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Orlando Adds Another Theme Park

Orlando Adds Another Theme Park
By: Whitney Von Lake Hopler
Live It Channel Editor

Traveling to Israel can prove arduous - a long, expensive trek to a region that is consistently a hotbed of violence. But I've heard from those who have traveled there that it's worth it to see firsthand the places where Jesus walked during biblical times.

Those of us who haven't yet made a trip to the actual Holy Land might be tempted to think that a visit to Orlando, Fla.'s new theme park, The Holy Land Experience, might suffice. Actually, visiting the park will probably only make you want to visit the real Holy Land even more. And that's good, as long as you don't go to the park hoping it will be a satisfying substitute for the real thing.

The sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures of the Holy Land envelop your senses at the park, whetting your appetite for more. But, unfortunately, the surroundings of Orlando can crowd in all too quickly, rudely reminding you that you're not really in the Holy Land.

The park's designers have taken great care to provide many details of what you might experience in the Middle East. Plants, flowers and trees indigenous to Israel abound in the landscaping; music composed especially for the park plays in the background as you walk around. The park's restaurant, the Oasis Palms Caf, features authentic Middle Eastern dishes such as falafel (which was quite good) along with American fare, and snack carts feature treats such as "Milk and Honey Ice Cream" (vanilla ice cream mixed with honey). The buildings were weathered by artists to make them look convincingly old, and touching the huge stone at the entrance to the replica of the Garden Tomb where Christ was resurrected is a moving experience - you can truly get a feel for the power of the resurrection when you place your hand on that stone.

But the sound of traffic on Interstate 4, which runs directly behind the park, often interferes with the fantasy of being in the Holy Land. And after you step out of the impressive exhibit that features a greatly detailed model of Jerusalem in 66 A.D., you can plainly see a convenience store and gas station across the street.

The park covers only 16 acres, which feels far too small for a theme park. But something is better than nothing, and I'm grateful that the messianic Jewish ministry Zion's Hope worked for years to raise funds for the park, plan it and build it in Orlando. Like many other tourists, my husband, 3-year-old daughter and myself spent part of our Orlando vacation visiting Disney World. But as spectacular as Disney World can be in the aesthetics of its presentations, The Holy Land Experience presents a much more spectacular story. What could be more exciting than God's entrance into time and space as Jesus Christ, to reconcile humans to Himself?

And since popular culture reflects what's most important to people, it's important for God's redemption story to be told in the midst of the other theme parks. I have to confess that I was wondering whether The Holy Land Experience designers would be able to illustrate the story tastefully, but I was glad to discover that they did.

The park presents convincing models of the Garden Tomb, the Wilderness Tabernacle (complete with awe-inspiring special effects to illustrate the "Shekinah glory" of God's presence with the high priest in the sanctuary), the Temple of the Great King (Herod's temple), the Qumran Dead Sea Caves, the city of Jerusalem as it looked in 66 A.D. (presented in miniature) and a Jerusalem street market.

I do have one major gripe about the market, though - when you first enter the park, you find yourself in the middle of the market, and have to search hard to figure out how to bypass the shops so you can walk into the rest of the park. When you leave, you're also forced to go through the market. That design struck me as crass for a theme park about faith. Still, with an adult admission price of only $17 and a child price of just $12 (with children ages 3 and under admitted free), the park is very reasonable compared to Disney World, Sea World or Universal Studios.

The park also features numerous shows presented by a talented cast of actors and singers, plus the movie The Seed of Promise, which illustrates how Jesus is the Lamb of God through impressive scenes that prove very moving. The film is especially effective dramatically when it cuts back and forth between scenes of a priest sacrificing a lamb and Jesus being nailed to the cross.

In early 2002, park officials plan to expand the park by opening a 17,000-square-foot museum that will house authentic biblical artifacts from around the world.

Since you can experience just about everything in The Holy Land Experience in the course of half a day (we spent four hours), it would be convenient to add a visit there into an itinerary that includes other Orlando attractions. The prospect of spending just half a day rather than an entire day in a park without rides might entice kids to try the park out. Once they get there and become immersed in the story of God's love, they'll likely find there's plenty to excite them.