts and religious artifacts, and dashed through the Garden of Eden and into the parking lot.