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Hallelujah! Holy park offers a free day

The Holy Land Experience sign

TEXT OF STORY

STEVE CHIOTAKIS: If you happen to be in Orlando, Florida today, you can get into one of the area's theme parks for free. Not Disney or Sea World, it's a Christian attraction called the Holy Land Experience. The park is giving away tickets for a very worldly purpose, though, and it all has to do with taxes.

From WMFE in Orlando, Judith Smelser explains.


JUDITH SMELSER: Orlando's Holy Land Experience is not your usual theme park. Instead of roller coasters, there are religious artifacts and a recreation of Israel in Biblical times. Instead of Mickey Mouse and Harry Potter, guests take pictures with Bible characters -- including Jesus himself. The park is all about bringing the Bible to life, with live performances.

JANE WILCOX: This whole area here is where we do the recreation of the crucifixion of Jesus.

Jane Wilcox is the park's guest services supervisor.

WILCOX: And they nail him to that cross and he hangs there for probably about five minutes.

The show is very dramatic, even downright gory at times. It also feels remarkably like a church service, complete with prayers and preaching. Holy Land says that means it should get the same property tax exemption that more traditional churches get in Florida.

But when the park opened in 2001, local property appraiser Bill Donegan took issue with that logic.

BILL DONEGAN: Many religious organizations do a lot of work other than just hold services. They have senior programs, they have programs for the needy, they do a lot of community work that otherwise the state would have to do themselves.

And he says the Holy Land Experience doesn't do those things.

DONEGAN: We felt that the Holy Land, although religious, was not a religious exemption.

Donegan went to court with his argument, but the state legislature of passed a special law to make sure the Holy Land kept its tax break -- but with one catch. For one day each year, the park has to waive its $35 admission fee. And this year, today's the day when guests can see their religious beliefs come to life for free.

For the local county, though, all that inspiration comes at a cost -- more than $300,000 a year in property taxes.

In Orlando, I'm Judith Smelser for Marketplace.

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