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Thanks to help from a California-based Christian broadcasting empire, a Christian theme park in Orlando, Fla., seems to have boosted its popularity.
Ever since Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) acquired The Holy Land Experience in June, attendance figures jumped at least 25 percent, according to Melanie Davies, public relations manager for the park.
“That 25 percent figure is for June and July,” she said. “For August, it was 76 percent.”
The Holy Land Experience opened in 2001. Now, with TBN frequently mentioning the park during it’s evening programming, and also with the usual high summertime attendence numbers, the attraction is fighting its way back to become another leading tourist stop in Orlando.
TBN and park officials call the recent deal a “marriage,” rather than a business takeover.
“For us, it was a natural synergy. They were looking for more publicity and we (TBN) were looking to acquire land and buildings in the area,” explained Paul Crouch Jr., whose parents, Paul and Jan Crouch, founded TBN with Jim and Tammy Bakker in 1973.
About a year ago, TBN bought the TV license for Orlando’s Channel 52. As part of that transaction, the broadcaster also needed land and buildings to host their TV studios and facilities.
“We heard that they (The Holy Land Experience) needed help. So we entered negotiations (to acquire the park) about one year ago before we signed on the dotted line, so to speak,” he said.
Prior to the merger with TBN, the park had debts of about $8 million, according to the Orlando Sentinel, and had cut operating hours and staff. Thomas E. Powell, the park’s former president, blamed a poor marketing campaign, rising costs and dwindling ticket sales.
Spread over 17 acres in central Florida, the attraction can be described as either a ministry — which is often how the park’s employees refer to it — or a Bible-based attraction. There are replicas of ancient buildings mentioned in the Bible, such as a six-story replica of King Herod’s Temple. Entertainers wear vintage-era costumes to recreate biblical stories, including a daily crucifixion drama that “blesses everyone who sees it,” the park’s promotional materials say.
Another highlight is the largest scale model of Jerusalem, as it looked during the time of Jesus Christ, and what is called a “scriptorium,” a museum that houses numerous historic copies of the Bible. A church, the Acts Fellowship Baptist Church, holds Sunday morning services at the park.
In addition to the 17 acres now used by the park, an additional 10 acres nearby are also available for future development. Crouch said the “immediate plan” is to build a state-of-the-art television studio on site that will be used for TBN broadcasts and productions. TBN has already invested in new audio/visual equipment for the park’s shows.
Crouch also said the park would expand its hours to open on Sunday afternoons after Sunday morning church services.
When the attraction opened, it drew protests from the Jewish Defense League and other Jewish organizations because its founder, Marvin Rosenthal, considered himself a “Hebrew Christian” and because of the “park’s inappropriate mixture of Jewish words and motifs with Christian theology,” said Shelley Rubin, chairman and CEO of the Jewish Defense League.
“The overriding objection was to the proselytizing done there when it first opened,” echoed Rabbi Rick Sherwin of Congregation Beth Am, a Conservative synagogue in nearby Longwood, Fla. “But that proselytizing hasn’t worked. We stopped hearing complaints about the park about one year after it opened. So it’s not that big an issue here anymore.”
In fact, Rubin said her group is “actually pleased to hear of TBN’s takeover” because the network “seldom airs material meant to explicitly offend the Jewish people, or anyone else for that matter. And TBN’s preachers commonly ask their parishioners to pray for the peace and security of Israel.”
Bill T. Jones, the park’s director of biblical studies, said, “In no way are we trying to convert people on some sort of massive scale.”
Colby May, the network’s communications counsel said the mission of the Florida park dovetailed with the mission of the network.
“It wasn’t so much a business experiment but the ability to spread the gospel,” he said. “… It’s a very 21st-century form of communication.”
When TBN was in the negotiating stages of acquiring the park, Crouch said he anonymously bought a ticket and wandered around.
“I saw Bible teachings, people praying for each other while in the park, the shows that they produce … and at the end of the day when I was done, I felt that I had gone to church, not a theme park. That’s when I knew that it was a special place.”
Copyright 2007 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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