The Holy Land Experience (HLE) was a unique Christian-based theme park in Orlando, Florida, designed to transport visitors back in time to experience the architecture, culture, and themes of the ancient city of Jerusalem in 1st-century Judaea.
The park provided a wide range of attractions, including immersive biblical exhibits, live performances, and educational resources, while serving as a place of worship for the Christian community.
Despite its ambitious mission, HLE faced multiple controversies and financial challenges throughout its existence, ultimately leading to its closure and sale to AdventHealth in 2021.
Background and Origin of the Park
The vision for the Holy Land Experience was conceived by Marvin Rosenthal, a Jew of Russian origin who converted to Christianity and became a Baptist pastor.
Rosenthal, also the founder of the missionary organization Zion’s Hope, purchased land in Orlando in 1989 to create a theme park that would provide an immersive and educational experience for visitors interested in the biblical era.
HLE officially opened its doors in February 2001, when faith-based tourism was gaining traction in the United States, and theme parks catering to specific religious groups were starting to emerge.
Acquisition by Trinity Broadcasting Network and Park Expansion
In June 2007, the property of Holy Land Experience was acquired by the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), a prominent Christian television network, for around $37 million.
When the sale occurred, the park had accumulated a debt of approximately $8 million.
TBN had ambitious plans for HLE, aiming to update the park and expand its offerings by constructing a Central Florida broadcasting facility and a movie studio dedicated to producing Christian films.
Under TBN’s ownership, HLE underwent significant construction and expansion, adding new landscaping, exhibits, restaurants, and theaters to enhance the visitor experience.
The park introduced weekly Bible studies, church services, and live cooking demonstrations to create a more immersive and interactive environment for guests.
Smile of a Child Adventure Land
Under TBN’s ownership, HLE introduced the Smile of a Child Adventure Land, a children’s area offering exhibits and activities like a wilderness rock-climbing wall, toy store, children’s theater, and craft center.
The addition of this area aimed to make HLE a more family-friendly destination.
Notable Attractions and Exhibits
HLE boasted an impressive array of approximately 43 exhibits and attractions, each designed to immerse visitors in the biblical world and provide educational insights into the history and culture of the time.
Some of the most notable attractions included:
Church of All Nations
The Church of All Nations auditorium, a 2,000-seat facility, was inaugurated in 2012, showcasing live presentations and dramatizations of Jesus Christ’s passion, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension to heaven.
In addition to these dramatic performances, the auditorium hosted live tapings of TBN’s flagship TV show, Praise the Lord and concerts and church services for visitors and residents alike.
The Holy Land Experience Scriptorium museum opened in August 2002 and quickly became one of the park’s main attractions.
The museum showcased the Van Kampen Collection of biblically related artifacts, including ancient scrolls, manuscripts, and early printed editions of the Bible.
This impressive collection, which was the fourth largest of its kind, was founded in 1986 by Robert and Judith Van Kampen.
In 2002, the collection was relocated from its original location in Grand Haven, MI, to Orlando, where it was placed on loan to HLE.
The Scriptorium allowed guests to explore the historical context of the Bible by examining precious and rare artifacts.
In addition, educational exhibits and guided tours were available to help guests understand the significance of the collection and its impact on the study of biblical history.
Controversies and Challenges
Despite its mission to provide visitors with an educational and spiritual experience, HLE faced several controversies and challenges.
Alleged Proselytizing of Jews
In 2001, the Jewish Defense League accused HLE of proselytizing Jews, citing the park’s affiliation with Zion’s Hope, a missionary organization.
Marvin Rosenthal, the founder of HLE, vehemently refuted these accusations, maintaining that the park’s primary mission was to provide an educational experience and an opportunity for visitors to explore the historical context of the Bible rather than to convert individuals to Christianity.
Tax Exemption Issue
In 2001, Orange County initially denied HLE’s request for tax exemption.
The park maintained that its mission to spread the word of God made it eligible for tax exemption as a non-profit organization, akin to museums displaying historical information on various subjects.
In 2005, a judge ruled in favor of HLE, preventing Orange County from collecting the alleged back taxes and forgiving the park $300,000 in yearly property taxes.
In return, HLE was required to offer the public an annual free admissions day.
Closure and Sale of the Property
Despite its many attractions and the efforts of its owners and staff, HLE faced a sharp decline in revenue for several years before its eventual closure.
In February 2020, the park declared the layoff of 118 employees, which constituted most of its workforce, and ceased all theatrical productions, restaurants, and retail shops.
AdventHealth, a faith-based non-profit healthcare organization, purchased the property on August 2, 2021.
AdventHealth plans to redevelop the land for a new hospital, ending the era of the Holy Land Experience as a unique Christian-based theme park in Orlando, Florida.
Former Holy Land Experience Demolishion for AdventHealth ER
In April 2023, demolition began at Orlando’s Holy Land Experience theme park to make way for a new AdventHealth emergency room.
The faith-based non-profit healthcare organization purchased the property, intending to redevelop the site for healthcare services and provide residents with more options.
Crews commenced the demolition process near the Mall at Millenia to construct a one-story, 24-bed, 19,600-square-foot freestanding emergency department on the part of the land.
AdventHealth anticipates completing the demolition work by late June or early July. However, the emergency room’s completion timeline has not been released.
The Holy Land Experience was an ambitious attempt to create a Christian-based theme park that would provide visitors with an immersive, educational, and spiritually enriching experience.
While it faced numerous challenges and controversies throughout its existence, HLE nonetheless played an essential role in the growth of faith-based tourism and theme parks in the United States.
Its closure and transformation into a healthcare facility represent the end of one chapter in the ongoing story of how religion, culture, and entertainment intersect in the modern world.
Frequently Asked Questions
Who founded the Holy Land Experience?
The Holy Land Experience was founded by Marvin Rosenthal, a Jew of Russian origin who converted to Christianity and became a Baptist pastor.
When did the Holy Land Experience open?
The Holy Land Experience opened its doors in February 2001.
Who owned the Holy Land Experience?
The Holy Land Experience was initially owned by Zion’s Hope, a missionary organization. In June 2007, the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) acquired the property.
What were some notable attractions at the Holy Land Experience?
Some of the most popular attractions at the Holy Land Experience included the Church of All Nations auditorium, the Scriptorium museum, and the Smile of a Child Adventure Land.
Why did the Holy Land Experience close?
The Holy Land Experience closed due to a sharp decline in revenue for several years, leading to layoffs and the end of theatrical productions, restaurants, and retail shops.
What happened to the Holy Land Experience property after its closure?
The Holy Land Experience property was sold to AdventHealth in August 2021, which plans to redevelop the land for a new hospital.