Disneyland has its castle and Epcot has its ball, but the centerpiece of a planned theme park in Kentucky will be something altogether different -- a full-scale replica of Noah's Ark.
Developers in Kentucky are drawing up plans for a $150 million theme park called the Ark Encounter, to be built on a biblical scale. The ark alone will be taller than a three-story building, the deck longer than 35 tennis courts. Constructed out of timber using dimensions from Genesis, planners say it will be big enough to fit 600 train cars inside.
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"We think the ark and the account of Noah's flood, even though it happened 4,000 or 5,000 years ago, can actually speak volumes today to our culture," said Mark Looy, a developer of the park who co-founded the nearby Creation Museum.
The park won't have any rides, but plans suggest that there will be plenty to do. In addition to the full-scale wooden ark, there will be live stage shows, museums, theaters, a petting zoo, and even a Tower of Babel.
While the Bible says it took Noah 100 years to build his ark, the Kentucky version should take closer to three years. Though its creators are just now settling on a site for the park, they say it should open in the spring of 2014 near Williamstown in northern Kentucky.
Kentucky's Democratic governor has signed on to the plan, promising almost $40 million in tax breaks for a project that is expected to create 900 jobs. According to a feasibility study for the park, 1.6 million visitors could show up in the first full year alone, and the project could generate $250 million in state revenue.
"Bringing new jobs to Kentucky is my top priority, and with the estimated 900 jobs this project will create, I am happy about the economic impact this project will have on the Northern Kentucky region," said Gov. Steve Beshear at a press conference announcing the plans.
The governor describes it as a lifeboat for his struggling state, but not everyone is aboard. The ark has opened up the flood gates of controversy, with critics charging that it's a direct violation of the separation of church and state.
"A private company can build a theme park about the Bible. But the government shouldn't be using its money to advance religion. That's what's unconstitutional about this," said Erwin Chemerinsky, a constitutional scholar at the University of California, Irvine School of Law. "It's wrong to force people to pay tax dollars to support religions they don't belong to."
The governor has dismissed the criticism, saying Ark Encounter is above all else an economic development project and that the tax breaks don't violate the separation of church and state.
"The people of Kentucky didn't elect me governor to debate religion. The elected me governor to create jobs, and that's what we're doing here," said Beshear. "Our laws don't allow us to discriminate as to entertainment subject matter of a theme park. And as long as it is legal and meets all of our criteria, I think it's clearly constitutional."
Ark Encounter's creators are hardly the first to identify religion as a potent tourist attraction. Christian-themed shows are a staple at the midwestern entertainment hub, Branson, Missouri, and even in New York City, a glittering nativity scene has been one of the highlights of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular for decades.
In Orlando, a Bible-themed park has been open for years. The 15-acre Holy Land Experience seeks to bring biblical stories to life, including daily recreations of the Last Supper, Christ's death on the Cross, and his resurrection. There's even a spot where guests can pose walking on water with Jesus.
The Ark's developers have also operated the popular and controversial Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky., since 2007, located about 40 miles away from the planned ark park. The museum features high-tech exhibits like animatronic dinosaurs, illustrating the museum's narrative that God created dinosaurs and man at the same time, an idea that many Christians would dispute.
Some 1.2 million visitors have toured the Creation Museum since it opened, making it both popular and profitable, but not built with state funding.
ABC's Scott Mayerowitz contributed to this report.
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