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The Holy Land Experience | Photo © 2023, www.abandonedfl.com

The Holy Land Experience

Location Class:
Built: | Abandoned: 2021
Status: Demolished
Photojournalist: Abandoned Urbex Canada

The Holy Land Experience

The Holy Land Experience was a Christian-based theme park in Orlando, Florida, and registered as a non-profit corporation. Weekly church services and bible studies were conducted at the park for the general public. The Holy Land Experience theme park recreated the architecture and themes of the ancient city of Jerusalem in 1st-century Judaea. It was owned by the Trinity Broadcasting Network, an international Christian-based broadcast television network, and the world’s largest religious television network.

The park had its origin in a dream of Marvin Rosenthal, a Jewish convert of Russian origin who became a Baptist pastor, and founder of the missionary organization Zion’s Hope, who bought land in Orlando in 1989. He eventually sold some property to the state for the construction of a highway, and in turn invested the profits into a replication of Isreal, the Holy Land.

We hope all visitors will come and see the majesty of God. Or at least go home and dust off their Bibles,” Rosenthal told a Florida newspaper. “I’ve come to appreciate how helpful it is for people not only to read about some of the great truths of the Bible but to see some of the great places, the environments, the sounds, the touches, the smells.”

The 14-acre park was built on a tradition of Holy Land recreations. They come from a variety of Christian perspectives, with some more evangelistic and others more educational. The first in the United States was built by liberal Christians in 1874, a miniature scale model of the Holy Land known as Palestine Park, located on the ground of the Chautauqua Institution in Chautauqua, New York. Orlando’s The Holy Land Experience was the first of which to open in the 21st century.

The park opened in February 2001 to some controversy. The Jewish Defense League accused the park of proselytizing Jews to Christianity with the head of the organization, Irv Rubin, exclaiming that “There are two ways you can murder Jews. Physically, like Auschwitz, and spiritually, the way of Marvin Rosenthal.” Rubin was arrested, a short time later, on charges that he conspired to bomb a mosque in California and the office of US Congressman Darrell Issa. He committed suicide in his cell in 2002 while awaiting trial.

Soon after its opening, Rosenthal applied for tax exemption status in Orange County, but the request was denied. It wasn’t until 2005 that a judge ruled in favor of the park because of its mission of spreading the word of God, which is not for profit and, therefore, allows it to benefit from a tax exemption. This prevented Orange County from collecting back taxes as well as forgiving the park amounting to $300,000 annually in property taxes. 

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The Van Kampen Collection

On August 17, 2002, the Holy Land Experience Scriptorium museum opened featuring the Van Kampen Collection of biblically related artifacts, founded in 1986 by Robert and Judith Van Kampen. In 1994, Robert Van Kampen established a privately funded research library known as The Scriptorium: Center for Christian Antiquities, located in Grand Haven, Michigan, for the purpose of presenting the collection to the academic community as well as the general public. The collection relocated to Orlando in 2002, where it was on loan to the Holy Land Experience. The collection included ancient scrolls, manuscripts, and early printed editions of the Bible, and was the fourth largest of its kind.

Ownership Under Trinity Broadcasting Network

In June 2007, the Holy Land Experience Board of Directors sold the property to the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) for an estimated $37 million. At the time of the sale, the park was $8 million in debt. TBN made plans to update the park and use the property to build a Central Florida broadcasting facility, as well as a movie studio in order to produce Christian films.

On August 21, 2007, former president and board member Tom Powell resigned from his position to seek “new challenges.” Paul Crouch Sr., Jan Crouch, Paul Crouch Jr., and Matthew Crouch remained on the board of directors. Between 50 and 100 employees were later laid off in October 2007, signaling that the park continued to struggle financially. Jan Crouch was Director and CEO until her death in May 2016.

Under their ownership, TBN added new landscaping, exhibits, restaurants, and theaters which featured live musical and theatrical productions. The park has also introduced weekly bible studies, church services, and live cooking demonstrations. The Smile of a Child Adventure Land was added to the park exhibits. This children’s park featured exhibits and activities for children, such as a wilderness rock-climbing wall, toy store, children’s theater, and craft center.

In 2012, the 2,000-seat Church of All Nations auditorium opened. The facility featured live presentations and reenactments of the passion and crucifixion of Jesus Christ and the depiction of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ to heaven. Live tapings of TBN’s flagship TV show, Praise the Lord, were also taped in the facility, in addition to concerts and church services. Religious anthropologist James Bielo, who studies places that “materialize the Bible,” said the Holy Land Experience was arguably the most famous of the biblical replicas in the United States, even though it had annual operating deficits of about $5 million.

In February 2020, it was announced that the Holy Land Experience would essentially shut down after several years of lost revenue, laying off 118 employees and ending all theatrical productions, restaurants, and retail shops. On August 2, 2021, the property was sold to AdventHealth, which plans to redevelop the land for a new hospital. Demolition of the park began in January 2023.

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David Bulit is a photographer, author, and historian from Miami, Florida. He has published a number of books on abandoned and forgotten locales throughout the United States and continues to advocate for preserving these historic landmarks. His work has been featured throughout the world in news outlets such as the Miami New Times, the Florida Times-Union, the Orlando Sentinel, NPR, Yahoo News, MSN, the Daily Mail, UK Sun, and many others. You can find more of his work at davidbulit.com as well as amazon.com/author/davidbulit.

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