Orlando – A six-foot lamb struts past a rocky cliff dotted with lamb statues. He waves at a staring child, stops to pose in a photo with a group of giggling women. In the background, on one of the rocks, is the whip Roman soldiers used to scourge Jesus a couple of hours earlier.
Most people would agree that the period of time in which Jesus lived on Earth was not the most whimsical era in recorded history. Yet Orlando's Holy Land Experience manages to bring it to life in a way that is not only palatable but quite spectacular to both skeptics and devout believers.
No matter what you're expecting, Holy Land Experience will surprise you. It does not call itself a theme park, but rather a living biblical museum designed to look and feel like ancient Jerusalem. For some, it may push the boundaries of reverence and sanctity with its props and theatrics, yet it stops short of crossing the line into silliness or disrespect.
"I'm really impressed, actually, with how closely they follow the book," said recent visitor Jason Myczaryk of Ohio, who spent an afternoon at Holy Land Experience with his wife Michele and 9-year-old granddaughter Kensey. "Yet it's fun. I can't imagine the real Jerusalem is this entertaining."
There are no roller coasters or animatronics, and the only spots where Holy Land Experience veers slightly from the strong messages of the Old and New Testaments are the food stands and the children's area, with its rock climbing wall and misting station. Even that, however, has a Noah's Ark theme and features Jonah inside the belly of the whale.
Christian messages aside, Holy Land Experience feels so different from its neighboring Orlando attractions, it's worth a visit just for that experience alone. Parking is free. Everyone, from the security guards to the hordes of visitors, are incredibly polite, scooting over to make sure everyone gets a seat at the shows, telling each other "God bless." The overall feeling within the 15-acre park is one of peace and homage, a nice break from the hustle of some of the larger and more crowded Orlando parks.
Visitors are greeted with "Shalom!" at the Guest Services entrance and given a daily schedule filled with live shows and other attractions. It is hard to pack them all in. There are opportunities throughout the day to take Holy Communion with Jesus, a re-enactment of the last supper in which each guest is given a wafer and grape juice in a tiny wooden cup souvenir. Across the Crystal Living Waters pond is a humongous hedge sculpture that spells out a quote from scripture, Mathew 28:6: HE IS RISEN.
The Scriptorium is an hour-long guided walking tour of the fourth largest Bible collection in the world. In a room off one of the gift shops, the world's largest indoor model of Jerusalem looks like it took a lot of painstaking time to build all of the ancient city's landmarks dotted with tiny people and animals.
At the Wilderness Tabernacle, a one-man show depicts Israel's ancient priesthood, ending with the glory of God – a special effect of shooting fog – rising above the Ark of the Covenant. Visitors can stop by the Temple Plaza to record testimonials about Holy Land Experience, to be aired later on Trinity Broadcast Network.
Holy Land's most dramatic attraction is what many call the "Passion Play," an hour-long reenactment of Christ's agony, death and resurrection, complete with original songs and convincing actors.
Most of Holy Land's shows and displays do not require participation, so passive observers or those who simply are not into this much Christianity will feel at ease. But those who are seeking a deeper meaning to their visit are invited to follow "Jesus" into the Church of All Nations Baptismal Pool, a fascinating event to witness.
And this is when the realization comes that Holy Land is not necessarily about the fun or the spectacle. For many, it is very much about the experience.
Holy Land Experience is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. - 6 p.m. An all-day pass for adults is $40, $25 for children ages 6-12 and $10 for ages 3-5. For more information, visit holylandexperience.com.
This story first appeared on VISITFLORIDA.com