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  1. Life & Culture

Christian theme park Holy Land Experience will lay off 118 workers

The mass layoff comes as the Orlando park ends all theatrical productions and entertainment as of April 18 and focuses on its church and educational mission.

The Holy Land Experience, an Orlando Christian attraction best known for its daily crucifixion performances and a campus that replicates ancient Jerusalem and a Roman coliseum, will lay off most of its employees.

On Friday, the theme park filed a layoff notice with city and state officials that it plans to eliminate 118 jobs, representing most of its employees, as of April 18. Those losing their jobs include 43 actors and musicians, plus dancers, media specialists, prop handlers, food service workers and support staff.

The Holy Land Experience “has established a severance package plan to assist employees during this difficult time,” the notice said.

For nearly 20 years, the land was set up as a living museum experience featuring live re-enactments of biblical scenes. It also housed the Scriptorium, a center with one of the world’s largest collections of antique Bibles and Judeo-Christian artifacts.

A few weeks ago, the Holy Land Experience announced that it would be ending all theatrical productions and other entertainment. The change, park leaders said, was to return the park to its original focus as a church and educational museum attraction. The Church of All Nations, led by gospel singer Tye Tribbett, will continue, and the Scriptorium will remain open, said Mike Everett, general manager of the Holy Land Experience.

The Scriptorium at the Holy Land Experience near Orlando first opened in 2002. [ Zion's Hope ]

First opened in 2001 by the Messianic Jewish organization Zion’s Hope, the Holy Land Experience has suffered years of troubles with debt and attendance. The attraction, now owned by the Trinity Broadcasting Network, won a landmark case in 2006. Then-Gov. Jeb Bush signed a law that saved the park more than $1 million in taxes by declaring it a religious display and not an attraction, similar to a museum that presents historical information.

The tradeoff for the tax break required the park to offer an annual free admissions day instead of its $35 to $50 ticket price.

From 2013 to 2016, the Holy Land Experience tried more entertaining options, such as adding the Trin-I-Tee mini-golf course with the walls of Jericho and Jonah’s whale as obstacles. There was a photo op with a cutout of Jesus set in water that made it look like the guest was walking on water.

After the death of Trinity Broadcasting founder Jan Crouch in 2016, the park sold off some of its elaborate designs and announced it would return to its original educational purpose. The attraction added a new production in 2019 called The Empire and the Kingdom set in the 2,000-seat, state-of-the-art Church of All Nations and an elaborate production called David: King of Jerusalem.

But IRS records have shown a sharp decline in collections over the years, from a high of $42 million in 2010 to less than $2 million in 2014, according to the Associated Press.