The Ark Encounter: A Deserted Theme Park in the Making
On February 27, 2014, Ken Ham announced to the press that he has raised just enough money to begin construction on a life-size replica of Noah’s Ark. This ark is to be the main attraction of the Ark Encounter, a creationist theme park he has long wanted to build in Williamstown, Kentucky at an estimated cost of $73 million. The Guardian picked up this story shortly after the announcement:
A Christian ministry’s long-stalled plans to build Noah’s Ark in the hills of Kentucky have been revived.
Creation Museum founder Ken Ham announced Thursday that a municipal bond offering has raised enough money to begin construction on the Ark Encounter project, estimated to cost about $73m. Groundbreaking is planned for May and the ark is expected to be finished by the summer of 2016.
Notice that this article does not say or even imply that Ken Ham has received all the money he needs to complete the Ark Encounter. He does not even have enough municipal bonds to close whatever gap remains in funding, a gap that has not been filled in by the unspecified amount of money reportedly contributed by Ham’s anti-science organization Answers in Genesis. Ham’s announcement implies only that he acquired some more money, just enough to begin construction and nothing more. It appears, then, that Ham is blindly moving forward with his grandiose plans with no idea whatsoever what the eventual outcome of his investments will be. In other words, Ham is doing what he does best: operating by faith.
My prediction is that Ken Ham is building what will eventually become just another deserted Christian theme park comparable to Kent Hovind’s long-dead creationist park Dinosaur Adventure Land in Pensacola, Florida. The latter biblically-themed monument to pseudoscience opened in 2001 and was shut down only five years later when it was seized by the government to pay for the back taxes Hovind owed them. Dinosaur Adventure Land consisted of little more than a collection of glorified cardboard cutouts stashed in Hovind’s backyard. To get an idea of the utter lack of quality this theme park suffered, consider that back in Hovind’s heyday, the page on his website that provided information on the Dinosaur Adventure Land schedule indicated that on certain days the park would open by appointment only. I envision a similar fate for Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter.
The Guardian story continues:
Ham said a high-profile evolution debate he had with “Science Guy” Bill Nye on 4 February helped boost support for the project.
This vague statement does not provide any solid indication of how much monetary support the debate helped rake in. That sentence would still be correct if Ham had made no more than a single dollar from his debate with Bill Nye. This is an important point to make, because Bill Nye has been criticized recently for involving himself in a debate that he knew was intended to be a fundraising event for Ham. But this criticism overlooks the fact that people cannot be stopped from raising money in a variety of different ways. If Bill Nye had turned down the opportunity to debate Ken Ham, somebody else would probably have been invited to do so, someone who may not be as skilled as Nye is at communicating science effectively and responding to creationist claims.
On the other hand, I agree with the view some critics have raised that Nye should have taken the time to more thoroughly and carefully negotiate with Ham about the distribution of the monetary benefits made from the event. Publicity seems to be the only benefit gleaned by Nye since most, if not all, of the money generated by ticket sales for the event has been collected by Answers in Genesis. This is money that could have been directed to much more useful and necessary ventures, such as resources for science research and education, for example.
Speaking of Bill Nye, he weighed in on the Ark Encounter project for The Guardian article:
Nye said he was “heartbroken and sickened for the Commonwealth of Kentucky” after learning that the project would move forward. He said the ark would eventually draw more attention to the beliefs of Ham’s ministry, which preaches that the Bible’s creation story is a true account, and as a result, “voters and taxpayers in Kentucky will eventually see that this is not in their best interest.”
It is to be hoped that the voters and taxpayers of Kentucky will, sooner rather than “eventually” when it is too late, open their eyes to the fact that Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter project is a tremendous waste of money and resources. Hopefully this realization will come sooner rather than “eventually,” when it is too late and the citizens of Williamstown find their town burdened with the dilapidation of the ruins that the Ark Encounter is likely to become.
A Brief History of Christian Theme Parks
My prediction that the Ark Encounter is an abandoned, ruinous theme park in the making is based upon a consideration of the success rate of past Christian theme parks in recent memory, such as Hovind’s Dinosaur Adventure Land discussed above. This is only an inference, but it is a solid one.
On the March 5, 2014 episode of The Non Prophets, a podcast produced by the Atheist Community of Austin, co-host Jeff Dee addressed an open question to the listening audience after commenting on the Guardian story: “Can anybody out there find one of these Christian theme parks that’s like still in operation, say . . . 10 years after it opens? Can anybody find out which is the one that lasted the longest and when it died?”
Co-host Russell Glasser mentioned the Holy Land Experience attraction in Orlando, Florida. This Christian-based theme park recreates the sights and sounds of ancient Jerusalem, including replicas of famous biblical scenes and live reenactments of the Passion ordeal of Christ. Owned by the Trinity Broadcasting Network, this park is featured in comedian and political commentator Bill Maher’s documentary Religulous. The Holy Land Experience opened in February 2001 and is still in operation today, 13 years later.
I have found only two other examples of evangelical theme parks which had a shelf life of longer than 10 years, and both of them are now long gone. The Christian theme park that lasted the longest was Holy Land USA, which opened in Waterbury, Connecticut in 1958 and died 26 years later in 1984. This was a Catholic theme park very similar to the Holy Land Experience. Its centerpiece was a 56-foot steel cross that was lit up at night and could be seen for miles. According to Atlas Obscura, writing for Slate, “It is a town joke that citizens grow up thinking Jesus was electrocuted on the cross.” The park consisted of a chapel, the 14 Stations of the Cross, and replicas of catacombs and Israelite villages. There was also a representation of the Garden of Eden and dioramas depicting Daniel in the lion’s den and other Bible stories. Like the Holy Land Experience, there were also the obligatory reenactments of various key events in the life and ministry of Jesus. Since its closing, Holy Land USA has become a ruin, complete with beheaded statues and demolished dioramas strewn around an overgrown and dilapidated landscape of garbage and graffiti.
Heritage USA in Fort Mill, South Carolina was another Christian park. This artificial Christian environment lasted for a total of 11 years between 1978 and 1989. It was created by the infamous televangelists Jim Bakker and his wife Tammy Faye, who headed the “Praise The Lord Club” (PTL Club for short). This resort featured the Jerusalem Amphitheatre (a.k.a. “King’s Castle”) and the place was advertised as “the ultimate in a pleasurable vacation.” Pious pilgrims to the park were encouraged to serve the Lord through consumerism, basking in the biblical atmosphere of luxury hotels, conference centers, a health spa, skating rink, and a large campground accommodating 400 units. In addition, an indoor shopping complex sold exclusively religious books, music records and framed prayers. Visitors were offered prayer and counseling services and vacation Bible schools that taught evangelism.
The Heritage Island water park was one of the resort’s main attractions. When the PTL Club found themselves in dire financial straits in the late 1980s, the notorious Jerry Falwell plunged down a 163-foot-high water slide called the Typhoon fully clothed in his suit. This publicly-attended plunge was the end result of a promise he made in a fundraising gimmick, and apparently it worked. The PTL Club raked in $20 million from that sideshow spectacle. This fundraising drive resulted in Falwell taking over the park from the Bakkers, an arrangement that Jim Bakker wanted to make in order to avoid a takeover by people who had an interest in exposing his hanky-panky with one of his church secretaries seven years earlier.
But all this was not enough to avoid the inevitable. Bakker’s scandals began making headlines starting in 1987, resulting in a drop in attendance at Heritage. It was at about this time that the IRS revoked the tax-exemption status that Heritage USA had weaseled for itself in the past. The downfall of Heritage USA was made complete in 1989, when Hurricane Hugo severely damaged many of the resort’s buildings and grounds.