Land of Our Father

The Holy Land Experience has brought the best bits of the Bible to Disney World. Florida’s theme park pilgrims love it — local Jews aren’t so pleased.
Financial Times, weekend magazine, The Business, April 14, 2001 (2,733 words)

About 60 people are standing around under a bright, midday Florida sun, their attention focused on four men singing in the tight harmonies of a barbershop quartet or a street-corner doo-wop ensemble. But rather than striped shirts or baggy jeans, these four choristers are clad in the dun-coloured robes and turbans one might expect to find in a desert enclave — not in swampy Florida, where real street-corners are scarce despite the preponderance of pavement that covers the state like a rash.

Nor are the golden throats belting out Andrew Lloyd Weber. With a minor-chord reference to “Satan’s nail-pierced casualty”, they ask the assembled: “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” Hoots of “Yes!” and “Glory!” come back to them from the crowd. They aren’t bad singers really, but their musical prowess is hardly the point. Their audience has travelled from the far corners of the earth not to be entertained (though they do find themselves in Orlando, the family entertainment capital of the United States and home to Disney World), but to get something more uplifting out of their visit. They are here for The Holy Land Experience, a new 15-acre theme park mimicking ancient Jerusalem, and billing itself as a “living Biblical museum” that offers “historical proof” of early Christian lore and the fact that the Bible is indeed the word of God.

IF IT SOUNDS STRANGE TO FIND EVIDENCE OF a divine presence among the densest concentration of amusement parks in the world, consider that Orlando is as much a desert as any you might find in the Middle East: if culture were rain, this place would be in the midst of one of the longest droughts in recorded history. But into this desert has come Rev. Marvin Rosenthal, ordained into the ministry in 1968, after growing up outside Philadelphia as the child of orthodox Jews. By dint of a truly transcendent vision and more than $15 million raised through his ministry, Zion’s Hope, plus the help of a group of “Christian businessmen”, Rosenthal witnessed the culmination of almost two decades of work and preparation when the Holy Land Experience opened in early February. Since then, it has seen so much traffic that visitors are often turned away at the door and told to wait a while until a few more of the devoted — or merely curious — have left the complex.

Once they do gain entry, visitors find themselves in a street market meant to conjure visions of first-century Jerusalem — if soft drinks and polo shirts had been on sale during Christ’s lifetime, that is. Thousands of tonnes of concrete have gone into recreating weathered stone buildings such as those the early Christians might have taken refuge in (a single Roman Centurion stands guard when not posing with tourists), including both The Old Scroll Shop and Methuselah’s Mosaics — where everything from menorahs to stuffed camels to Bible study guides, videos, robes and postcards are on sale. If the artefacts inside the gift shops are not exactly period pieces, great care has been lavished on the apparent antiquity of the buildings’ exteriors — right down to the camel footprints sunken into the walks.

Still, not everyone is satisfied. “I’m curious about the little things, like how they did their cooking, what they ate,” comments Forrest Schaefer, a 56-year-old housewife. “You’re going to get a lot of people here who know their onions — how they dressed, how they killed each other.” Schaefer has driven an hour and a half from Ocala — an easy trip, considering there are visitors who have come all the way from Tennessee and California just to experience the Holy Land’s wonders. “I like it, but you’re short a few soldiers. This is an occupied place,” Schaefer says of the Centurion. “I’m also curious about his equipment.”

While the park may be a few soldiers short of a legion, it is hardly hurting for guests. It has exceeded its 1,500 capacity on most of the days since it has opened, and is running at such a clip that Rev. Rosenthal anticipates using some of the proceeds from the $17 ticket price (one-half to one-third of what parks such as Disney and Universal Studios charge) to make it easier to attract pilgrims. “We’re a not-for-profit religious organisation. If the attendance stays as good as it has been since we have opened, then we will be in the very delightful position of being able to lower the cost of admission,” Rosenthal says.

To help things along around Easter — which, with Christmas, looks to be the park’s busy season, Rosenthal says — the Holy Land Experience is planning an original musical production by Ron Owen, the ministry’s composer-in-residence and head of production at the park. If everything has gone according to plan, the sound of a 100-voice choir will have been filling the park this weekend in an evening-long number titled “The Kingdom, The Power and The Glory,” accompanied by a symphony orchestra formed especially for the occasion.

Of course, even with special events like “The Kingdom, The Power and The Glory,” the Holy Land Experience is hardly on a level with amusement parks like Disney World. Of the dozen attractions at the site, three are shops or markets and one is a restaurant — none offers the visceral excitement of even the Mad Hatter’s Teacup Ride (though the appearance of God in a column of smoke and light above the Wilderness Tabernacle may get your blood going). I’d been hoping for the Red Sea Water Slide or to catch a glimpse of Mary Magdalen on some kind of Last Temptation Island. But alas, there are no miracles here, only a humble and earnest depiction of some highlights from early Christian history.

Among the most impressive sights at the Holy Land Experience are the lines of visitors awaiting entry not only to the Oasis Palms Cafe (with its mouth-watering Bedouin Beef Wraps and Persian Pita Stuffers) but also to the Wilderness Tabernacle, a simulation of the portable temple in which the 12 tribes of Israel transported the Ark of the Covenant throughout their 40-year journey through the desert. Though visitors will stand for over an hour in the intermittent Florida rain to get inside, the visit is worth it. “When I was in the tabernacle, it felt like God really was there,” says Sarah Harper, a pretty, auburn-haired thirteen-year-old from the small town of Archer, near Gainesville.

But the presentation is over almost too quickly. “May the Lord bless you and keep you,” intones a “high priest” after God has come and gone. “Now I’m going to ask you all to exit over here to the left.”

Almost as popular as the tabernacle is a model of the holy city itself, circa AD66, and a 20-minute film, “The Seed of Promise,” shot in Jerusalem and depicting everything from the Garden of Eden to the second coming. Though some visitors were prevented from enjoying the film by inevitable start-up glitches (involving the security alarms in the Theater of Life auditorium), no such problems were apparent in the dramatic musical presentation on the steps of Herod’s Temple, in which concerned citizens of ancient Jerusalem ponder — in typical Florida fashion — whether their next administration will be Roman or Judaeo-Christian. Though the outcome of this race was never in doubt, the audience of 100 or so sits rapt through to the end of the play, when a flock of white doves is released into the humid air. Just down the Via Dolorosa at Calvary’s Garden Tomb (past the acacia, aloe, olive, pomegranate and papyrus marked out along the way), the quartet is in full swing.

With just a handful of attractions to choose from, it’s hard to believe that visitors spend almost five hours at a stretch here, nearly as long as the average stay at a big theme park like Disney — testament, perhaps, to the power of devotion. But at no point during their stay does anyone inquire of visitors as to their faith — if any. Though organisations have sounded off against the idea of a theme park that promotes Jesus as the messiah and, they say, attempts to convert Jews to Christianity, there is hardly any promotion afoot at the park. And though the tabernacle presentation and the lecture at the Jerusalem model end with hints of the saviour to come, there is precious little evangelism and the historical productions stick mainly to run-of-the-mill Judaism and early Christian history.

“We’re not offering anything to the non-believer,” says Rev. Rosenthal. “Now, you don’t have to be a Christian to come here and enjoy this. Everybody that went to see Cecil B’s ‘The Ten Commandments’ did not necessarily agree with everything they saw. I visit some of the theme parks here in Orlando the way I would eat a watermelon. I enjoy the sweet meat and I spit out the seeds.”

ROSENTHAL HAS LONG MADE A HABIT OF PICKING and choosing between the meat and the seeds, especially where religion is concerned. In the “primarily Jewish” Strawberry Mansion section of Philadelphia, he was bar mitzvahed at 13, but found, several years later, that his mother, an orthodox Jew, had been converted and “born again” in Christ.

“When I turned 18, I decided I didn’t want anything to do with God, with religion, Christ, the whole routine,” says Rosenthal, now 65. “I went into the United States Marine Corps, came out and went into a new career, as a ballroom dancer.”

At first, Rosenthal’s oral autobiography skips directly to his new faith: “Then I found myself going off to Bible college, then the seminary, then the pastorate.” And even when pressed, he manages to evade the question of just how he came to accept Christ. “I met some fine Christians who had a very positive influence on my life,” he says of his conversion. “It was no one thing, it was just good counsel, a godly lifestyle, it was sharing Biblical truths.”

“I’ve always believed you can’t steer a parked car. I don’t think God gives direction to people who sit home, fold their hands and say, ‘What’s my life all about?'” Whatever it was, it led him to the Friends of Israel, a Christian Zionist ministry, where he served as director from the mid-70s until 1990, when he established his new ministry, Zion’s Hope. Besides leading teaching tours to the Middle East and editing and publishing magazines devoted to his faith, Rosenthal also found time to become an eschatological theorist, publishing the influential “The Pre-Wrath Rapture of the Church” in 1990, in which he staked out an end-of-the-world territory for himself that few before had trodden.

These days, though, there is hardly a whiff of brimstone about Rosenthal’s rhetoric. At the park, he seems more politician than pastor. He wanders the grounds in a herringbone jacket and informal polo shirt, flashing his grin from beneath bushy brows and gold-rimmed glasses. “I’m very fortunate,” he says. “I try not to micromanage. However, in the first weeks I’ve been out there a lot.”

Visitors are delighted to see him, even if they don’t immediately peg him as the ministry’s mastermind. “Is that the top man?” asks a woman from California. Others, though, know him well from his Bible study videos and teachings, his ministry’s magazines and his books. A little old lady from Fort Lauderdale lights up the heavens when she sees him. “Oh, Mr. Rosenthal, God bless you!” she says. “It’s good to see you here,” he says. “I’m glad you could come.”

And indeed he is. After leading more than 75 tours of the holy lands, Rosenthal says he “came early to realise that a good teaching tour to the Bible lands was kind of like a fifth gospel. It’s one thing to read about Mary and Joseph traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem, some 90 miles or so, with her nine months pregnant. It’s another thing to see the terrain and feel the weather. You get a real feel for what it would have been like.”

Thus was the Holy Land Experience born, to bring the Middle East to the faithful who wouldn’t otherwise be able to make the pilgrimage. “The park looks great,” comments Joe Bell from behind a pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses. Bell, a 34-year-old “messianic rabbi,” has brought his wife all the way from Bristol, Tennessee, just to see the park. “Israel is a very expensive trip,” he says. “A lot of people will never be able to afford that trip in their lifetime. This is a way to bring a little piece of that place to the masses.”

Not everyone agrees, however. The Jewish Defense League reportedly staged a small protest on the day the park opened and local rabbis have assailed the park for attempting to convert Jews and others to Rosenthal’s brand of Christianity. According to Rosenthal, though, response to the park has been overwhelmingly positive — and positively miraculous: “The day we opened there were three protestors, and a guy came galloping up on a white horse, a gentleman whom we do not know — don’t know where he came from, where he went — and he said, ‘What are you picketing here for?’ And the press of course got kind of fascinated by the guy on the white horse and ignored the protestors. So the result of the protests was that what would have taken us 10 years to achieve in publicity happened in a few days.”

As Bell, the messianic rabbi, points out, “Israel loves it when Christians spend their money going there but it really bothers them when they come here.”

“We’re not going up to people trying to stick literature in their hands,” Rosenthal continues. “We’re presenting a number of significant biblical concepts, and if people want to disagree they have every right to do that. But if you want to know about morality and what is right and what is wrong, in my view you go to the Bible. I happen to believe America is moving into a period like the judges in ancient Israel, when every man did that which was right in his own sight. But when you take away a standard, when you take away a foundation, then you ask people to build their lives on quicksand.”

“Tragically, many of our young people today are being trained in such a manner,” Rosenthal says. “We are telling them there are no absolutes, there are no standards, that everything is relative. No wonder we’re having the kind of problems that we’re having in our country. And they’re getting more and more severe.”

OF COURSE, PROVIDING STRUCTURE AND A MORAL FOUNDATION FOR your children is no guarantee they won’t stray from the flock — after all, Rev. Rosenthal has drifted quite far from his orthodox upbringing.

Perhaps, he has drifted further than even he knows. What’s on offer in Orlando, at the Holy Land Experience, is not a “fifth gospel”, as Rosenthal likes to call it, but the dilution of Jewish and early Christian history into something more easily swallowed than the usual catechisms and sermonising. It is religion for the MTV age — all sound bites and flashy editing. It is the facsimile standing in for the real thing, a place that’s literally built on quicksand — on the famous Florida swamps.

One visitor to the park summed up what they saw as Jesus’s power to unite disparate peoples this way: “The first Christians were all good Jews. Of course, they were also kikes, wops, wogs, niggers and the trash of the earth.” If Rosenthal were hoping to find converts, there would be few better places than this city, which draws 45m to 50m tourists annually from all over the world.

And if faith often rushes in to fill a vacuum, more than a few desperate searchers might be found amid Orlando’s concrete wasteland of amusement park after cheap motel after fast-food joint after gas station after freeway.

Though there’s only one reason people come here — to be entertained — the irony of the place is that in the middle of America’s biggest concentration of amusement parks, there’s absolutely nothing to do. So get thee to the Holy Land Experience. The end of the world just might be nigh after all.