Christmas is just a few weeks away, and like any God-fearing American, I’m already celebrating in style. Not by shopping for gifts or spending time with my family, but by taking a trip down to the Holy Land Experience, a religiously-themed theme park in Orlando, Florida.
I brought along my wife and a few friends, and we expected what any tourist reasonably expects from a Florida theme park: some cheesy good fun and a few laughs. But the Holy Land, in a perfect bit of irony, managed to break the ten holy commandments of theme park etiquette.
1. Thou Shalt Not Charge $35 per Ticket Without Having at Least One Good Ride
A first-time visitor can surely be forgiven for having high hopes. Holy Land just sounds a knockoff of Praiseland, Ned Flanders’ short-lived (and sadly fictional) religious theme park from The Simpsons. But you won’t find any hilarious attractions like Whack-a-Satan or King David’s Wild Ride here.
The Holy Land’s idea of fun includes the world’s largest indoor model of the city of Jerusalem, circa A.D. 66. Or you can swing over to the Scriptorium Center for Biblical Antiquities and admire the actual key from John Bunyan’s prison cell. At the Wilderness Tabernacle, you can witness a pantomimed goat sacrifice, followed by an Ark of the Covenant smoke-and-laser show, which (not surprisingly) isn’t nearly as cool without the melting Nazis.
2. Thou Shalt Throw the Agnostics a Bone
Like most people who haven’t gone to church since childhood, we didn’t come to Holy Land for the religious sincerity; we came for the comedy, intentional or otherwise. We’re looking for the campy shtick of Godspell and the chest-thumping pietism of a Charlton Heston bible epic.
But Holy Land is sorely lacking in kitschy self-parody. The park’s best gags are in the small details, easily missed. Like the baby strollers (available for rent) in the shape of a Jesus fish, or the Frankincense and Myrrh sold at the gift shop (for the low price of $8). Our favorite attraction, hidden behind a gift shop, is the “Day in the Life of a Monk” exhibit, which is basically just a room with an empty cot.
To be fair, the Holy Land Experience is in a tough position. It has to somehow balance the fine line between theme park entertainment and Sunday-school sanctity. Sanctity usually wins in the end, so don’t expect to be greeted at the front gates by a lovably goofy Moses with a huge foam head, singing about how parting the Red Sea “just takes a little imagination!”
3. Thou Shalt Not Waste Money On Animatronics That Nobody Wants to See
Disneyland has its animatronic Abraham Lincoln. And the Holy Land has… John Wycliffe?
Common sense would suggest that Noah or Moses, or anybody else with a modicum of biblical clout, might have been a better candidate for the park’s sole animatronic character than Wycliffe, but what do we know?
We do know this: Listen to a slow-moving robot explain, in excruciating detail, how he translated the bible from Latin to English in 1382, and you’ll understand the true meaning of boredom.
4. Thou Shalt Not Make It Painfully Obvious That Business Has Been Crappy
With the economy sinking deeper into a recession, most Orlando theme parks have reported a decline in holiday attendance. The Holy Land is no exception.
Based on our unofficial head count, the number of people at Holy Land this weekend is somewhere in the double digits. It doesn’t help matters that, according to posted rules, “only Holy Land employees are allowed to dress in costume.” That just makes it glaringly obvious how many people in the park are on the company payroll.
If my friends and I were running Holy Land, we’d be selling head shawls in the gift shop and allowing stoned college students to show up dressed like Nestor the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey. Even when ticket sales are low, you can do wonders with a little camouflage.
5. Thou Shalt Not Be an Anti-Semitic Douche
With Christmas just around the corner, we expect an abundance of holiday revelry. But Christmas joy is in short supply. All we can find is a kid-friendly show called “The True Story of St. Nicholas”, where overenthusiastic bearded guys in brightly-colored sweaters explain how the original Santa Claus was less interested in presents than getting into fistfights with Christ-doubting Jews.
Apparently the true meaning of Christmas isn’t just about Jesus being born. It’s also about remembering to punch as many Jews in the face as you possibly can.
At one point, a guy impersonating St. Nick does the robot dance while rapping, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, y’all outta feel my theology!” We’re not sure what any of this has to do with Christmas, but at least it’s not overtly anti-Semitic.
6. Thou Shalt Not Creep Out Children
Among the uninviting attractions at Holy Land’s children’s recreation area are a Jonah’s belly-of-the-whale playhouse, reeking of the pungent odor of baby pee, and a plastic replica of Noah’s Ark, so you can pretend you’re one of the chosen few who escaped God’s wrath.
There’s also a rock climbing wall (which we assume is an allusion to Jericho), a smattering of porcelain animals (including, for some reason, the counting sheep from the Serta mattress commercials), “Happy Birthday Jesus” spelled out in twinkle-lights, and most disturbingly, a talking parrot that records the voice prompts of any visitor.
After teaching the parrot to repeat “No on Prop 8,” we grow bored and slink away.
7. Thou Shalt Not Creep Out Adults
One of the featured attractions at Holy Land is the live crucifixion. Six days a week, Jesus (or a dude dressed like Jesus) is marched to his death in front of a crowd of bug-eyed tourists. He’s eventually “nailed” to a cross and displayed before the masses in a death sequence that’s macabre even by Passion play standards.
It’s my first public execution, and I’m shocked by how much blood there is. Every time a soldier sucker punches Jesus or whacks his naked torso with a club, Jesus is speckled with vital fluids, like a Jackson Pollock painting on flesh.
The violence is so over the top that it’s almost cartoonish. I half-expect one of the Roman soldiers to give Jesus a wet willie or poke him in the eyes like the Three Stooges. At least that would bring some much-needed levity to this otherwise gruesome scene.
The entire morbid ordeal, performed by actors in full Cecil B. DeMille regalia, takes no more than twenty minutes, but it feels much longer, especially when Jesus throws in a few extra groans — an “uuugh” and “huuuuhh” straight from the James Brown school of emotive theatrics.
8. Thou Shalt Not Celebrate Christmas By Murdering Anybody, Particularly a Christian Icon, in Cold Blood
As we watch Jesus get the living crap beaten out of him by Roman centurions, a funny thing occurs to us. “Wait a minute,” we wonder aloud, “isn’t it Christmas?”
It seems an odd way to celebrate the coming holiday. I haven’t read a bible lately, but isn’t nailing Jesus to the cross in December putting the cart a little ahead of the horse?
If there’s anything inappropriate about celebrating Jesus’ death a full three weeks before he’s born, the Holy Land audience doesn’t seem to mind. They don’t even care that the actor playing Jesus looks like Barry Gibb, or that he appears to be wearing Tevas, or that his mullet wouldn’t seem out of place at a mobile home barbecue. The only thing they care about is the show.
“Forgive them Father,” the pseudo-Jesus howls, enunciating for the cheap seats. “They know not what they do.” The audience mouths along with their favorite lines, like androgynous teenagers at a midnight screening of the Rocky Horror Picture Show.
9. Thou Shalt Not Bogart the Theme Park’s Mascot
When Jesus stumbles past us on his way to crucifixion, hunched over from the weight of his cross, we try to shift forward for a closer look. But the crowd surrounds him, their cameras clicking frantically like paparazzi hounding a b-list actor outside a Los Angeles nightclub.
Jesus — not the real thing but the Holy Land’s closest equivalent — has become a minor celebrity. Even my friends and I, the sore thumb sinners in the crowd, are star-struck by him. We recognize the actor from Bill Maher’s satirical documentary, Religulous, where he and Maher debated which one of them was more likely to be disappointed by the afterlife.
But Jesus is always kept at a safe distance from his fans. There are no photo ops, no chance to shake Jesus’ hand or ask him to sign a boob. He’s like any other celebrity, shielded from the public by a legion of handlers and publicists.
10. Thou Shalt Change a Lightbulb Occasionally
The sun is beginning to set and the holiday lights are flickering to life. Across a small pond, we notice a frightening display of landscape topiary: “HE IS RISEN” carved into hedges, big enough to be seen by passing airplanes. But when the lights come on, only “HE IS R” is illuminated. It’s just a few burned-out string lights, but it gives the park the shoddy aesthetics of a parking lot carnival.
Some passing shepherds, unaware that we’re watching them, glance over at the aglitter “HE IS R” and groan.
“That’s real nice,” one of them mutters.
Their expressions are somewhere between embarrassment and the furrowed brows of part-time employees who’ve just realized it may be time to update their resumes.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com.)