WEST PALM BEACH, Fla., Feb. 20 (JTA) — For Dawn Short and Jennifer Willis, the wait to visit a newly opened “messianic Jewish” theme park was worth it.
Ticket sellers bluntly told Short and her friend Willis when they arrived on Saturday that the Holy Land Experience park was too crowded to accept more guests.
But instead of heading home, Short, a Methodist, and Willis, a Pentecostal, spent some time in Orlando and returned to the park in the afternoon.
“We were determined to get in,” said Short, who made the two-hour drive from her home to Orlando after reading about the religious theme park in a local newspaper.
The two women eventually got in. Short says she learned more about the Bible in just two hours in the park than she did in years of Bible school.
Josephine Alford, a Christian visiting from northern Florida, also enjoyed the park. Her only regret was that she couldn’t spend all day in Orlando’s newest attraction.
These aren’t the only tourists who have headed to Orlando this month, hoping to find not Disney but the deity.
Since the newest addition to Orlando’s theme park row opened Feb. 5, some 30,000 visitors have bypassed the world’s most famous mouse to visit the Holy Land Experience, a controversial park that tries to re-create biblical times through stage productions and a Middle Eastern marketplace.
The $16 million theme park, which mixes Jewish and Christian symbols, has sparked heated attacks from some Jewish leaders. They assert that the park’s founder — a Jew who embraced Jesus — has created a giant proselytizing tool.
But a protest, planned on the park’s opening day by the Jewish Defense League, fizzled. Many local leaders say the best action Jewish groups can take against the Holy Land Experience may be no action at all.
“We have to understand that in a democracy, we have to tolerate all situations,” said Rabbi Joel Levine, spiritual leader of Temple Judea of West Palm Beach, and chairman of the Cults and Messianics Task Force of the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County.
“Everyone has a right to practice their religion. We can’t picket” the park, he said. “We could have a Jewish Israel park, and we wouldn’t want them to picket it.”
Instead, Levine said, Jewish groups should focus their efforts on education.
“I think the Jewish community is doing a good thing by letting people know what Holy Land is: a Christian amusement park,” Levine said.
Park founder Marvin Rosenthal says he never intended to hide that fact.
“Every piece of literature created by the park states its evangelical purpose,” said Rosenthal, who directs an Orlando-based Christian ministry, Zion’s Hope.
But Jewish leaders say the Jewish themes that dominate the Holy Land Experience are misleading, and will deceive people into believing that Jews support the park’s message.
Critics point to the Holy Land Experiences gift shop, for example, which sells jewelry that contains Jewish stars, but does not sell crosses.
Some Jewish leaders also say Rosenthal’s background raises warning flags.
Rosenthal, an ordained Baptist minister, was born into a Conservative Jewish family and says he never formally converted to Christianity.
“I think the word that comes to mind immediately is ‘deceit,’ ” said William Rothschild, assistant regional director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Palm Beach office.
“The organization is entitled to build a theme park, but our problem is the way it’s being presented,” Rothschild said. It’s part of Rosenthal’s “ministry to entice as many Jews as he can, to expose them to a mixture of Christian and Jewish values. We’re concerned about it. We feel that what they’re presenting is the philosophy that you can be both — and if you’re not both, you’re not complete — and that invalidates Judaism.”
For $17 a ticket — $12 for children — Rosenthal aims to transport guests 7,000 miles away and 3,000 years back in time. The journey starts when Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt and ends just before the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in the first century.
There’s a 45-foot by 25-foot model of first-century Jerusalem. Guests also may wander through Calvary’s Garden Tomb, a re-creation of Jesus’ resting place, where actors portray his death, burial and resurrection.
A high-tech production of Israel’s ancient priestly system — replete with lightning bolts and fog— awaits visitors within a model of the Wilderness Tabernacle. Replicas of the Qumran caves let guests peek at the place where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the 20th century.
Costumed actors sing and perform scenes from the Bible in the marketplace, near a replica of Herod’s Temple and alongside a re-creation of the Via Dolorosa.
The biblical theme is evident even in the smallest details. Recorded sounds of camels, goats and sheep bray from loudspeakers along the ancient-style paths, as street vendors peddle milk and honey-flavored ice cream.
The theme park was designed by Orlando-based ITEC Entertainment Corp., which also has created rides for Walt Disney World and Universal Studios.
Each exhibit at the Holy Land Experience will provide dramatic and factual insights that will teach the message of the Bible, Rosenthal said.
Rosenthal said he toyed with the idea of building a religious theme park for nearly 20 years, inspired by his extensive tours of Israel. He wanted to make sure everyone had a chance to visit the Holy Land, even if they couldn’t travel overseas, he said.
The answer to his prayers came in 1989, when Rosenthal heard about a densely wooded, 19-acre site in Orlando that was tangled up in a bankruptcy proceeding.
With the backing of some wealthy investors — including Robert and Judith Van Kampen, whose collection of rare bibles will be part of a museum slated to open at the park next year — Rosenthal offered $1.2 million for the site, a fraction of its worth.
His offer was accepted and, a few years later, state officials offered to pay $1.4 million to build a highway interchange on four acres of Rosenthal’s land. To Rosenthal, it was a sign that God was smiling on his plan.
“The Bible is God’s word, and there’s no better place to share that than one of the most major tourist locations in the world,” he said.
The idea that the park targets Jews for conversion is fallacious, Rosenthal said. So far, fewer than 1 percent of the park’s visitors have been Jewish, he added.
But, he added, “I do believe Jesus is the messiah, and to believe in him is the most Jewish thing a Jewish person can do.”