In the beginning, Disney created Orlando, and said, let there be theme parks. And there were theme parks. Boy, there were a lot of theme parks. And not all of them were good.

All jokes aside, the theme park industry has certainly seen its share of high-concept projects over the years. And while nothing can replace Las Vegas for sheer, over-the-top, any-idea-is-a-good-idea theming giddiness, Orlando has come a long way from the days before Disney World opened back in the 70s. Epcot, Cirque du Soleil's La Nouba, Universal Studios Islands of Adventure, Guinness World Records Experience, Ripley's Believe It or Not, Splendid China, and the Kennedy Space Center have all helped transform this central Florida city into perhaps the world's most prominent themed destination.

Indeed, the entire notion of themed entertainment has expanded to the point where almost anything is a legitimate subject for a theme park. To see this in action, one need go no further than Orlando's newest theme destination, the Holy Land Experience, in which the Old and New Testaments commingle in an ancient Jerusalem setting.

Dubbed a “living museum,” the $16-million Holy Land Experience, produced by a nondenominational evangelical ministry called Zion's Hope, is housed on 14 acres just off I-4 and features everything from the Qumran Dead Sea Caves (where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered) to Calvary's Garden Tomb (the traditional site of Christ's resurrection). There are live performances on the steps of Herod's Temple, a recreation of a Jerusalem marketplace circa 66 AD, a 20-minute film shot on location in Israel, and a highly theatrical presentation at the Wilderness Tabernacle.

“There's a sense we're going where nobody's gone before,” Marvin Rosenthal, president of Zion's Hope and the creator of the Holy Land Experience, told USA Today. “We're using high-tech methods to communicate the Bible.”

But it was just that use of high-tech, coupled with the mix of the Old and New Testaments, which caused a ruckus when the park opened in February. Some critics thought it crass to make a theme park out of the Bible (obviously they'd forgotten about Jim Bakker's Heritage USA in Charlotte, NC), while some in the Jewish community were uneasy about the park's overall message. An opinion piece in Time magazine about the park after its opening ran with the headline, “Jews Accuse a Theme Park of Trying to Win Them Over.” Many threatened to picket the park when it opened.

But as is often the case, the Holy Land Experience opened to record crowds, and only three people showed up to protest (one guy, riding a white horse, rode off before the police came, so nobody knows if he was for the park or against it). The media has moved on to other matters, but the crowds haven't; the park, with a capacity of about 900, continues to attract about 2,000 visitors daily.

All of which is good news not only for Zion's Hope, but also for ITEC Entertainment, which designed and produced the entire project (PVK Architects served as architect). “I think we saw this as a unique opportunity,” says David Roadcup, lead designer/art director on the project. “It wasn't the first time we'd been approached with a project like this,” he adds, referring to other proposed projects with religious theming that never got off the ground. “It's just the first time it's been pulled off.”

ITEC's — and Roadcup's — involvement in the project began back in 1998. “Rosenthal had always envisioned a temple and a tabernacle, but he didn't really know how to achieve it.” explains Roadcup. “When we first got involved, he saw it as one building, recreating all the outdoor scenes under one roof. It would have taken a lot of special effects and lighting to recreate the outdoor environment indoors, and cost a lot of money in the process. And the more we thought about it, it just seemed more natural to break everything apart and go out into the real environment. And so it was up to us to try and put all the pieces together through research.”

Part of that research included a trip to the actual site they were attempting to recreate; Rosenthal coordinates trips to the Middle East on a regular basis, so Roadcup went along for the ride. “You can use your imagination to envision how things were back then, from ruins and things,” Roadcup says of his visit. “So it was a matter of getting a sense of scale and proportion, of color and texture.”

Upon his return, Roadcup and the ITEC team designed different areas of the park based on different experiences. They started with the old city, enclosed by walls and with the buildings close to one another, and used that as the basis for the marketplace, the first thing visitors see as they pass through the gate; this area features street merchants and themed shops. Next comes a grassy, landscaped area, which represents the Judean wilderness and houses the Qumran Caves, the Garden Tomb, the Wilderness Tabernacle, and the Oasis Springs Cafe. Paths from these areas lead up to the Temple Mount, which houses the Plaza of the Nations, the Temple of the Great King, and the Theatre of Life, which shows the film The Seed of Promise. “Just like in the old city, where everything stepped up to the Temple Mount — the highest point in Jerusalem — our temple was the highest point and farthest back on the site,” explains Roadcup. “That allowed us to draw people through, to give them a sense of what it was like to approach the temple from the outside gate area.”

Details were important to the ITEC team, not to mention the client. Date palms, olive, pomegranate, and fig trees, aloe plants, and a variety of unusual grasses add authenticity to the landscape (ITEC's Steven Wheeler served as landscape architect). The park's main gate blends elements of Jerusalem's Damascus Gate, Jaffa Gate, and Golden Gate. Over 140 meticulously researched costumes for the various hosts, hostesses, and performers were designed and built by Sandra Capecci and her staff at ITEC.

Jon Langrell, lighting designer for the project, initially wanted to get just as authentic with the parkwide lighting by using real torches. Though such fiery illumination would add dramatic effect to the park, it couldn't come close to providing adequate light, so that idea was quickly scrapped. Many of the exterior fixtures in the Jerusalem Street Marketplace and Garden Tomb, designed to provide a loose representation of torches or oil bowl holders, are in fact themed covers made of wood or plastic concealing wet-location lamp sockets fitted with 100W bug lights controlled by a Monarch Synthaflame flicker module. The custom torch socket covers were made by Mystic Scenic Studios of Dedham, MA, which was responsible for building the show sets and scenic fabrication throughout the park.

The aforementioned Temple of the Great King, or Herod's Temple, contains the bulk of the exterior lighting and audio, as well as some of the most detailed theming. Built to ⅝ scale of the original, the Holy Land's 60'-tall temple and surrounding Plaza of the Nations features golden Corinthian capitals atop 48 columns, with rich gold detailing. From a materials standpoint, everything is stucco scenically painted to look like Jerusalem stone; the gold trim is simply scenic paint. A total of 13 steps, which according to Roadcup, represent the number of Psalms that would have been recited during ceremonies and which serve as the stage for a variety of performances staged each day, lead up to the temple doors. (The huge, golden temple doors don't open; the interior of the temple is actually the Theatre of Life, which shows the Seed of Promise film and is accessible through a side entrance; the screen is located on the other side of the doors.) As Roadcup explains, “Herod's Temple, built on top of Mount Moriah in first-century Jerusalem, has a Roman motif to it, because Rome was in control of Jerusalem during Herod's reign. Herod was kind of back and forth; he was Hebrew but he was still on the Romans' side. That's why it looks the way it looks.”

The lighting for the Temple and surrounding Plaza includes four large golden torches, as well as Mercury linear fluorescents covered with Rosco 18 sleeves on the side walls of the temple. “I was concerned how I would be able to get any kind of lighting in there,” Langrell says. “I didn't want to just put a PAR can in there and throw it over the edge and blind people. It was natural to put in linear fluorescents; we bounce them off the walls so it has a soft gold feel, and with the torches on, it's really nice.” Altman outdoor PARs are used to illuminate the various columns as well as for backlighting the spires atop the temple. In addition, a couple of 1,500W Phoenix Grandeur metal halide fixtures are used on the sides of the temple; on foggy nights these units create a crown over the temple.

Audio for the plaza is used primarily for the live shows that occur during the day. Chris Hartwell, audio/video designer for the Holy Land Experience, used a combination of Mackie Industrial MR4T and MR8 speakers for the space, with Crown K1 and K2 amps, Shure Beta 58 mics, a Peavey MediaMatrix, and a Mackie 1604 VLZ 16-channel mixing console. The Mackie Industrial speakers are used throughout the park; Hartwell notes the MR4Ts are quickly becoming a fixture of Orlando themed projects. “There are quite a few of my friends in the industry here in Orlando using it,” he says. “I got a chance to play with the 4Ts on this project and I thought it was perfect; it's a good sounding box, it's relatively weatherized, and you can 70-volt it without a lot of trouble.”

A single show supervisor system, designed and built by ITEC, controls the entire parkwide and attractions audio, lighting, and mechanical equipment — no surprise there, since that's been ITEC's métier in themed entertainment for years. “It's actually kind of a neat integration of show control systems and audio/video systems, which allows them to have different paging and music routing options,” says Hartwell. “It's all on a Peavey MediaMatrix system, with Alcorn McBride digital bin loops running all the media, which is played back digitally off a Roland AR-100.”

After watching one of the shows performed on the steps of the temple, many guests move on to the Theatre of Life to check out The Seed of Promise, the 20-minute large-screen film that depicts everything from the Garden of Eden to the crucifixion of Jesus to the Rapture. As if that wasn't enough to cram into 20 minutes of film, the production also features its fair share of theatrical effects, from High End Systems AF1000 strobes and Diversitronics ellipsoidal strobes used to simulate lightning during the Eden scenes to Le Maitre G300 foggers used at the end. For that final effect, Langrell placed 12V steplights from Rockscapes, instruments usually used in landscape applications. “Those little low-voltage steplights come in on three circuits and to do a little crossfade in and out,” he explains. “They're designed to make you feel like you're off the ground a little bit. It was probably the most cost-effective effect we had in the park.” The film itself is run on an Electrosonic HD server and a Barco Vision 9300LC projector, with an Extron RGB 406G VGA converter and an Akai DR16-HD running only six channels for the audio. Audio included JBL 8330A three-way surround speakers, Crown K2 amps, a Symetrix vocal processor/preamp, Audex REC-T3 assistive listening systems, and a Brainstorm dual time code distributor/reshaper. Hartwell used a similar package for the Tabernacle audio. Soundelux Showorks did the onsite mixes for both the theatre and the tabernacle, which were posted to the DR16s.

Perhaps the most popular attraction at the Holy Land Experience is the Wilderness Tabernacle, which also happens to be the most theatrical element of the park. Here, guests are transported back in time to 1450 BC, during the time of Moses, with the 12 tribes of Israel in the desert night of the Sinai Peninsula. The 15-minute show blends narration, music and sound effects, lighting and projection, and a live actor to tell the story of the tabernacle and the ceremonies surrounding it. The actor, dressed in the garments of a Levitical high priest, reveals to the audience the courtyard of congregation, the bronze laver, the brazen altar, the tend of meeting, the table of show bread, the golden lamp stand, the altar of incense, and the Ark of the Covenant. It all culminates in a dramatic display of the Shekinah — a “cloud of glory” — which emanates from the ark.

Research again was a vital part of the planning process for this presentation; Roadcup looked to both Rosenthal and the books of Exodus and Leviticus for inspiration. “There's a clear description in the Bible that states the materials used to build the tabernacle, how big the tabernacle tent was, how many pillars there were,” Roadcup says. “The skins on the tent are real skins; the original was made of badger skin and goat hair, but we couldn't get badger, so we used cowhide, which is similar in texture and color to badger, for the main outdoor covering.” There were a few other nods to reality: The tent itself is at ¾ scale to the original, due to the size of the space, as were the courtyard of congregation, the bronze laver, and the brazen altar. And the main material used on the outer covering was theatrical scrim, in order to give guests a chance to peer inside during the ceremonies. For the most part, though, the design team tried to keep it authentic. “We knew there would be rivet counters coming in — experts who would pick things out — so we tried to be as accurate as possible,” says Roadcup.

The tabernacle proved to be Langrell's biggest challenge on the entire project. The initial script he'd been given had changed about a year into the project, so the LD had to put together a show package without a final audio track, since that was changed as well. “We had to do the facility impact, and specify the dimmers and grid, buy everything and have it ready to install,” he says. “On the first day of hang, two years later, they gave me the CD with the audio track.”

Langrell's equipment included ETC Source Four Jr. Zooms, a wide range of Altman instruments, including 6" fresnels and striplights, Q-Lites, Microellipses, and 3" fresnels, Gam Twinspin2 Jrs., Times Square Lighting PAR-36 pinspots, ETC Sensor 2.4K dimmers, and High End Systems Technobeams®, plus Diversitronics Star Strobes and Le Maitre G300 and G150 foggers. The lights are run on an Alcorn McBride Light Cue and DMX Machine, with Pathway DMX repeaters. Fourth Phase Orlando provided all the show lighting.

“I knew, generally, the colors I'd be using,” he continues. “I usually like to use an amber/blue/magenta texture. Once I heard the prayer on the audio track, it dawned on me that it should be a moonscape with a moonrise. So I went from basically a black, there's-something-out-there silhouette, to a pretty medium-blue moonrise. And then when the narrator takes over and starts talking about the tabernacle, I do what I call a beauty pass, where the tabernacle is revealed in layers. I used a combination of GAM and Rosco. All the blues were in the GAM range; I prefer the Rosco amber range, the 21s and the 23s. There is some 99 out there too, on top of some of the color, just so it doesn't look completely pristine.”

In order to add texture to the landscape, Langrell used GAM patterns on almost every fixture. “You can't use leaves on this,” he points out, “because this is supposed to be the desert. But I'm a texture guy, so I used a lot of moonscape gobos, or gobos that weren't branches but streaks, and then fuzz them up a little bit.”

The big finale — the Shekinah, or cloud of glory — is simply created by the combination of fog from the Le Maitre units and high pressure CO2 from Sigma Systems, which is then blasted into the air at speeds of 40mph and lit with the Technobeam. The resulting cloud is accompanied by a deep rumbling effect generated by Mackie Industrial MSW8 subwoofers. “We wanted to portray that in a dramatic way so people would understand when the Scriptures talk about God being a cloud above the tent,” explains Roadcup. “So we had to go to special effects to make it work. Yes, we are taking liberties, using theatrical lighting and such, but we're not using lasers or anything high-tech.”

For the theme park veterans at ITEC, this was an unusual project on any number of levels; principal Bill Coan called it “one of the most unique and creatively demanding jobs we've ever undertaken.” For instance, unlike a lot of themed projects, ITEC was not involved in the storytelling aspects of Holy Land. “We didn't have to worry about writing a script from the ground up,” says Roadcup. “I mean, the story was already written.”

“The client was very specific about the scripts,” adds Langrell, “but they were also very open to let us come in and lead the entertainment aspects of the project. I hung, focused, set levels, and programmed the show in front of everybody, and there was one note. They were just pleased as punch. And I thought, if things were like this all the time in this business, what a great job!”

photos: ©2001 Zion's Hope, Inc.