The Holy Land Experience, located in the midst of Orlando’s theme-park belt, is a living museum of sorts dedicated to recreating life in Jerusalem as it might have been during the late Second Temple period. Although it has been criticized for ‘Disney’-fying Christianity and the life of Christ, it nevertheless offers a fascinating and unique window into the eariest days of the Church. The Holy Land Experience resurrects (no pun intended) some of the architectural highlights of Jerusalem in the Roman period, including replicas of the Jaffa Gate, the Garden Tomb on Calvary and the Second Temple. However, the park’s real treasure, and one of Orlando’s best-kept secrets, is the Van Kampen Collection. This collection, housed in the park’s Scriptorium, is a veritable treasure trove of writings and artifacts that span centuries of Christian history. For Christian pilgrims who come to Orlando in search of the area’s world-renowned theme parks, the Holy Land Experience is a worthwhile place to visit for a few hours.
The Holy Land Experience is a very recent phenomenon, its doors having been open less than a decade as of the writing of this book. It was the brainchild of Marv Rosenthal, a Christian convert from Judaism who went on to become a Baptist minister. Rosenthal conceived of a living Christian museum, combining different attractions and exhibits designed to evoke the experience of living in ancient Jerusalem and, more specifically, early Christianity.
Rosenthal’s park opened in 2001, and has been a popular destination for religious visitors to Orlando ever since. A relatively minor controversy arose at the time of the parks opening, with critics insisting that the Holy Land Experience had an evangelistic mission (which it sort of does, though why that would be particularly controversial is uncertain). In 2002, the highlight (from a religious and historical perspective) of the park opened: the Scriptorium.
The Scriptorium is what elevates the Holy Land Experience above the level of an Orlando area sideshow attraction and makes it really worthy of a visit from serious Christian pilgrims. It houses the Van Kampen collection, one of the largest, if not the largest, collection of Biblical artifacts in the United States. The collection was assembled by Robert Van Kampen, a wealthy American businessman with a passion for Judeo-Christian antiquities. A few years after his death in 1999, the collection was transferred to the Holy Land experience.
The Holy Land Experience is unique among pilgrimage destinations in this book in that it is an attraction and not in and of itself a holy site. Because of this, and because of the nature of its attractions, the park has been accused of cheapifying, or ‘Disneyfying’, Christianity. In 2008, the Holy Land Experience drew national attention after appearing in the documentary film “Religulous”, wherein the parks workers and visitors debated with the filmmakers over several Christian themes. Neither the film nor the park’s controversies seem to deter the steady stream of pilgrims that visit every day.
The Holy Land Experience can best be described as a ‘junior’ theme park, at least in comparison to Orlando’s eight megaparks, with a focus on Christian education. Much of a visit to the Holy Land Experience involves interaction with the park’s Biblical ‘characters’, which can run the gamut from interesting to cheesy to gruesome (the latter including reenactments of the Passion). More interesting (at least to the author) are the architectural recreations of long lost Judea, including the Qumram Caves, the Jaffa Gate, the Garden Tomb, the Galilean Boat, the Tabernacle, and the Great Temple.
The real highlight of the Holy Land Experience, the Scriptorium, is tucked away in an imposing, Byzantine-style structure at the back of the park. It houses the Van Kampen collection of Biblical antiquities, which includes both permanent and rotating exhibits of artifacts and writings from around the world. The Scriptorium is seen by tour that requires approximately one hour.
The Holy Land Experience is located at the northern end of Orlando’s theme park belt, just up the road from Universal Studios and about four miles southwest of downtown. It is open Mondays through Saturdays from 10:00am-6:00pm. The cost of admission is US$35.00. Web: http://www.holylandexperience.com/ (official website)
There is little in the way of other worthwhile Christian sites in Orlando. However, the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine in nearby St. Augustine is one of the oldest Spanish-founded catholic churches in the United States, and one of the first to be designated a full Basilica.