The Holy Land Experience in Orlando has a three-quarter size replica of Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate, and a fake first-century bce street market, which looks like the set of The Life of Brian.
It is a theme park for Christian fundamentalists, unless you are a tax lawyer. If you are a tax lawyer, it is a museum because, in America, museums pay less tax than theme parks.
But the Holy Land Experience is not really a museum either, even if it does have a famous collection of biblical manuscripts to rival Disney World’s famous display of animatronic presidents of America. (It’s currently closed for the assumption of the animatronic Donald Trump, expected later this year; it will be bigly.)
The Holy Land Experience may have an entrance fee, a painting of a hot Jesus wearing boxing gloves, and multiple Last Suppers staffed by multiple Jesuses (again, all hot, for the Holy Land Experience is owned by the Trinity Broadcasting Network and no television network would cast a plain Jesus when it could cast a hot one). But, in fact, the Holy Land Experience is a church – despite the toothiness of the apostles with their Jon Bon Jovi hair. It is, in its way, as interesting as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem, even if that is not three-quarter size, or in Florida.
I know it’s a church because, on a visit a few years ago, I cried during a re-enactment at the Holy Land Experience. I do not usually cry in theme parks; I laugh because people rent wheelchairs to jump queues, which disables their ability to appear disabled, and milkshake is cheaper than water.
I did not cry when the Jaws ride at the Universal Orlando Resort closed, even if I did almost believe that a shark would mount the pleasure craft to eat me. (The Jaws ride has now been replaced with a street from Harry Potter. Nightmares move on.)
But it was the same flaw in me: credulousness. If I visit the Jaws ride, I imagine myself devoured. If I visit the Holy Land Experience, I believe in the possibility of redemption by faith.
It should have been the park’s scenes of the Passion that undid me; I am no Christian outside Florida but I respect all bestsellers. It began with the words: “Thank you for coming and for loving Jesus. We ask you to love your neighbour as yourself and switch off your mobile phone.” Then hot Jesus was crucified and resurrected and people stood up, waved Bibles and cried “Jesus!”
No, my undoing was a play called Four Women Who Loved Jesus: the Prostitute’s Tale. A woman stood outside a prison containing hot Jesus and was redeemed. It really was that simple. She was probably moonlighting from daytime TV – it essentially was daytime TV – but I began to cry and a Christian (no one else would come here) touched my shoulder and said: “I can see it touched you.”
I snuffled, because I was, for a moment, almost a Christian; then I left and it melted, and I went back into Universal and on to the Jaws ride again.
This article appears in the 26 Jul 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue