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Orlando's Holy Land Experience: A curious destination for the faithful

The holy land is across from 7-Eleven and down the street from Jiffy Lube.

Once you pass the Jerusalem City Gate, smoking is prohibited. Parking is free, like the Lord would want. You pay $35 for admission, plus a map and schedule with times for karaoke and crucifixion.

You walk past a Roman soldier with a sword and a shield. Past a white, sunken relief sculpture of Jesus with a message.

THE EYES OF THE LORD ARE IN EVERY PLACE KEEPING WATCH UPON THE EVIL AND THE GOOD.

• • •

The Holy Land Experience is a hulking curiosity along Interstate 4 in Mickey's commercial mecca, Orlando.

It attracts the fanny pack set, but also church groups and Bible scholars and skeptics jonesing for irony. It's a tax-exempt ministry, which means it must offer one free day each year. That day in 2009, the gates overflowed.

The $16 million recreation of first century Israel opened in 2001, the project of Jewish-born Baptist minister Marvin Rosenthal. Some members of the Jewish Defense League protested, saying it was a conversion project targeting Jews. Ticket sales lagged and prices increased. In 2007, Trinity Broadcasting Network bought the park and gave it a total makeover. Ticket sales went up 25 percent in a month.

This year, the park is expanding. A 2,000-seat, state-of-the-art Church of All Nations is scheduled to open in summer, where guests can watch Jesus rise from the dead at scheduled times every day. The auditorium will play host to church services, concerts and baptisms.

Standee cutouts of TBN's big-haired televangelist, Jan Crouch, pepper the park. In blue sequins and Tammy Faye lashes, she neighbors nativity scenes and plaster kangaroos and angel fountains. The parking lot speaks in bumper stickers. Promise Keepers. Fair taxes. Border patrol. Christian fish.

It's a Wonkaland for the faithful, full of sights not found in nature. A panda bear chews a leaf beside Jesus, who walks on water. A donkey and a lion guard a rock-climbing wall. In the park's wax museum, the Christ child has a comb-over.

People toss bean bags through a hole in Satan's heart. They walk into the whale's belly to see Jonah quivering in air. They order Goliath burgers with cheese.

A woman in platform shoes grins beside a replica of Michelangelo's Pieta, in which Jesus lies limp in Mary's arms. Her husband snaps the picture.

In the Garden of Reflection, a man eats a turkey leg.

Bill Maher, comedian and critic of religion, visited for his 2008 documentary Religulous. He interviewed Jesus in front of Cavalry's Garden Tomb, which shuts when you turn the lever counter-clockwise. Jesus briefly stunted Maher's arguments by comparing the three forms of God to water vapor and ice cubes.

Jesus. The superstar. He has a way of doing that to you.

His standee ushers you into the Old Scroll Shop, where you can buy a Star of David coaster set for $13.95 or a travel mug for $14.95. There's an oil painting of Christ in a pair of boxing shorts and gloves, shirtless in the ring with a belt marked "SAVIOR."

Outside, the actor playing Jesus poses for photos with awestruck children. His dusty toes peek from leather sandals soled with industrial tread.

"The Bible says Jesus not only knows your name, but he knows all of the hairs on your head," he tells a little boy. "How many hairs are on your head?"

When he walks on stage during the woman-at-the-well skit, everyone whips out their cameras. They take video. They listen.

"I know that you're thirsty and I know that you're hurting," says the woman at the well. "Don't be afraid."

• • •

People filter through the Testimony Cross Garden and fill out slips of paper. It can be a salvation story, a recommitment, a testimony. Or, a request for prayer.

Almost everyone wants prayers.

Sandy Joy and her children hunker over a blue prayer form. They have come to Florida from Virginia to see Mickey Mouse, but they made a special point to stop here.

When Joy finishes writing, her 9-year-old daughter, Sharon, pushes a pin into the wooden cross to post the prayer. She lingers with her body weight until the pin plunges deep. She pushes again, looks at it, and walks away.

I lost my husband 2 months ago. I have 2 small children and I'm not sure how to go on.

They head into the wax museum and take a picture in front of the Last Supper.

The Holy Land Experience

The Holy Land Experience is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday at 4655 Vineland Road, Orlando. Tickets are $35 for adults, $20 for chlildren 6 to 12, $7 for children 3 to 5 and free for children younger than 3 at the gate. Prices are slightly less online. Call 1-800-447-7235 or visit holylandexperience.com.

While you're there …

If you want to see more religious oddities, stop by Ripley's Believe It or Not, home to a life-sized statue of Saint Patrick, a bust of the devil, and a 14-foot-long rendition of da Vinci's The Last Supper made completely of dryer lint, above. It's at 8201 International Drive, Orlando. Hours are 9:30 a.m. to midnight every day. Tickets are $20 for adults and $12 for children 4 to 12, slightly less online. Call (407) 363-4418 or visit orlando.ripleys.com.

Orlando's Holy Land Experience: A curious destination for the faithful 04/21/11 [Last modified: Friday, April 22, 2011 4:04pm]

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