Does Religion Have A Place In Theme Parks?

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.

Copyright Walt Disney World

Copyright Walt Disney World

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.

Copyright Destination360

Copyright Destination360

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.

Copyright Ark Encounter

Copyright Ark Encounter

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.

Copyright Splash Kingdom Family Water Park

Copyright Splash Kingdom Family Water Park

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.

Copyright Knotts Berry Farm

Copyright Knotts Berry Farm

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.

Copyright Dollywood

Copyright Dollywood

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.

Copyright Dollywood

Copyright Dollywood

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?

Copyright Sea World Orlando

Copyright Sea World Orlando

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.

Picture from NewsPlusNotes

Picture from NewsPlusNotes

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.

Photo by Josh Young

Photo by Josh Young

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.

Photo by Josh Young

Photo by Josh Young

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.

Photo by Josh Young

Photo by Josh Young

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.

 

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4 Comments

  1. narniaexpert
    Posted September 5, 2014 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    Does religion have a place in theme parks? Absolutely.

    My personal connection to this topic is that my great grandfather developed one of Orlando’s early attractions Bible Land. This was built almost 60 years ago and long before Walt Disney ever came to Florida. Bible Land consisted of a walk around a lake where there were 29 scenes depicting the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The scenes were made up of life sized three dimensional paintings with animated cutouts. Each painting also included an interactive button that would trigger an audio track with a special song written specifically for that scene. I have never been to Bible Land and I have not met my great grandfather yet because Bible Land closed shortly before his death. This attraction had no connection with Holyland Experience, but I believe it was very innovative for the time. I would like to try to further document Bible Land because I am sure that this could be of interest for theme park plans because it is of some historical significance as an original Orlando attraction.

    Part of this website is about believing that theme parks mean so much more than simply amusement rides. Theme parks shape society, culture, educate guests, bring stories to life, innovate engineering, and are a transformational experience bringing together all forms of art. Religion has an inseparable role from culture, education, and storytelling. Not all theme parks need to have a religious emphasis just like not all parks need to take guests behind the scenes at a real movie studio, but there will be some cases where religion has a natural fit in the storytelling of a particular park. For example in a non-fiction park like Epcot it is important to include religion as an accurate portrayal of culture and history. In a fantasy park or a movie studio park this may not be as relevant. If theme parks are about bringing great stories to life, why not look to the best selling book of all time for story inspiration? Theme parks have a first amendment right protecting their free religious expression and only an extreme minority find religious references offensive. How many people have you ACTUALLY met who are offended when you wish them a “Merry Christmas”? I have yet to meet one theme park guest who is offended by the word Christmas. I personally find that Sea World’s Silent Night show has deeply moved me and I have made a return trip specifically for that show.

    Another aspect of this that you have not touched on is the cast members. From my personal experience I know how difficult it can be for a theme park operator to attend church because of schedule demands the include working till 1AM and working on weekends. Even if this exists behind the scenes, theme park cast members have a need for God and religious community. One of the highlights of my most recent internship with Disney has been finding community with other Christian cast members. In Downtown Disney I was part of a church that met on Disney property specifically to meet the needs of cast members whose demanding schedules make church service otherwise impossible. This church is open to everyone and is not run by Disney, but is made up of about 95% mostly college aged Disney cast members. From the moment I arrived the overwhelming enthusiasm and friendliness of the parking lot attendant and the outgoing happy greetings of those who welcomed me made it clear that these were Disney people. The availability of church services and religious community can have an important role in the happiness and stability of the cast members who make the magic possible.

  2. jedited
    Posted September 5, 2014 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    I agree 110% with NarinaExpert.
    Of course, bringing religion into a theme park has the possiblity of alienating certain people. You need to know your audience.
    As a Christian I would not be offended if a theme park had some kind of non-Christian religious celebration. As long as I was told about it and it wasn’t in your face, I can choose to participate or not. It might even draw enough people away so I could ride the attractions with little or no lines.

  3. fan51
    Posted September 5, 2014 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

    Why would you need to ask the question if you noticed the tremendous market for Christian entertainment? But it should be noted that if other religions want some representation, private businesses cannot categorically refuse. This leads to Is there a demand for Muslim, Jewish, and other religious entertainment that can fill a theme park? I suspect not. Disney is doing a Night of Joy to fill an otherwise slow period. They have other hard ticket special events likewise such as the Halloween events. Christmas is both a secular and religious holiday.

    “Or should a theme park be an escape from the real world where religion doesn’t exist”

    Written like an Atheist. To not have is to exclude. To have is to include. To kick out Christian trappings is to exclude Christians. I don’t see any Muslims or Jews complaining. Most know the theme parks are secular. Of course, the parks do celebrate Christmas as a holiday and just about the whole country does too.

  4. Posted September 7, 2014 at 6:36 am | Permalink

    sometimes people choose to be vegetarian. This choice is not by means of a caloric diet or allergy, but simply a personal choice. Is Disney responable for Catering to my dietary preferences?

    …technically, the answer is no. Anyone is allowed to bring food or non- alchoholic beverages into the park. however, If i bring in my own food then Disney has lost an opportunity to make a buck.

    for the theme parks, the question of inviting religion into their world isn’t as important as…can this make us money. why wouldn’t you offer a vegetarian meal, if someone was willing to pay for it? in the same vein, why wouldn’t you offer a “Night Of Joy” if you were gonna make a killing off of ticket sales?

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