WILLIAMSTOWN, Ky. — In less than two weeks, tourists can board a life-sized recreation of Noah’s Ark, an attraction advertised as the closest to the legendary ship of the Bible that modern civilization can build.
The insides of the 90-plus-foot-tall ark will feature a unique perspective on what life might have been like aboard the vessel, including a representation of Noah’s quarters and examples of the wildlife — dinosaurs! — that could have been saved from the flood described in the Book of Genesis. Dinosaurs died off about 65 million years ago, scientists say; the first human ancestors, long before the flood depicted in the Bible, appeared 5 million to 7 million years ago.
The ark, which opens July 7, is part of a new $92 million theme park in the middle of a Kentucky farm field 40 miles south of Cincinnati, one built with such painstaking devotion to biblical accounts that construction workers relied on an ancient measurement known as an Egyptian cubit.
It’s the latest example of the growing Christian tourism industry, which includes attractions celebrating or presenting history from a Christian point of view and often based on a literal interpretation of the Bible.
Theme parks, museums and other attractions are springing up all over the country, within the cluster of museums in the nation’s capital and in places including the capital of family fun parks, Orlando.
Yet with such ambition comes tensions, both from within and without. In particular, the ark project is a lightning rod for its reliance on public tax incentives and because of a narrative that flies in the face of commonly accepted science.
Visitors will be told the earth is 6,000 years old and that the flood depicted in the Bible killed off the dinosaurs 4,500 years ago.
And some friction occurs because of a fundamental question: Are these tourist attractions ministries that function as businesses or the opposite?
Those behind the increasingly grand plans feel confident in their mission.
“More and more, Christians are saying the secular world builds its themed attractions, so why shouldn’t we as Christians build themed attractions to be able to reach people but to get the message out?” said
Ken Ham, co-founder and president of Answers in Genesis, the group behind the Ark Encounter and also the Creation Museum that opened in Petersburg, Ky., nine years ago.
“That is our primary motive after all,” Ham said.
Indeed, those with such motives are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on Disneyesque presentations nationwide that include these:
- Broadway-quality stage shows featuring costumes made with nearly four miles of fabric, live animals and even a crumbling stage on which the hero Samson, of the Samson and Delilah story in the Old Testament’s Judges 16, takes down his captors’ temple.
- An animatronic Noah on the new ark answering visitors’ questions about what conditions were like during the 40 days and 40 nights of the biblical flood.
- Millions of dollars worth of fragments from the Dead Sea Scrolls as well as the earliest-known printings and writings of ancient Bibles. Most of the money comes from the family that founded the Hobby Lobby craft store chain.
“Each place might have its own view of success in terms of money or attendance or the like. But it’s been clear that people are willing to pay money and show up for things like this,” said Sally Promey, a professor of American and religious studies at
Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Conn.
“But while they push what they do toward what mainstream America might call a museum, they risk losing their role as a Christian witness,” Promey said. “So that is a constant dilemma for them.”
“Ye cannot serve God and Mammon,” reads the Bible passage Matthew 6:24. Therein lies a question amid the rise of Christian tourism.
“We feel ourselves to be a ministry, but we recognize we need to use good business principles to keep it going,” Ham said. “We’re not in this to make money. Now we have to make money to be able to operate it, but we’re not in it as (if) we were an entertainment industry just to make profit.”
Another company that acknowledges this inherent tension is Sight & Sound, a live religious theater group that operates in
Lancaster County, Pa., and in Branson, Mo.
“We have certainly been profitable over the last few years,” said Matt Neff, Sight & Sound’s chief executive officer who declined to share specifics. “But that is not our end-all, be-all goal. A lot of those profits get sunk right back into the production and design of the next shows.
“Our goal has always been as relevant as possible to a broad audience while also honoring our commitment to the word of God,” he said.
Still, the missions can come into conflict.
“When it comes to evangelism, there is always a tension between being in the world and of the world,” said
Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion professor. “The people behind these efforts have a big struggle between keeping their eyes on heaven and doing worldly things to attract bigger audiences or crowds or followers.
“Sometimes, the secular world pushes back hard, too,” Prothero said.
When Ham talks about Disney-style quality, he isn’t kidding, and neither are many other operators of Christian-themed attractions.
They say they have learned from the past, including the ill-fated
Heritage USA theme park founded just outside Charlotte, N.C., by former evangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker that folded in 1989 after Jim Bakker became enmeshed in a sex scandal and went to prison for tax evasion.
Gone are the hokey passion plays from local churches, or hand-painted signs advertising the chance to see ancient relics from the Holy Land, or even the old cheesy “
Bibleland” theme parks of old.
Can the new digital-era attractions compete with the likes of
Universal Studios, Six Flags, Kings Island, or even Disneyland or Disneyworld?
Consultant Dennis Speigel said is at least one theme park is available within a 2½-hour drive of every major American city.
“Theme parks and even museums live on repeat business. … How can these attractions manage that if they are not making enough money to reinvest in new features?” asked Speigel, a Cincinnati-based theme park consultant who helped found Kings Island about 25 miles northeast of Cincinnati and oversaw the closure of Heritage USA nearly three decades ago.
Adults will pay $40 each to see the ark, and tickets for kids 5 to 12 will cost $28. At the Creation Museum adults pay $30 each, and children ages 5 to 12 pay $16 though the museum does have special on through June 30 for kids. Answers in Genesis is offering combo tickets for both attractions, just as secular sites do.
According to some estimates, the market for religious travel worldwide, including trips to holy sites abroad, approaches $20 billion with about half of that from U.S. customers. One 2008 survey from the Travel Industry Association found 1 in 4 U.S. travelers would be interested in taking a religious-themed vacation.
Then there’s the Ark Encounter.
At 510 feet long, 80 feet wide and more than 90 feet tall at its highest point, the ship is the largest free-standing timber frame structure in the world.
It will hold up to 10,000 people in a pinch, and will feature three decks of exhibits that range from Answers in Genesis’ belief that the Great Flood explains a lot of modern geology and paleontology, to re-creations of how Noah might have survived.
And since the ministry believes dinosaurs existed at the time of the flood and were all but wiped out, smaller versions of the extinct creatures will be included.
The Ark Encounter is the brainchild of Answers in Genesis, which Ham helped found with two other Americans, Mark Looy and Mike Zovath. A lifelong believer in creationism, Ham is a native Australian who came to the United States in the early 1990s to help found the ministry.
The group espouses that all that happened in the opening book of the Bible is literal history.
“The reason we’re really building it is that we wanted to impact as many people as we can with the truth of the word of God,” Ham said. “As Christians, the Bible tells us to go and contend for the faith.
“And Noah’s ark is very well-known around the world, so this seemed to be the logical next step,” he said.
Indeed, the ark is not the group’s first foray into using a major attraction to tell its story. Answers in Genesis’ Creation Museum in Petersburg, visible from Interstate 275 and just the border from Ohio, opened in 2007 and draws about a quarter million visitors annually after pulling in more than 400,000 its opening year.
In early 2014, Ham squared off there against
Bill Nye, “The Science Guy,” in a creationism vs. evolution debate that was broadcast worldwide on the Web.
Nye wrote recently in email that he wasn’t allowed to see the entire museum but that what he saw was “troubling.”
“It’s important to note also that this is not a museum as such,” Nye wrote. “There are no artifacts. It’s a series of exhibits with models and mannequins depicting a world that never existed; the displays are completely inconsistent with what we know of the ancient Earth.”
The ark is a for-profit enterprise. And as such, it will receive tax incentives from not only the state of Kentucky but also tax breaks from the local county and city governments. That angers some civil-rights activists and those who espouse the separation of church and state.
“They are using an amusement park setting to be proselytizing and that is dangerous territory,” said Jim Helton, American Atheists’ Union, Ky.-based regional director. “And now we’ve given them public money and we are allowing them to discriminate against Jews, against LGBT folks, against Catholics, you name it.”
Initial estimates say the ark park, about halfway between
Lexington, Ky., and Cincinnati will draw 1.4 million to 2.2 million visitors in the first year. Some worry that local roads might not be ready even as the long-term economic windfall could be impressive.
It remains an open question whether the ark will float as a business over the long haul or whether or the overall Christian tourism market will keep up its growth.
“These places are less than several decimal points less than 1% of the overall market,” amusement park expert Speigel said. “And the odds are against most of them.”
That doesn’t deter Ham or others like him. As he stands near the mammoth ark structure, he said Christians deserve their own destination tourism attractions.
“Why shouldn’t we be able to build a place like Disney with that sort of quality for millions of people?” he asked.
Follow James Pilcher on Twitter: @jamespilcher