God's Favorite Playgrounds
In the 14th century, the Italian poet Dante Alighieri wrote of his dreamed concepts of Hell. And since then, his Divine Comedy's nine circles of the underworld have tinted our own ideas of the afterlife. But despite our lingering fear of eternal damnation, our methods of worship have changed. While religious piety was once exhibited in hours of study and meticulous prayer, current methods of practice seem to have taken a more whimsical turn. Today, religious allegory has become three-dimensional -- you can now visit religious-themed parks that detail a devotee's concept of Buddhist enlightenment or Christian redemption.
Praying or playing: We'll let you determine which is a more effective way to better understand religious history and strengthen your connection to God. So without further ado -- and with a little bit of irreverence -- here's our list of the world's best religious theme parks.
[See a photo recap of God's Favorite Playgrounds]
The Holy Land Experience
Orlando, Fla., USA
What better place for a religious theme park than Orlando? Not only can you commune with Shamu and worship at the shrine of Mickey, but you can also learn about Jesus Christ at The Holy Land Experience. And though this "living Biblical museum" (as it's described on the official website) is shoved into the same touristy part of town as the aforementioned SeaWorld Orlando and Walt Disney World, it's actually not an amusement park. It's more an interactive campus where you can sit in on lectures, see live theatrical presentations and attend church services. Actors in period dress parade the streets of ancient Jerusalem, guiding you through exhibits like the Wilderness Temple (home of a life-size Ark of the Covenant) and the Via Dolorosa (the street on which Jesus Christ carried his cross to the site of his crucifixion). And at the end of each park day, the Holy Land Experience actors re-enact Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection, Roman guards and all.
Buenos Aires, Argentina
In Argentina, another "Holy Land" exists. This tierra santa is much like the Anglo-named Holy Land Experience of Orlando, but here you'll find a few more animatronics (animated, robotic puppets) than live actors parading through a faux Jerusalem. And the end result is just as effective for the devoted who visit. Highlights of this theme park include laser-show exhibits on the Creation, the Last Supper, and the Resurrection (featuring a nearly 60-foot tall plastic Jesus that rises from the ground periodically throughout the day). But you can also swing by a replica of the Wailing Wall, enjoy live belly dancing performances or eat a meal at the Baghdad Café. And here's another distinction of this park in northern Buenos Aires: It claims to be the first religious-based theme park in the world.
Suoi Tien Park
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
A 300-ton dragon head and a one-acre round giant frog might sound weird to some, but these are actually sacred symbols for many Buddhists. And they're all on display in the Suoi Tien Park, a cross between SeaWorld and Mount Rushmore in the northeastern edge of Ho Chi Minh City. There are plenty of park rides, water slides and swimming pools spread across this popular site, but they're tucked between attractions named after and modeled for Buddhist legends (like the Little Angel Sea, the Lake of Hidden Dragon and Tortoise, the Holy Frog on Sacred Mount and Unicorn Palace). You can also take a tour of the Buddhist underworld, known as Naraka, or ride an aerial bicycle over more than 1,500 snapping crocs at Crocodile Kingdom. If you want to do something more low-key, you can lounge around the park's man-made Tien Dong Beach and marvel at its large cascading waterfall.
Niland, Calif., USA
More pit stop than theme park, Salvation Mountain is a 50-foot high, 150-foot wide art installation made of adobe clay and straw, covered in acrylic paint and brightening the desert of Southern California. The magnum opus of Leonard Knight, a Christian folk artist, this colorful mountain is decorated with Bible verses, prayers and most prominently, the simple message that "God is Love." And unlike some other religious sites, Salvation Mountain is free to enjoy. Visit for yourself and you just might get the chance to help Knight with some of the painting (he lives in a trailer at the base of the mountain and steadily works at maintaining and expanding the site).
Following the unauthorized creation of Salvation Mountain around 1985, the Imperial County government made attempts to have it removed. But in May 2002, California Senator Barbara Boxer declared the site a national treasure to be protected and entered it into Congressional Record. The colorful monument is fairly easy to spot on a road trip down Highway 111 on the way to the Salton Sea. Or you could check out the mountain (and Knight's cameo) in the 2007 film, Into the Wild.
Buddha Park & Sala Keoku
Vientiane, Laos & Nong Khai, Thailand
In 1958, the Thai sculpture artist Bunleua Sulilat began constructing a sculpture garden along the banks of the Mekong River in western Laos. More than 200 installations, which have come to be known as "Buddha Park," blend Hindu and Buddhist imagery according to Sulilat's own somewhat radical beliefs. The artist and his masterwork enjoyed a celebrated status until Laos' communist revolution in 1975. Sulilat then fled across the river to Thailand; there along those banks he constructed another sculpture garden called Sala Keoku, which features concrete variations on the same themes. Both parks are not only renowned for merging religious symbols, but also for the whimsical fashion in which they're displayed. At either Buddha Park or Sala Keoku you'll find statues of reclining Buddhas, giant pumpkins, three-headed elephants, dogs driving cars and more; and all are intricately molded from cement. You'll also find a mummified version of Sulilat at Sala Keoku. After his death in 1996, the sculptor was laid to rest on the third floor of the park's pavilion building.
Petersburg, Ky., USA
Leonard Knight has worked on his religious masterpiece for nearly 30 years, but this Bible-based landmark has yet to officially break ground in northern Kentucky (or embark on the water, rather). Ark Encounter is exactly what it sounds like; a full-scale replica of the boat that Noah built to traverse the flood waters. Its creators plan to pour approximately $150 million into the construction and initial maintenance of the facilities. According to the New York Times, when the proposed Ark Encounter park is completed, it will also include a 100-foot Tower of Babel, a special-effects exhibit of the 10 plagues of Egypt as well as a simulation of the parting of the Red Sea. Visitors will also get to enjoy live entertainment and visit a large petting zoo.