Florida, The South

Jesus Christ vs Harry Potter: Two Orlando Theme Parks Build Their Brands


A painting of Jesus Christ as a prize fighter, one of the souvenirs offered at the Holy Land Experience in Orlando.

People disagree about Jesus.  That’s no surprise.  Jesus Christ, the man of sorrows, the Son of God, the lamb, Jehovah, the almighty, is a slippery character.  By comparison, Harry Potter is easy.
The Harry Potter saga consists of seven books and a single, consistent narrative.  The Jesus saga, by comparison, is a tad confusing.

Pick a Jesus, Any Jesus

The Gospels consist of four books, each written by a different author, each relating the same story in a different way.  Sometimes the Gospels agree, but not always.  Sometimes one will make a big deal about something the others don’t even mention.  Other times they all seem to be playing from the same sheet of music, but then the take away is completely different.
Then, to top it all off, St. Paul comes along, writes a bunch of epistles, and spins the whole Jesus story in a way that, while it may have been divinely motivated,

Hogsmeade at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter

The recreated village of Hogsmeade at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal's Islands of Adventure

was clearly advantageous to St. Paul in his effort to spread the religion and put a thumb in the eye of Greek and Jewish naysayers in the first century.  Jesus comes off as a potential nemesis, laying in wait to pounce on the unconverted.
But that’s only one Jesus.  We also get the meek and submissive Jesus, the doubt-ridden and weeping Jesus, the quietly confident and vaguely threatening Jesus, the weary and scornful Jesus, the irate and impulsive Jesus, and the vengeful and destructive Jesus.
Harry Potter, by comparison, is a dream.  He acts in accordance with his character.  Having read one story about him, we can read the next and know he’ll act pretty much the same.  Pretty much we can be sure he’s not going to haul off and reduce a city to ashes one day.

An angel on a Harley poses before a pair of ark bound elephants and a kids' climbing wall at The Holy Land Experience.

The Holy Land Experience, a Christian Theme Park Bungled

Consistency is the key to branding, which is why The Holy Land Experience, a religious theme park in Orlando, Florida was, until recently, struggling.  In spite of the fact that they offered such stellar attractions like Jesus Karaoke, a scale version model of Jerusalem, and wax figures depicting scenes from the Gospels, tourists were not showing up in droves.
Compare that to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal’s Islands of Adventure where thousands of people stood in line on opening day, so many that the line snaked out through three adjoining “worlds” – Jurassic Park, the Lost World, and Dr. Seuss’s Landing – out of the park and through Universal’s City Walk, so that the last person in line was standing nearly a mile away, tapping his toe and looking at his watch, and you get an idea of the power of branding.
A brand must be recognizable.  It must offer a positive experience.  You must be able to share it with others who have had a similar experience.  And it should be universally appealing.

A Hogswart graduate holds a singing frog on a velvet pillow at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

A Hogswart graduate holds a singing frog on a velvet pillow at the Wizarding World.

Originally conceived as a Christian alternative to the secular carnival that is Orlando, The Holy Land Experience opened in 2001.  It was founded by a Jewish born Baptist minister with an evangelical streak.  Its worldview was narrow.  It had all the appeal of an ex-smoker scolding nicotine slaves for being a burden to society. Five years later, it was languishing.
A sour, fundamentalist view of a universally recognized story is never a good way to build a brand.  If the Holy Land Experience was to survive, it had to lighten up.

Resurrection of a Florida Theme Park

Enter Trinity Broadcast Network.  Founded in 1974, TBN is the largest Christian broadcasting network in the world.  Having bought the Holy Land Experience in 2007 it set to work to improve things.

Fountains and landscaping at the Crystal Living Waters at Holy Land.

Lovely fountains and landscaping at the Crystal Living Waters at Holy Land.


Today, the theme park, situated on I-4 just south of Universal, is surprisingly welcoming and unjudgemental.  Far from being on a crusade to convert you, it assumes you are already a devoted acolyte, one willing to respond favorably to such attractions as The Wilderness Tabernacle, a journey through Israel’s ancient priesthood, or the Scriptorium, a collection of Bibles, scrolls and illuminations.
If all this strikes you as decidedly un-kid-friendly, you would not be far wrong.  Although there is a kiddy section with a climbing wall, puppet shows and rubber centurion swords for the tykes to menace each other with, the park is geared primarily toward adults, and the plaintive whines of “Mom, I’m bored” are heard regularly.  A teenager siting is rare indeed here.

How to Sell Worthless Junk at High Prices

A snow man and his owl stand before Hogwarts Academy.

It’s quite a different story at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter where the recreated main street of Hogsmeade is thronged with young people between the ages of 12 and 17.  Although the Wizarding World is only one of seven worlds of Universal’s Islands of Adventures, it is by far the most popular.
The high-peaked, snow-blanketed roofs of the quaint English village, home to Hogwarts, Potter’s wizarding school, are accurately recreated, and the shops are mostly functioning, including Honeyduke’s Sweet Shop, a riot of colorful candy, and Dervish and Banges, a store selling magical items, most notably wands.
It is testimony to the power of a brand that a wooden stick, costing no more than 25 cents to make, will fly off the shelves at $9.95 when deemed a wand of the kind Harry Potter uses.
We visited in December, traditionally a slow period for Orlando theme parks, yet a long line persisted for Ollivander’s Wand Shop where visitors are admitted in groups of 20 to enjoy the experience of having the “wand choose them”, a basic premise of the Potter series in which the wand chooses the wizard.  The Wizard then shells out the money, presumably of his own accord, to buy the wand that has chosen him.

Joel Osteen, a personable proxy willing to engage in a little Christian brand building.

Sprucing up the Jesus Brand

No such eager purchasing of worthless souvenirs is going on at the Holy Land Experience.  Although there is the Jerusalem Market where visitors can purchase Jesus snow globes, Jesus T-shirts and, most bizarrely, an oil painting of Jesus as a heavyweight boxer, sales appear tepid.
From a marketing point of view, the Jesus brand is muddled.  Is Jesus a prize fighter or is he a whimpering supplicant, and what exactly is his signature accoutrement, a crown of thorns?  Leave aside that a crown of thorns would be much more costly to make than a wooden wand, it would also be difficult to throw into the back of a drawer and it would be uncomfortable to wear.
From a brand perspective, Jesus needs a makeover.  But this has been tried before.  So many times in fact that it is largely responsible for the muddling of the brand to begin with.  The solution, as TBN has hit on, is simple.  Jesus needs a proxy.  He needs someone to stand in and speak for him, someone amenable to a little brand building.
TBN is ideally suited to do this.  With more than 70 satellites and over 18,000 TV and Cable affiliates, TBN reaches into millions of households worldwide, offering them a range of religious celebrities, from Billy Graham to Pat Robertson.

A bloody Jesus stumbles under his cross at the Holy Land Experience.

A bloody Jesus is the main attraction during the "He is Risen" show at the Holy Land Experience.

How to Be Happier 7 Days a Week

Currently the brightest star in the TBN orbit is Joel Osteen, a bright, personable and youthfully charismatic preacher whose soft approach is a welcome elixir to a generation jaded by sanctimonious finger-wagging.
It so happened that on the day I visited Holy Land, Joel Osteen was there for a book signing and a few words of encouragement.  He was clearly the main draw.
His newest book, Every Day a Friday: How to be Happier 7 Days a Week is a boilerplate self-help guide recycled from countless pop-psychology predecessors.  Nevertheless, it struck many of Osteen’s followers as fresh and compelling.  They were all abuzz and star-struck as we sat in the auditorium and watched Osteen display his “aw-shucks” brand of Christian fundamentalism.  The message they were receiving were like scales falling from their eyes.

Jesus kicked and beaten before a rapt audience at The Holy Land Experience.

A Roman soldier kicks the crap out of Jesus while an audience of Florida white hairs looks on.


People with a narrow moral framework tend to disregard the advice of outsiders as suspect.  Yet when those same ideas are presented by one of their own, they embrace them as a revelation.
No doubt Osteen is aware of this, for which I do not fault him.  He understands the power of his brand and uses it to energize his followers.  That’s what good brands do.
In any case, as a theme park souvenir, a book about how to become happier beats a wooden stick any day.  But the Wizarding World of Harry Potter offers much more than wooden sticks, they also offer a drop dead, cutting edge theme park screamer called Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.

Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, the Ride

An audience member looks on in anxiety at the crucifixion.

Utilizing robocoaster technology, the ride tilts and sweeps you through a succession of rooms playing a wrap-around movie that make you feel as if you are flying over the English countryside, racing along beside Harry Potter on his broomstick, being menaced at intervals by fire-breathing dragons and howling ghosts.
As is the fashion with theme park rides these days, the queuing area is half the fun.  As you stand in line, you wind your way through a towering replica of Hogwarts Academy, the many turreted Gothic prep school in which Harry and his companions receive their wizardly education.  Along the way, various characters from the book speak to you from niches, balconies and framed pictures, setting the story and reminding you of important details.  Taken altogether, it’s great fun and terrific brand reinforcement.  The Holy Land Experience was going to have to go a way to top this.

The Most Important Thing You Will See in Your Whole Life

A happy young visitor to the Wizarding World. No bloody scourging for her, thank you.

As park goers gathered in the Judean Village before the Cavalry Tomb, a replica of the sepulcher in which Jesus was buried, all the other park attractions shut down.  We were gathering for, We Shall Behold Him – His Agony Death and Ressurection.  Clearly, this was to be the day’s premier event, even bigger than Joel Osteen.  Everyone was supposed to see this.
The significance of the event was underscored by an announcement just prior to its starting that declared this “the most important thing you will see in your whole life” and asking people who couldn’t stay for the full 45 minutes to leave before it started.  It was that important.  No one left.
Basically, it was a passion play, one particularly gratuitous for bloodshed and violence and accompanied by that peculiar brand of Christian music that manages to be both cloying and over reaching.  For those receptive to such dramas, this one didn’t lack for earnestness, even if the spectacle of scourging a man into a bloody pulp before a rapt audience of white hairs in sunglasses on a Thursday afternoon in Orlando seemed a bit incongruous.
The main street of Harry Potter's World of Wizarding

The smiling throngs at Harry Potters World of Wizarding. Is this brand working? Hello.

When the stone was rolled away from the tomb and the actors jubilantly declared, “He is risen!” the audience cheered and whistled like Jesus had just hit a home run.  At the end, Jesus popped up from behind a faux boulder and cried, “I am alive!” to which everyone applauded.  A pounding soul version of “The Halleluah Chorus” poured out of the speakers as the audience filed out.
But there was more.  Within the full scale replica of the Temple of Jerusalem, the audience repaired to witness the spectacle of Jesus ascending to His throne in heaven.  Satan was led away in chains, which received a standing ovation, and a trio of angels danced in swirling gold lame capes as the saints blew long trumpets and Jesus ascended the steps in a long velvet train.
Jesus ascends to his throne in heaven.

Jesus ascends to his throne in heaven amidst dancing angels and trumpeting saints.


This was dazzling entertainment in a Las Vegas revue sort of way and the audience ate it up.  Indeed, if the point was to edify a willing and receptive audience, one enamored of the brand, it was succeeding like gang busters.

The Good News in Central Florida

If you had asked the folks assembled at He is Risen if they would rather have been here than at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, they would have given you an unequivocal thumbs up.
They might also have frowned mightily at the whole idea of commercializing wizardry and witchcraft, particularly as Jesus was rather outspoken on this issue.  But to people who enjoy Harry Potter that means less than nothing, and to the people who enjoy The Holy Land Experience, any secular criticism of its appeal can be easily shrugged off.

The climax of the He is Risen show at The Holy Land Experience

Jesus raises his arms to heaven during the climax of the He is Risen show. The crowd was eating it up. This brand is apparently working too.

The only question is whether the experience is worthwhile for those who love the brand, because if it can’t meet that basic requirement, it can’t even think about the next level, which is to make people who have little familiarity with the brand want to explore it further.
I didn’t buy a self-help book by Joel Osteen or a wooden stick masquerading as a magic wand on my visit to Orlando, but I wouldn’t be against buying either of those things for friends who appreciate such keepsakes.
Which simply means this: the brands are working, and that’s good news for both Jesus Christ and Harry Potter.  In the battle to win loyal followers in the theme park rich environment of central Florida they are both successful.

slide showSee the Complete Jesus vs Harry Potter slide show (30 images)


Interactive Video and Map: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter


Map of The Holy Land Experience


My American Odyssey Route

Previous stop on the odyssey: New York, NY  //
Next stop on the odyssey:  Huntsville, AL

Route map to Orlando
Click on map to enlarge
Image Credits:
All images by Malcolm Logan