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.
Holy Land Experience Brings Bible to Life
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.
The park isn't so much about the attractions but about finding new ways to connect with God and people who share in the same level of devotion.
Praying Together at Orlando Theme Park
Each day, guests fill out little slips of paper with various requests for prayers or for salvation -- 60,000 to 100,000 a year are completed. Trinity analyzed the requests and found they fall into four groups: hope for salvation for loved ones, resolution of financial problems, help with marriage problems and prayers for well-being for their kids or family.
At the end of the day, all the prayers are spread out and everybody joins together and prays for those requests. (The slips of paper are also a way for Trinity to add people's addresses to their database.)
"I think most people go there because they are religious and are interested in seeing the park and learning more about their faith," said Matt Roseboom, publisher of Orlando Attractions Magazine. "But I think everyone would enjoy visiting the park at least once, regardless of their religious beliefs. They don't have any rides, but there is a lot to see and the grounds and gardens are beautiful."
The highlight of a visit for many is the Scriptorium, a 15-room exhibit that tells the story about how the Bible came into our hands today.
The park says the display includes authentic 5th century fragments from the book of Mathew, tributes to those who fought for religious freedom in the past and a manuscript from the year 350 A.D.
The tour through time culminates in a grand finale where visitors see God turn the Ten Commandments into stone and then hear a voice from above explain how humans have been unable to follow the laws.
"This is the only hope for mankind," the voice says as a giant cross hanging above is illuminated and guests are ushered into another gift shop.
There they can buy snow globes ($4.99), water bottles ($9), Holy Land Experience umbrellas ($10) or a 20-CD set of a dramatic Bible reading ($49.99).
And if you are looking for a gift for your kids, there is Bearnando, the Scribal Bear by Gund ($14.99.) The stuffed bear is dressed in a monk's outfit -- "My job is to carefully copy the words from the Bible to a new, fresh piece of parchment" -- and is made especially for the park.
The Holy Land Experience might not be for everybody, but for the devotee, it sure packs in a full day of activities and is a lot closer and cheaper than the real thing.