Just four miles from Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida is the Holy Land Experience, a theme park that turns Biblical stories into elaborate performances. Describing itself as a “living Biblical museum and park,” this 15-acre theme park contains a collection of attractions all based on the Bible. For an adult admission fee of $50, you can visit a model Noah’s Ark, shop at the “Gold Frankincense and Myrrh” gift shop and sit in a 2,000-seat auditorium to see reenactments of the crucifixion.
The Holy Land Experience is not without its controversies. It was founded by a Jewish-born convert to Christianity who is now a minister, and opened in 2001 amid protests that the actual purpose of the park was to convert Jews to Christianity. There was then a four-year legal battle surrounding the park’s tax status.
When photographer Dan Cronin first read about the Holy Land Experience, he knew he had to see it for himself. He traveled to Florida to photograph the park and visit the attractions and the stage shows. We spoke to Cronin about the Holy Land Experience, the tourists who visit, and what it was like to photograph cut-outs of Jesus.
How did you hear about the Holy Land Experience theme park in Florida, and how did you begin this project?
I actually read about it in the news then saw Bill Maher’s “Religulous” documentary. Ever since I had heard about it I wanted to go and see it for myself.
What surprised you the most about visiting the Holy Land Experience?
The thing that surprised me the most was the two-hour-long theatrical show all about the overarching story of Jesus’s life. The production value is almost Broadway-esque. They really spend a lot of time and money on the stage shows. The depictions of Satan and the crucifixion during the show were actually pretty gory and frightening, and there are tons of young kids in the audience. The other thing is they serve Chick-fil-A in the Mediterranean-themed restaurant–that was pretty funny and surprising.
Why do you think people want to visit the Holy Land Experience? Did they seem to enjoy it?
There were a lot of tour buses and church groups when I was there. I think for the most part the park is there to serve and be attended by already faithful believers. I think people go because it helps re-enforce their beliefs. In a lot of ways it poorly replicates sites and relics that you could actually see in Jerusalem, but if you don’t have the time, money or resources to make that journey you could just go there.
The Holy Land park is in close proximity to both Universal Studios Florida and Walt Disney World. Do you think the park’s aesthetic is influenced by this?
Yes, definitely. While not nearly the size or scope of those two parks I think there are a lot of similarities. It’s very kid and family oriented, there are multiple gift shops and snack stands. There are colorful plastic animals and cut-outs of Jesus that you can take pictures with all over the park and even in the parking lot. While the Holy Land Experience doesn’t have rides or classic amusement park-style games, it is very much geared towards giving young Christians an experience like they are somewhere special and fun like Disney World or Universal Studios.
Can you tell us about the people that worked there? Did you speak with any of them, particular the actors who portray the Biblical characters?
All the workers have to wear costumes like they live in ancient times. So for example, the guy in the snack shack is wearing a full robe and head scarf, fully covered when it is 95 degrees out and humid. You could tell a lot of the actors and performers were really into the message of the park, but the general service industry folks were not as cheerful. I spoke with a few of the workers when they kindly reminded me that there was no commercial photography allowed at the park. There was a lot of that. I think the Trinity Broadcast Network, who owns the Holy Land Experience, is very protective of their image.