December 24, 2008

Full of cheesy goodness

When the Holy Land Experience opened in February 2001, most Orlandoans viewed it with a skeptical eye. A small, Bible-themed attraction in the theme park capital of the world hardly seemed rational. Believers suspected it might be a bit heretical, and unbelievers thought it silly.

I have to admit to thinking it was probably a little of both. Nevertheless, I was curious. So when the church youth director organized a trip, I put aside skepticism just long enough to be thoroughly entertained.

Back in 2001, my colleague Alan Byrd, then OBJ’s tourism reporter, was underwhelmed. His summation: “In a place where the average guest is filled with sensory overload, Holy Land just doesn't cut it.” In the second half of his review, Alan helpfully provided a whimsical list of suggested improvements.

The park didn’t take Alan up on his suggestions. But in 2002 it did add the Scriptorium, a 17,000-square-foot, single-purpose museum, built to house the Van Kampen manuscript collection.

I’m a history buff, so the Scriptorium was my favorite part of the park. Its only drawback is that the trip through is automated. You are cued by lights and recorded narration to move from one section to the next. Even if you didn’t have 16 fellows with you to drag you into the next room, the lights go down, so even if you stay behind, you can’t see much.

Still, the collection is a delight to see, and the presentation is first-rate.

Trinity Broadcasting Network acquired the park in 2007, and the live-action shows were described by the aforementioned youth director as “very TBN.”

I missed most of the passion play, because I was still in the Scriptorium’s bookshop when the seats started to fill up. The park was so crowded, some walkways became impassable, blocked by people watching the show. Several tour buses were there that day. A park employee told us it is not normally like that. The crowds were due to its being Christmastime, and a Saturday.

I say “most” because parts of the play are staged in different places. I happened to reach the Temple Plaza in time to see a priest run out and yell that the veil had been torn from top to bottom. Gave me a bit of a chill, actually.

I did see the Christmas musical, which was excellent. Entirely a Broadway-quality show. Music, lyrics, script, performances--all first-rate.

I must admit that parts of Holy Land Experience are undeniably cheesy. Bushes are carved in the shape of letters that spell out “He is Risen.”* The park’s one restaurant serves a “Goliath burger.” There is even a life-size statue of Jesus walking on the water, with fiberglass waves all around and a flat place where you can stand to get your picture taken.

After the Scriptorium, the live shows are the park’s real draw, and since I didn’t get to see all of them—there were ten scheduled that day—I intend to go back.

Just not at Christmastime, on a Saturday.

*—Our choir director decided this made the ideal gathering place. “Just meet us by the He is Risen bushes.”

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