I probably believe in Santa Claus more than I ever have in Jesus, especially being both a liberal and a comedian. And I haven’t been to church since I got kicked off a youth choir tour at age 16 for smoking pot. But I’m so excited as I enter The Holy Land Experience, a Christian-themed park in Orlando, Florida, because I’m a curious, Jane Goodall-type person. Only humans, instead of gorillas, are my jam. Plus, now seems like a good time to be more of a tolerant, open-minded liberal instead of such a nay-saying, judgmental jerk, right?
After getting my $50 ticket scanned, I pass through the turnstile and grab a cup of Joe at Holy Coffee, which also sells Naked Juice and Chick-fil-A. The kids’ area, called Smile of a Child Adventure Land, seems like a good place to get started. There’s a rock-climbing wall, which I appreciate, being a climber myself, though I seriously doubt Jesus was into it. Next to the wall is a life-size replica of Noah’s Ark. Unfortunately, the only animals you’ll find in this ark are “prayer bears” stuffed inside one of those ’80s arcade claw machines.
There is an animal outside the ark though—a giant plastic purple whale. I follow a woman in a wheelchair into its mouth (there are an unusually large number of disabled tourists at this park) and into its belly. Much like Disney World, there’s an animatronic mannequin dressed up in an old-timey robe and bloomers, suspended by wires. Plastic starfish and octopuses are being digested along with us. I clearly don’t know my Bible because I have no idea what story this guy is from until the child next to me says, “Look, it’s Jonah!”
If you’re a child-free woman in her thirties like me, the kids’ area gets boring real quick, so I move on. Immediately I spot a sign that reads, “Come sing with us at Celebrate Jesus Karaoke!” I love karaoke, so I enter a bright theater and approach the stage where Ron, dressed like a disciple with a modern name tag, is holding a songbook and a walkie-talkie.
“Uh, do you have any non-gospel songs?” I ask. “I don’t know any of these.”
“Sure!” he says smiling and flips to the last page where the only three non-Christian songs are listed. “Take your pick, dear!”
Ron is a really nice older white man, but not in the usual creepy way. Before it’s my turn, several old white dudes with zero talent sing hymns, a couple of black women belt out amazing gospel renditions, and a handful of kids with less talent than the old men mess up even the easiest of songs including “Jesus Loves Me.”
I’m surprisingly nervous because I normally perform karaoke (and comedy) in front of drunks in dark, smoky bars. But here, everyone is paying devout attention. Plus, all the house lights are on, so I can actually see their reactions.
As “I Believe I Can Fly” starts playing, I realize I don’t actually know any of the words other than the title itself. But I commit fully like my improv training in NYC taught me to do, flapping my arms and shout-singing gibberish (they don’t give you the lyrics for some stupid reason). In the back row, members of an African-American church group wearing the same purple T-shirts clap and sway in unison. I appreciate their support. Especially since no one else is into this song. Maybe because I chose a song by a guy who pees on teenage girls. That or because I just suck at this.
After I finish and walk off stage, Ron pats me on the back, saying, “Great job! They loved you.”
But I’ll take it.
After karaoke I tour the gift shop, simply out of curiosity. I’m fairly amused to see books like Gimme a J for Jesus and boxes of overpriced Bible Quest action figure toys. But I’m still trying to figure out why all the Jewish stuff. Yarmulkes, candles, you name it. On my way out of the shop, I pose next to the most amazing painting I’ve ever seen of a hot, buff, shirtless Jesus… boxing. It’s called, “Jesus in Your Corner.”
Now it’s time for Jesus in our cave. Yes, that’s right. Communion!
After about 50 of us pile into a cave made of fake rock, a man dressed in a pharaoh’s outfit hands each of us a cracker along with grape juice in a teeny tiny wooden shot glass. Within minutes, Jesus enters the stage, cave left, wearing a Madonna-style microphone and…. day-um this Jesus is h-o-t, hot.
With long dirty-blonde hair, blue eyes, and a beard, the Son of God looks like Legends of the Fall Brad Pitt, pulling off the rugged mountain man look quite well. He delivers a painfully long monologue about cannibalism, then instructs us to eat his body and down our shots of his “blood.” When he’s all done, Hot Jesus walks out into the crowd and starts touching people. I’m not even kidding. He goes around to each person saying, “Bless you, my child.”
Like someone in a snake-slinging revival tent, my knees buckle the moment his big ole man-hands connect with the spaghetti straps on my shoulder (I hadn’t been laid in a while). Unfortunately, our little moment together is ruined by the sound of my empty wooden shot glass hitting the floor. After it’s all over, we’re told to leave, as Jesus has to “go pray in the gardens now,” i.e., costume change.
I don’t have time to go to all the shows, but I can’t not go to the one called “The God Bless America Show.” Along with military men, candy stripers, and a dancing bear I still can’t explain, Hot Jesus appears in this show too! Only now he’s playing a towny singing about war being a good thing. At the end of the show, all the vets in the audience are asked to rise and be applauded and then the rest of us are encouraged (shamed) into a sing-along of "The Star-Spangled Banner." To cap off this war propaganda machine of a show, an actor in a soldier’s uniform limps out on stage and declares he doesn’t mind being crippled for the rest of his life because losing a leg in war was “God’s will” for him.
Believe it or not, there is one show even more disturbing than the God Bless America production: “The Women Who Loved Jesus.” The stars of this extravaganza include Jesus’ mom, a pissed-off hooker, some woman who was almost stoned to death by a crowd of angry men, and a lady who’s been bleeding from orifices for 12 years due to some strange disease I still don’t understand.
As a feminist, I find this show a bit insulting. One pathetic woman after another gives a long-winded speech about how meaningless her life is. Then, like a superhero, Jesus swoops in to save the day. The woman cries, they embrace, and then she gives another long speech after he leaves about how obsessed she is with him. One says, “I’ve never loved anyone the way I love that man,” before another dick-matized lady longingly looks off into the sunset, saying “I think I love him in a… different way.” My personal favorite is, “No man has ever touched me like that.”
All these women want to bang hot Jesus and to be honest, now I kinda do too. Whenever Jesus isn’t saving some damsel in distress, he’s hanging out in the streets of Jerusalem with his homies. He’s essentially the guy every straight white man wants to be and every straight white woman wants to screw. Is this how they recruit people to Christianity? Because it’s almost working on me.
The mood changes dramatically when a bunch of Roman guards charge Jesus, start kicking the shit out of him, and drag him off stage. One of the women who loved Jesus then tells us through a bullhorn to head outside for the grand finale show, “The Passion of the Christ.”
Given the sexual overtones of “The Women Who Loved Jesus,” you’d think “The Passion of the Christ” was going to be some sort of soft porn.
Hundreds of tourists from every corner of Holy Land are now herded over to a pile of fake rocks, where we’re situated behind the same kind of ropes they use at the electric light parade in The Magic Kingdom. Jesus finally comes out into the crowd wearing a white robe and hippie sandals. Sweaty and with a bad case of bed head, his mood is somber as he gives another one of his long-winded speeches. When he’s all done, he’s tackled to the ground by a group of Roman guards, who are super-hot themselves, wearing those gold-plated six-pack covers and flowing skirts that show off their soccer legs.
They drag Jesus over to meet Satan, who’s wearing a black robe with a hood like an evil wizard straight out of a Harry Potter book. He too gives a speech, but it’s met with booooooooos from the crowd. Satan smiles all smug, loving that he’s getting under everyone’s skin. When he finally shuts up, the guards rip off Jesus’ robe, leaving him in what’s effectively an ancient diaper, then they bind his hands to a wooden post with rope. Maybe this is some sort of old-timey S&M!
Every time a whip strikes Jesus’ back, the loudspeakers belt out a “crack” sound and more fake blood and bruises magically appear on his perfect body. With each lash he violently arches his back and moans, making the O-face. It’s oddly hot and I’m not even into BDSM.
By the time all the whipping is over, the hot guards are sweaty and jacked up on testosterone. They drag Jesus out into the audience and kick him in the kidneys repeatedly. Some of the kids in strollers are crying, while others are holding their hands over their eyes. Nobody seems to think this is the least bit inappropriate for them.
Eventually the guards put a thorny crown on Jesus’ head and make him carry a huge log, all the while continuing to beat him. Once he’s up on the cross, the guards pound huge spikes through his hands and feet and it seems so real I have to look away. The special effects at Holy Land are the best I’ve ever seen.
They let the poor guy hang up there for quite a while, which is kind of boring to watch—until one guard gives him a sponge bath using a long stick and another one spears him in the gut, just to be a dick.
I’m sure you know what happens next.
The sexy guards then take a hammer to his hands and feet to get the nails out, wrap him in a white sheet, and carry him through the crowd down to a tomb. It’s depressing. Mary and all those “Women Who Loved Jesus” are upset, fake crying.
Satan makes a victory speech to a booing crowd yet again and then some hot guard makes a speech too. But his monologue gets cut short when a mysterious explosion happens behind him. After the smoke clears, we see Jesus is all cleaned up now (yet another wardrobe change!), wearing a white flowing nightgown.
He thanks his Dad, holds up a huge pair of keys to his father’s “kingdom,” and invites us all to come on over. In the meantime, angels dressed in white and gold disco outfits dance all around us, flapping their wings and twirling like a bunch of hippies at a Phish concert.
We’re told to make our way to heaven, so our gang of gentiles follow the dancing angels about 50 yards away to a huge gold and white amphitheater that seems like a pretty accurate depiction of what Broadway in heaven might be like. When Jesus finally shows up, we see he’s replaced his thorny crown with a massive gold one to match his royal staff and cloak. Jesus hath not only risen, he hath become a millionaire! He walks down the aisle with a robe train longer than Princess Diana’s trailing behind him. Everyone, and not in an ironic or jokey way, holds their right hands up and shouts, “Praise Jesus!” again and again.
After some celebrating and angel-dancing, Satan makes a surprise visit. But fear not! Jesus quickly condemns him to Hell to everyone’s delight. The crowd goes wild as two disco angels (one of whom was the host at Jesus karaoke!) pick Satan up, lasso him with a Wonder Woman-style golden rope, and escort him out of Heaven for good and all.
To be honest, I’m exhausted by this show and all the hysteria of the crowd. But not nearly as exhausted as Jesus, I’m sure. That was his second crucifixion today. And he’s a good actor! For a moment I fantasize about hooking up with J somehow. Sure, he’s way out of my league, but I’ve got zero competition since these good Christian women wouldn’t dare bang the Son of God, especially not in a parked car out back.
Before leaving I hit up the food court and get a sno cone. Near the trash cans they have four different sheets you can fill out and put into their Santa’s Mailbox-type device: A Praise Report, a Rededication Report, a Salvation Report, and a Prayer Request. Man, these people really do want to be good and do good, don’t they? Who else would think about this crap while eating hot dogs?
It occurs to me as I look around that as horrifying and deeply disturbing as this place is, the people eating around me are super-nice families with the best of intentions. And all of them have been super-nice to me today. For a split moment in time, I see their humanity and their goodness instead of their voting records and stance on abortion.
Besides making me horny as hell, maybe this park did actually open my mind and heart for a bit. At the very least, it helped put a face to these mysterious religious people that consistently tend to vote against the rights of me and most of my friends.
Despite all this, I will never love Jesus the spirit. This place and these stories are just too weird for me. Like that woman who was bleeding for 12 years, I guess I’ll just think of him in “that” way instead.