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Thursday, August 12, 2021

The Holy Land Experience is gone for good, but its past may help us know what comes next

Posted By on Thu, Aug 12, 2021 at 3:03 PM


Long before Mall at Millenia made the Conroy Road area a major shopping destination, a small model of Jerusalem was bringing visitors to the area. That scale model of Jerusalem was set just prior to the First Jewish-Roman War in 66 CE and was the work of a local preacher who had big dreams of tapping into the region’s growing tourism industry. The scale model was soon joined by other exhibits, all in an effort by a Baptist minister to proselytize Jewish visitors.

click to enlarge The First Century Jerusalem model that began the entire attraction now known as the Holy Land Experience. - IMAGE VIA KEN STOREY
  • Image via Ken Storey
  • The First Century Jerusalem model that began the entire attraction now known as the Holy Land Experience.
As the area around the small attraction grew, so did the attraction. By 2001, the small office park attraction had morphed into a massive 14-acre boutique theme park. When Mall at Millenia opened in 2002, the park across the street was already unveiling its huge second phase, which included the Van Kampen Collection, one of the world's largest collections of biblical artifacts.

But the massive growth came at a price. By 2007, the park and its related ministry were struggling to keep the lights on. That’s when the Trinity Broadcasting Network took over in an estimated $37 million deal. Soon, the park was once again busy with construction.

click to enlarge A typical Holy Land Experience gift ship during the Jan Crouch era - IMAGE VIA KEN STOREY
  • Image via Ken Storey
  • A typical Holy Land Experience gift ship during the Jan Crouch era
The park and corresponding Windermere mansion parsonage became the de facto home for Jan Crouch, the cofounder of TBN, after her husband and network founder passed away. The area was familiar to Crouch, who had once been friends with Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. The Bakkers retreated to Orlando in 1989 after the couple had lost their former ministry, which included a large River Country-like water park, a massive hotel, and plans for a multi-day resort.

In Orlando, they were forced to hold services in a piano store until they were booted from that location. By 1992, the couple had drifted apart, and Tammy Faye, living in the Dr. Phillips area, filed for divorce. Jim Bakker’s dreams of a Christian theme park never materialized, but the Crouchs, who by this point had distanced themselves from the problematic Bakkers, had similar goals in mind.
click to enlarge A Holy Land Experience display in May 2016 - IMAGE VIA KEN STOREY
  • Image via Ken Storey
  • A Holy Land Experience display in May 2016
With Jim Bakker's television network out of the way, TBN rose to prominence, becoming the largest religious television network in the world.

By the time TBN took over the Holy Land Experience, the network was already operating amusement park-like studio tours in multiple locations and had ornate garden attractions at several of its studios. They were also pumping out a steady stream of movies, with some, like the 2006 film Facing the Giants, bringing back massive returns.

The Orlando site soon became their flagship, with a constant stream of new embellishments being added to the park, with each new layer helping it become ever closer to the maximalist style of Jan Crouch. Plans were announced for a 24-kart gold curtain embellished television studio. It was to have gemstones around the base of it and a pedestrian bridge over Vineland Road connecting it to the park. Those plans were put on hold as other projects moved forward.
  • Photo via lindabrasileira/Instagram

In 2012, the Colosseum-like Church of All Nations auditorium opened, in which daily reenactments of the passion and crucifixion of Jesus took place along with a steady stream of live broadcasts on TBN networks. Its historic style paint job was replaced by a gold and white one, including a gold style crown adorning the massive circular building with rows of mirrored faux windows. Extravagant touches covered nearly every inch of the park, including in the restrooms. But with the park so connected to the pink-haired icon of prosperity theology, even as the network evolved, the park remained a time capsule into late 90s televangelism trappings.

click to enlarge Even the restrooms at Holy Land Experience had impressive decor - IMAGE VIA KEN STOREY
  • Image via Ken Storey
  • Even the restrooms at Holy Land Experience had impressive decor
Beyond Jan Crouch, the park seemed to have few cheerleaders among the network’s higher-ups, making it was clear things at the gaudy theme park would change after her passing in 2016. Just a month after her death, the park held a massive estate sale where it cleaned out many of the items that Jan had added to it.

The broadcasting juggernaut was amid a multi-year rebranding with which many of its more questionable attributes, such as its massive gift shops, have been closed. On the network, talk shows replaced church services, including one prime-time show hosted by former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. Things at the living museum-style attraction in Orlando continued to tick on, with the inevitable always just around the corner.
click to enlarge Jan Crouch era decorations at the Holy Land Experience with the Church of All Nations in the far left and the Scriptorium just across the wall on the right. - IMAGE VIA KEN STOREY
  • Image via Ken Storey
  • Jan Crouch era decorations at the Holy Land Experience with the Church of All Nations in the far left and the Scriptorium just across the wall on the right.
Then in January of last year, Orlando Weekly broke the news of a major overhaul heading to the park, with nearly its entire entertainment staff being laid off. The park had planned to restructure as it looked for a buyer but ultimately closed its doors for good just weeks later. When the park held its state-mandated free admission days earlier this year, it was clear they weren’t planning to reopen most of the exhibits, with many areas of the park laid bare.

The stripped-down site is just across Conroy Road from a long-proposed medical facility. Proposals called for an on-site clinic and outpatient surgery center with a full children’s hospital eventually. Nemours also floated the possibility of adding a research center, educational center, a conference center, and more to the 28-acre site. But opposition blocked many of those plans, with Nemours ultimately retreating to Lake Nona, where it opened its children’s hospital in 2012.

One of the most vocal opponents to the Millenia area children’s hospital plans was Florida Hospital, now known as AdventHealth. With both Florida Hospital and Orlando Regional Healthcare opposing their new hospital, it took Nemours three tries before gaining the Certificate of Need approval by the state to open its new children’s hospital. That same Certificate of Need process may now shape what AdventHealth does with the 14-acre Holy Land Experience site they recently purchased.

A standalone ER and walk-in clinic, which don’t require a CON, is located across I-4 on Millenia Blvd. In responding to request for comments, an AdventHealth spokesperson stated they plan to redevelop “the property to bring enhanced health care services to the community.”

For now, we don’t know what that will entail, but if they plan to open a full-fledged hospital on the site, AdventHealth may first need to reckon with its past. Also telling is AdventHealth’s move to only purchase 14-acres while leaving nearly 50 acres still under TBN’s ownership. That may indicate that they don’t plan to add large additions to the site or that TBN is also working with other developers.

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