Every year, the first Friday and Saturday of September are reserved for Christian rock events in Orlando Theme Parks. Night of Joy at the Magic Kingdom and Rock The Universe at Universal Studios Florida both book the top contemporary acts in Christian music to the delight of thousands of believers who load up church busses all around the country and make the trek down to the theme park capital of the world just for these events.
Which got to me to thinking: Does religion even belong in a theme park to begin with? Considering that America is a melting pot of Christians, Muslims, Jews and even Atheists, it seems that certain parks play favorites when it comes to events, shows and even attractions geared specifically towards Christians, while virtually ignoring all other forms of religion.
Of course, there are entire parks like the Holy Land Experience, located just a few miles north of Universal Orlando on I-4. Open since February 2001, the park features shows, exhibits, gift shops and even ancient Christian artifacts like scrolls. It’s these museum pieces that allow Holy Land, even though they are a theme park, to not pay property taxes because they are now classified as a museum. As a result of a four year court battle, the Holy Land Experience is now required by law to offer free admission one day a year in order to avoid paying those pesky taxes.
Then there is the yet-to-be-built Ark Encounter in Kentucky, a spinoff of the Creationist Museum, located near the Ohio/Kentucky border. While the project is still seeking funding, they have started construction on what will be a full-size recreation of what Noah’s Ark would have been like. Guests will be able to tour various decks and see what life was like during the biblical flood that destroyed most life on Earth as we know it.
Making the line between faith and recreation a little blurrier, Splash Kingdom Family Waterpark in Texas strives to blend faith and fun. According to the park’s CEO Johnny Blevins, “Our goal is to glorify God while providing a fun, safe recreational area for families.” Bible verses are posted on signage scattered around the park. Like most water parks, they are very up front about their policy of not allowing skimpy swimsuits or clothing with offensive language.
Meanwhile, some theme parks offer churches either near or within the park. Knott’s Berry Farm Church of Reflections was once located in the park until 2004 and was transported there by Walter Knott himself from a location down the road. Now it’s a non-denominational church located just behind the Knott’s Hotel that is primarily available to rent for private weddings. If you’re first date was watching a Snoopy cartoon, you’re in luck, as the Peanuts gang can attend the ceremony and the after party for an up charge.
Dollywood has the Robert F. Thomas Chapel right in the middle of the park, which is named after the doctor who literally delivered Dolly into the world. While the single room church is usually open during park hours. They have services on Sunday mornings at 11:30 a.m. where guests can attend if they have admission to the park.
In the fall, Dollywood hosts the Gospel and Harvest, which gives gospel groups from around the country a chance to perform in venues located all around the park. No matter where you go, you are surrounded by religious music. Granted, this probably poses little problem since Dollywood is located in Tennessee and thus, in the Bible belt. However, would this potentially drive away business from non-Christian guests if it was located somewhere else?
In Orlando, Sea World celebrates Christmas in one of the most underrated holiday events in any theme park ever. “Where the Season Meets the Sea” is their advertising slogan and there are indeed loads of decorations all over the park and plenty of specialty Christmas shows included with park admission. However, they aren’t taking the commercial version of “Xmas,” as they believe that Jesus is the one who should be in the spotlight.
In a recent Season Pass Podcast interview, Senior Developer of Attractions and Design at Sea World Parks Brian Morrow stated, “We were one of the first parks to say ‘Merry Christmas,’ and by the way it’s kind of about the birth of Jesus, ya know? We were one of the first parks to step out of the box of that politically correct phase of a few years ago and just go for it.”
Epcot is one of the few theme parks that actually acknowledge other religious beliefs than Christianity during the holiday season by offering story tellers from different versions of “Santa Claus” found from all over the world. True to their mission to immerse guests in other cultures, stories are told about Kwanzaa to Hanukah. Even Eid-al-fitr and Eid al-Adha are put in the spotlight in the Morocco pavilion, two major Muslim holidays.
Quite often Muslims are hardly ever given any space to celebrate, much less worship in North American theme parks. However, Canada’s Wonderland has tucked away in a small corner of the park a worship center. Granted, the sign does not denote what kind of worship can be done there, but walk into one of the two rooms and you’ll see nothing but small rugs placed on the floor.
No pews, no candles and certainly no alter. Further down the hall, you’ll find a small sink at ground level, often times with shoes nearby so Muslim guests can wash their hands and feet.
So what do you think? Should theme parks cater to certain religions by offering special in-park entertainment, hard ticket events or even places to worship and even services? Or should a theme park be an escape from the real world where religion doesn’t exist or is, at the very least, not put on display as not to offend or exclude anyone? Are there any other religious associations that I missed? I would love to hear your feedback.