Holy Land Experience adjusts to overflow crowds

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ORLANDO -- Work is under way at the recently opened, $16 million Holy Land Experience theme park here to increase its capacity by finishing incomplete elements and to expand its parking.

The 15-acre attraction, located near Interstate 4, has been reaching capacity (estimated to be around 2,000) several times per week, a park spokesman said.

The park contains biblical re-creations of first century Jerusalem.

Overflow guests are turned away at the parking lot, outside a replica of the Old Walled City of Jerusalem.

The turnaway business also stems in part from a staff shortage, he said.

But work is under way to finish the Qumran Caves, a replica of the location where the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered.

Visitors exit the Plaza of the Nations at the Holy Land Experience, where dramatic presentations are staged. The Holy Land Experience is a nonprofit, religion-themed attraction. A larger-capacity exhibit, the Scriptorium, is nearly a year from completion.

Guests who are turned away from the Holy Land Experience receive a $2-off coupon for a future visit, which is valid for up to six guests.

The park's founder is the Rev. Marvin Rosenthal, a Baptist minister who converted from Judaism.

The park is managed by Zion's Hope, an Orlando-based ministry whose goal is to convert Jews to Christianity.

News coverage of pre-opening protests from Jewish organizations has helped the park become known nationwide, according to Greg Halteman, director of marketing.

"I've gotten calls from agents as far away as Nebraska," to book group visits, he said.

Interviewed as he folded T-shirts in the Holy Land's Jerusalem Street marketplace, Halteman predicted that "attendance will gradually level off."

More visitors will arrive by motorcoach than will by vans, he said, based on his experience working in Pennsylvania's Amish Country, where, at its peak, his employer, the American Music Theatre, was handling 10,000 buses a year.

Halteman sees bus groups accounting for about 30% of the attendance by early 2002.

The attraction's target guest is female, over 55 years old; 35- to 55-year-old females are next.

"That's where the families come from," Halteman said.

There are no roller coasters or thrill rides at Holy Land. There are re-created religious buildings, religious exhibits, religious settings from the Bible, a village bazaar and entertainers and characters dressed in clothing similar to that worn in biblical times.

The characters sell food and beverages and act as guides and hosts.

Some perform in dramatic and musical presentations.

A musical performance on the steps of a re-created Herod's Temple involves a discussion between two groups of young people -- one arguing about fighting the Romans and the other saying that they should wait for the coming of the Messiah.

There are two theaters with presentations that combine actors, animation, projected images and special effects.

A model of Jerusalem, outside the park, is the site of live presentations.

During Easter season, there will be daily performances by actors representing Jesus and John the Baptist.

A year-round Nativity scene with live animals is envisioned.

Holy Land offers agents a net rate program.

"I know about 3,000 agents," Halteman said, "and those I don't know are asked to qualify by filling out a form when they inquire. Then they become part of a database."

A building adjacent to the park, where the Jerusalem model is housed, has 5,000 square feet of meetings space, with catering capacity for family-style meals. Halteman said there are plans to expand its ability to feed groups.

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