ORLANDO -- Most amusement parks offer guests rides, shows and loveable characters. But one Florida park also provides daily communion.
Here in America's theme park capital, guests are treated to 10 daily recreations of the Last Supper, a chance to mingle with Roman soldiers, and every day at noon and again at 5 p.m., Jesus is shackled in chains and whipped, before being dragged, bloodily, through the streets of old Jerusalem.
If you couldn't be there 2,000 years ago -- here's your chance.
There is a replica of the Church of the Nativity just around the corner from King Solomon's third temple, which doubles as one of the many performance stages. For those who want a more active role in the festivities, there's Christian Karaoke -- "sing for the King" a sign outside of the Theater of Life encourages.
Guests flock here every day -- except Sunday -- to "soak up the inspirational atmosphere," explained Jane Wilcox, who works in guest relations with her husband Martin. The cost: $35 for one day and $50 for a two-day pass. Most visitors stay for the entire day, coming together in the afternoon to pray.
On a recent Saturday morning, dozens of buses and vans were dropping off tour and church groups before the park's gates even opened. Inside the park, praise music, such as "The Year of the Jubilee," plays in the background and shrubs spell out "HE IS RISEN."
You can never be too young for the Holy Land Experience. There's a children's area with a rock climbing wall, a theater dedicated to Noah and his ark and a spot where kids can walk into a stinky whale's mouth and see a trapped Jonah.
There's even a spot where you can pose for a photo of you walking on water with Jesus.
Like every other good theme park, there are plenty of gift shops to pick up some souvenirs, from religious books to T-shirts and mouse pads.
The park will celebrate its tenth anniversary in February, and it's growing -- with plans for a 2,000-seat auditorium. Originally built by a Baptist minister, the park took a bit of a switch after being acquired by the Trinity Broadcasting Network, which preaches a branch of Pentecostal Protestantism where followers are encouraged to donate to their financial limits. Trinity -- the country's largest Christian broadcaster -- bought the park in June, 2007 for $37 million, breathing new life into the attractions and growing attendance, the company said, by 30 percent.
Trinity also receives -- after a long battle that ended at the Florida legislature -- tax-free status for the park, saving it about $300,000 a year in property taxes. In exchange, the park has to open its turnstiles for free once a year; that usually happens on a Monday or Tuesday and there is a wait to get in after the park reaches its roughly 2,000-person capacity.
Park officials are wary of outside coverage. We were rushed through the attraction, prohibited from taking photos or video and given no chance to mingle with the guests. The Holy Land Experience also does little advertising -- you won't find its pamphlets in hotel lobbies -- relying instead on group bookings and mentions on the Trinity Broadcast Network.