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CAN YOU FIND GOD ON A ROLLER COASTER?
In the beginning, was The Experience Model...
The genesis of The Experience Model used by designers around the world to create themed attractions can be found in the Israelite desert more than 3,400 years ago.
As I’ve written about before, there is a formula or model for translating any story into an experience. I’ve learned this from working on theme parks, museums and brand experiences for 40 years. The Experience Model can be explained in five parts:
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Attract: All great experiences feature an iconic element designed to attract people’s attention.
Trust: This is the part of the experience where you physically step into the story for the first time, and so it’s important that that first step begins with trust.
Inform: Before moving on, visitors need to be briefed. They need information that can help them move forward on their journey.
Internalize: This captures the reason why people are visiting the experience. It’s the main attraction where the story can be.
Act: And finally, you want people to act. Most importantly, you want people to become part of the story.
While researching the origins of The Experience Model, we’ve come to an interesting conclusion: God invented it.
Or perhaps it was Moses if you don’t believe there is, as Han Solo put it in Star Wars, an “all-powerful Force controlling everything.” Either way, the record is clear both in the Book of Exodus and in other historical accounts. The Tabernacle in the Wilderness was, without wanting to sound sacrilegious, an attraction in the desert for the Jews escaping Egypt on their return to the Promised Land. It was an experience and its design aligns with the five principles of The Experience Model still used today.
The Tabernacle, according to my trusted and worn copy of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, was “the portable sanctuary in which the Jews carried the Ark of the Covenant through the desert.” It was the precursor of the Jewish temple that Solomon built in Jerusalem.
To understand how this ancient place of worship was designed using the principles of The Experience Model, we have to go inside…
The Gate = Attract: As with modern theme parks surrounded by a “berm” to keep the outside world from intruding upon the escape within, the Tabernacle was surrounded by a temporary wall of fabric five cubits tall (or about 7 ½ feet) to protect it from the wilderness—and those who were not part of the Israelite family. The Tabernacle’s only entrance was called The Gate and it was designed to attract those few who were allowed inside. Embedded within the temporary walls surrounding the Tabernacle, this ancient icon is described in the scriptures as “the gate of the court” with “fine twined linen” of “blue, and purple, and scarlet…wrought with needlework.” In The Experience Model, the icon that attracts guests and draws them into the story is usually symbolic in some way of the story that will be told inside the experience. This is no different in the Tabernacle as The Gate always faced east because moving from east to west just as Jews move toward God. When today’s devout believers stand at The Western Wall, the only remnant left from Jerusalem’s ancient Temple and its forerunner the Tabernacle in the Wilderness, they are facing toward the east. Even the colors used to construct The Gate were symbolic of the story being told. The color blue reminded those entering of the sky and their connection to heaven. Purple is symbolic of royalty, a nod to the belief of those entering the Tabernacle that they were of a royal lineage. And finally, the color scarlet or red is symbolic of the sacrifice of blood that would be made on the altar inside. It also, of course, was a nod to the blood of the long foretold Messiah. None of the Tabernacle’s design was by accident. As the author Cleon Skousen wrote in The Third Thousand Years, God gave Moses “a detailed blueprint for a portable temple” spelling out the “minute detail of every aspect of the structure.” It would be as if Walt Disney’s blueprints for his castle were canonized.
Altar of Sacrifice & Laver = Trust: As so few were allowed to enter the Tabernacle, they certainly didn’t need a queue like today’s top attractions. However, there was an order in how people experienced the Tabernacle. And once inside The Gate, God had to establish some trust with those who were entering. So, as people entered into the outer courtyard of the Wilderness Tabernacle, the first things they encountered were the Altar of Sacrifice and Laver. These two elements were connected as the first was the place where priests would present a sacrifice in the form of an animal or perhaps grain while the second was where they would then wash themselves and be anointed with oil. Only those willing to make a sacrifice and then be pronounced clean could enter the door of the Tabernacle. As with everything else that happened inside the Tabernacle, it is explained in the Old Testament’s Book of Exodus. “Thou shalt slay the ram, and thou shalt take his blood, and sprinkle it round upon the altar.” As you might expect, after slaughtering a lamb, goat or two doves, one would need to clean themselves at the Laver before moving forward. In 2017, Brigham Young University erected a replica of the Wilderness Tabernacle on its quad and Camille Fronk Olson, a professor of ancient scripture at the church-owned school, said this process of the sacrifice and then cleansing “signified being freed from the blood, dirt and impurities of sin and the world.” In other words, the only way one could be trusted to move forward and enter the Tabernacle and God’s presence is if they first engaged in these rituals. For Christians, all of this is symbolic of the ultimate sacrifice by Jesus Christ. As Dr. T. Desmond Alexander from Belfast’s Union Theological College wrote, “The altar of burnt offering emphasizes the need for sacrificial atonement and consecration, but in the Old Testament, animal sacrifices only gave access to a copy. On the cross, Jesus Christ ransoms, cleanses, and sanctifies those who trust in Him alone by faith.” So more than 3,000 years ago inside the courtyard of the Tabernacle, trust was established both with God and with each other as the Israelites entered this experience.
The Holy Place = Inform: Like all great attractions, the next step in the journey is some type of pre-show where guests get the information they need to move forward in their journey. While immersive video screens and perky tour guides hadn’t been invented yet, the next step in the Tabernacle in the Wilderness was still a place to impart information to the priests. Entering the Tabernacle, priests found themselves inside a small room or outer chamber with fabric walls. Called “The Holy Place,” it was only 15 feet wide and 30 feet long. Looking forward, the Jewish priests saw a blue, purple and scarlet veil of yarn hung from golden pillars. There were only three things inside this chamber. First, the shewbread table where 12 loaves of unleavened bread were placed. Why 12 loaves? Well, the information God wanted to share with priests and the people they represented was that there were 12 tribes of Israel and that it was God who truly nourished them. Second, there was a golden menorah. While today we envision a menorah as a candlestick, in the temple it featured seven cup-like vessels full of pure olive oil. A wick was placed in the olive oil and lit for light. Again, using symbolism, God is trying to impart a lot of information. The Lord is the perfect light that is burned from olive oil symbolic of the spirit. In other words, the menorah is a symbol of the Holy Spirit. The number seven also has deep meaning throughout the scriptures found in both the Old Testament and New Testament. However, in this case, the information God was seeking to communicate through seven lights was simply the concept of complete perfection or wholeness. Third, the Holy Place featured an altar of incense where priests would burn frankincense and watch the smoke rise up through an opening in the veil into the next chamber of the Tabernacle. Later in the Old Testament’s Book of Psalms, incense is connected symbolically to prayer. Metaphorically speaking, God is informing his people through a ritual involving embers and incense to simply pray to him. That’s a lot of information to impart in a small place, but all of this information was designed to prepare the priest for what was coming next—the main attraction.
The Holy of Holies = Internalize: At this point in their Tabernacle experience, the honored guests of God have been attracted out of the Wilderness into the courtyard at The Gate. Trust was then established with God and each other at the Altar of Sacrifice and Lever. And now, as only one person is allowed to pass through The Holy Place, this lucky priest has the information he needs to finally move into the Holy of Holies. Make no mistake about it, the Holy of Holies is the main attraction of the Tabernacle in the Wilderness. It is God’s E-Ticket. It’s Space Mountain, Rise of the Resistance, Splash Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean, It’s a Small World and the Indiana Jones Adventure all rolled into one. Even though it can be entered only once a year by a single person at a time, it’s the star of the show because inside the Holy of Holies is the Ark of the Covenant. Now, if you’ve ever seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, you already know what’s inside the Ark. As Indiana Jones told two US military officers in plain clothes looking for help:
“The Ark of the Covenant [is] the chest that the Hebrews used to carry around the Ten Commandments. The original stone tablets that Moses brought down from Mt. Horeb and smashed, if you believe in that sort of thing.”
As these two bureaucrats looked at the fictitious archaeologist blankly, Harrison Ford delivered one of the best lines in cinema, “Didn’t any of you guys ever go to Sunday School?” The ark is described in Exodus as featuring a “mercy seat of pure gold” featuring “two cherubims of gold” stretching “forth their wings on high” with “their faces” looking “one to another.” On the Day of Atonement when that one and only high priest was allowed to step inside, he sprinkled blood from the sacrificial lamb on the Ark of the Covenant. There’s a lot of symbolism inside the Holy of Holies as well, but what’s important in The Experience Model is that this is the place where the story is internalized. This is the place where the story is told with its greatest impact. And in the ancient Tabernacle in the Wilderness, the story to both Jews then and Christians today is all about the Messiah and how His coming will part the veil to all of humanity. In fact, the only day the High Priest was allowed to enter The Holy of Holies was on Yom Kippur or The Day of Atonement. As the name implies in both Hebrew and English, this was a day to make amends, repent and be forgiven. In this role inside The Holy of Holies, the High Priest was representing the entire nation of Israel. He was asking God to forgive the sins of everyone living outside the walls of the Temple. To those who embrace Judeo-Christian values, this is a big deal.
The Scapegoat = Act: In the Tabernacle of the Wilderness, the High Priest would exit the same way he entered. There is no “exit through retail experience” out the back of The Holy of Holies. The Israelites wandering the desert for 40 years couldn’t buy cute golden cherubim plush, baseball caps emblazoned with the Tabernacle’s brand or perhaps a t-shirt asking, “Are you Holy?” However, it is fair to say that later when this Tabernacle was replaced by Solomon’s Temple, the money changers arrived and an atmosphere arose that is more akin to the retail stores that are often placed near the exit of our most popular attractions today. I actually believe that the very best exit experiences are not about convincing people to buy stuff but instead helping them to become part of the story. Sure, Universal Studios is making a mint selling magical wands, but by holding that wand, guests now can become part of the story. In The Experience Model, the goal is to inspire people to act. To do something. The story brought to life through the experiences inside the Tabernacle in the Wilderness is about sacrifice, sin, repentance and forgiveness. As explained in the Old Testament’s Book of Leviticus, one of the most important symbols connected to the Tabernacle of the Wilderness involved a goat exiting the experience. On Yom Kippur, two goats were brought inside the Tabernacle. The first was sacrificed upon the altar. The second took upon it “all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins” before it was released into the wilderness. This “scapegoat shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make an atonement with him, and to let him go for a scapegoat into the wilderness.” This act allowed the scapegoat to carry away the sins of the people in a symbolic gesture and reminded everyone that you can be forgiven. That you can reinvent yourself on the Day of Atonement. That through your own actions, you can start anew.
A Modern-day Tabernacle in Orlando…
More than 3,000 years after Moses created this experience in the desert of the Sinai, a version of the Tabernacle came to Central Florida in what the Orlando Sentinel described as a “multisensory show called Wilderness Tabernacle.” Located inside the now defunct The Holy Land Experience along I-4, this $16 million biblical theme park featured 15 acres of “costumed and animatronic characters” along with “computer-driven special effects.” According to a review in AfterDisney, the Wilderness Tabernacle was “the most theme-park-like” of all the attractions inside The Holy Land Experience.
“In a darkened theater, we see a dramatized re-creation of the tabernacle God commanded Moses to build in the wilderness after the exodus from Egypt. As a voice-over narrator tells the history of the tabernacle, an actor representing Aaron, the very first High Priest, mimes the rituals and sacrifices being described. Because the Bible gives fairly complete instructions for building the tabernacle, the re-creation is remarkably evocative. The presentation progresses from the sacrificial altar and bronze laver outside into the tabernacle itself, where the Arc of the Covenant resided and into which the High Priest entered just once a year. The presentation ends with a "Shekinah Glory" special effect that is straight out of Raiders of the Lost Ark. All in all...a fascinating use of theme park show biz to teach a religious and archaeological lesson.”
This final special effect was described in a review that appeared in the Chicago Tribune as “a simulation of the Pillar of Cloud—the manifestation of God, as told in the Book of Exodus—achieved with spinning lights inside an upward-blasting column of artificial fog. It looks like a small, internally lighted whirlwind.”
This is how I remember the experience as well when I visited The Holy Land Experience shortly after it opened when its initial success surprised many in the industry. On the day I went, it was packed and the Wilderness Tabernacle was by far the most memorable of all of the experiences inside the theme park. Like too many attractions, its early success couldn’t be sustained for a variety of business reasons. Eventually, the original owners sold it to a group of televangelists who then closed the park in March 2020. However, the theme park was dying before the pandemic so we can’t blame its destruction on the plagues of our time.
As it’s been more than 20 years since I experienced the show inside the Wilderness Tabernacle, I reached out to the designers of this attraction to get their insights into what inspired them as the attraction was created.
The Holy Land Experience was designed and produced by Orlando’s ITEC, now owned by TAIT, with the writer for the show Wilderness Tabernacle being a young creative named Adam Berger. Today, Adam is an independent attraction show writer and the author of Every Guest is the Hero: Disney’s Theme Parks and the Magic of Mythic Storytelling. He creates theme park experiences for a living and still lives in Orlando. In fact, I hired him more than ten years ago to help create some brand experiences, including the guest narrative for the Honeywell Technology Experience in Shanghai.
As you might expect from the title of his book, Adam believes that all great experiences and attractions are based upon mythic storytelling. “While The Hero’s Journey can add psychological heft to a movie,” Adam writes in his book, “the effect can be even more potent in the three-dimensional environment…where the story surrounds and engulfs you.”
In fact, after discussing The Experience Model with Adam during our interview, he really sees it as just another iteration of The Hero’s Journey.
“It is a powerful mythological story—a monomyth—that has been told and retold in endless variations in every culture over countless generations since the dawn of human communication. Those who study this ancient monomyth know it as The Hero’s Journey. It’s a metaphor that describes a journey of transformation shared by everyone, everywhere. It resonates with the human psyche in remarkable ways because it embodies the transformative events—the challenges, setbacks, and triumphs—that we all face in life. As a result, The Hero’s Journey connects with people of all ages and all backgrounds on a deeply satisfying emotional level.”
In The Hero’s Journey, you first have to ATTRACT the Hero’s attention, then find a way to build TRUST with that hero before he or she is given the INFORMation they need, usually by a guide of some sort, to move forward in their journey. At some point, the hero faces a challenge where what they have to learn is INTERNALIZEd. They then ACT and either meet success or failure in their actions.
“Whether it’s The Hero’s Journey or The Experience Model, no one truly invented these things,” Adam said. “The human psyche created the model and we just molded the shape of our stories and experiences around that model. It’s the archetype.” And billions of believers around the world would contend that the human psyche was created by God.
Adam believes the story of the original Tabernacle in the Wilderness is so powerful because it is connected to The Hero’s Journey. “It actually correlates to what is called the inmost cave of The Hero’s Journey,” he said. “You have to remember, on that one day of the year when the high priest goes into The Holy of Holies, there was no guarantee that he’d come out. If something went wrong, God would smite him. I mean, we know from the record that one slip carrying the Holy Ark and you are dead. Just one slip was enough to bring God’s wrath.” Fortunately, our theme park rides today designed using The Experience Model don’t require guests to really risk death.
Adam, who helped conceive the attraction along with ITEC’s creative director Eric Gordon, has mixed feelings about his work because The Holy Land Experience’s original mission was all about recognizing Jesus Christ as the Messiah and converting people to Christianity. As The Los Angeles Times reported in 2001, “Billed as ‘a living biblical museum’ by its creator, Marvin Rosenthal, a Jew who became a Baptist minister, (The Holy Land Experience) has come under fire in its opening days as some rabbis and Jewish groups have questioned Rosenthal’s motives. Some have accused him of wanting to convert Jews to Christianity, of promoting a form of soul-snatching.”
“Some could argue that it’s a total corruption of my beliefs,” Adam said. “However, Marvin told me that I was a blessing to work with because I was Jewish and an outsider to their mission and would have insights others wouldn’t.”
While he’s proud of his work, he was embarrassed on his first visit during the grand opening when he saw that another writer without his “insights” added to the pre-show of the Wilderness Tabernacle a greeting that still makes his eyes roll. “A host dressed in white Levitical priest garb steps into the pre-show, and let me emphasize that I did not write this, and after pointing out the different parts of his costume, would say with a loud voice: ‘Shalom Y’all.’ And he would say it over and over again until everyone in the audience responded in kind.”
To Berger, it was almost like an Unholy Land Experience.
“I could have opted out of the production because the owner knew I didn’t buy into any of it,” Adam said, “but I also know the attraction was better because of my input.” One surprising revelation was that it was this Jewish writer who injected Jesus into the experience. “I argued and fought vigorously to link the story of the Tabernacle to the coming of Jesus as the Messiah because I knew it was necessary to tell a more dramatic story and align the attraction with the client’s mission.”
Adam says he still believes that his ultimate job as a writer is to tell the client’s story, whether he’s writing about Jesus for The Holy Land Experience or avionics, industrial process control systems and thermostats for Honeywell as he did for me. This is a refreshing philosophy in today’s world where young writers feel the need to inject their own agenda into every experience.
In the end, it all came back to the theme of sacrifice that is found in all great storytelling. As Adam Berger wrote in his book, “The hero’s role, at its most elemental, is one of service and self-sacrifice.” At Disney, Berger sees the importance of sacrifice in everything from when “Pinocchio sacrifices himself to push Geppetto to safety” while inside the belly of the whale to Beauty and the Best—Live on Stage at Disney’s Hollywood Studios where “you’ll witness…the Beast’s act of self-sacrifice” at the end of the show.”
As the writer of the Wilderness Tabernacle, Adam wanted to craft the best story possible for guests to The Holy Land Experience. And so, he argued to embrace the power of mythic storytelling. As he told me, “The message of sacrifice is a theme of the Bible. And honestly, it’s a theme in all great storytelling and mythology. It’s the hero being reborn. That sense of rebirth is important to The Hero’s Journey. There’s a lot of room for debate about whether the sacrifice in the original Tabernacle in the Wilderness was specific to Jesus but at an attraction in Orlando where the client’s mission was to talk about Jesus, yes, I argued to make that connection stronger.”
So, the next time you hop on a themed roller coaster at your favorite park, take a moment to look around and remember that what you are experiencing—the icon, queue, pre-show, ride and exit-through-retail—was actually inspired by an ancient Tabernacle designed by the God of Abraham.
When you do, perhaps God will listen when you pray for help as the coaster readies for its launch or drops over its first hill.
Geoff Thatcher has worked in the theme park industry since his first job as a 14-year-old clean-up boy at Lagoon Amusement Park. Today, he and his firm Creative Principals work on attractions all over the world from Yas Island in Abu Dhabi to the FM Global Centre in Singapore.
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