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 that the others don’t even mention. Other times they all seem to be singing from the same hymnal, but then they reach different conclusions. 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, was clearly advantageous to St. Paul.
Paul’s Jesus will brook no nonsense. He wants people to behave, and he doesn’t have time for foolishness. Paul’s Jesus is like an exasperated school teacher willing to act with forbearance up to a point, but then watch out.
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. From a marketing point of a view, Jesus can be a challenge. But He’s a challenge the folks at The Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida embrace wholeheartedly.
The Holy Land Experience, a Christian Theme Park
Consistency is the key to branding, which is why The Holy Land Experience has had its struggles. In spite of the fact that they offer such stellar attractions as a full scale model of ancient Jerusalem, wax figures depicting scenes from the Bible, Trin-i-Tee Mini Golf, and Jesus Karaoke they are up against some pretty stiff competition.
Just down the road you have Disney World and Universal Studios where, on the day of its opening, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter saw so many people standing in line that the line snaked out of Hogsmeade and 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 was standing nearly a mile away, tapping his toe and looking at his watch. Presumably he did not make a break for The Holy Land Experience.
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 an Orlando 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 out to improve things.
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 little ones to whack each other with, the park is geared primarily toward adults, and the plaintive whines of “Mom, I’m bored” are heard regularly. Teenagers are rarely seen here.
The Art of Selling Worthless Junk at High Prices
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 ages 12 through 17. Although the Wizarding World is only one of seven worlds of Universal’s Islands of Adventures, it is the most popular. The high-peaked, snow-blanketed roofs of Hogsmeade the quaint English village that is home to Hogwarts Academy 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 manufacture, will fly off the shelves at $9.95 when presented as a wand like the one Harry Potter likes to use. We visited in December, traditionally a slow period for Orlando, 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 part of the Potter story 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.
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 accessory? 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, TBN had to give Jesus a makeover if the Holy Land Experience was going to experience a resurrection. The solution it hit on was simple: Jesus could use a proxy, someone to stand in for him, someone amenable to a little brand building. Of course, there’s nothing new about this, the Catholic Church has been doing it for two thousand years, but
TBN was ideally suited to find the right person. 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.
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.
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 souvenir a book about how to become happier beats a wooden stick any day. But the Wizarding World of Harry Potter offers more than just 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
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 Orlando 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
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 were shut down. We were gathering for, We Shall Behold Him – His Agony Death and Resurrection. 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 could not stick around for the full 45 minutes to please 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 at the same time. 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 blue hairs in sunglasses on a Thursday afternoon in Orlando seemed a bit incongruous.
When the stone was rolled away from the tomb and the actors jubilantly cried, “He is risen!” the audience cheered and whistled like Jesus had hit a home run. At the climax, Jesus popped up from behind a faux boulder and cried, “I am alive!” to which everyone roared. A pounding soul version of “The Halleluah Chorus” poured out of the speakers as the audience filed out of the amphitheater.
But there was more. Inside 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 capes as the saints blew long trumpets and Jesus ascended the steps in a long velvet train.
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 gathered to watch He is Risen if they would rather have been at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, they would have given you an unequivocal thumbs down.
They might also have frowned mightily at the whole idea of commercializing wizardry and witchcraft, particularly as Jesus was rather outspoken on the point. But to people who enjoy Harry Potter that means nothing at all, and to the people who enjoy The Holy Land Experience, any secular criticism of its appeal can be easily shrugged off.
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 are unfamiliar with the brand want to visit an Orlando theme park.
To that extent, both 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 succeeding in cementing the devotion of their fans.
All images by Malcolm Logan