The crucifixion was canceled.
The announcement came over loudspeakers as fat clouds formed above a reproduction of Jesus's garden tomb. Dozens of disappointed tourists and pilgrims who came to witness the spectacle -- a daily event at the Holy Land Experience, a 15-acre, $16 million biblical theme park tucked off Interstate 4 in Orlando -- trudged toward the exit.
Park officials were apologetic but firm: None of the employees would hang on the cross during a lightning storm.
The musical reenactment of Jesus's death and resurrection, delivered daily by one of the park's three Jesus impersonators, helps draw an average of 250,000 people a year to Holy Land.
So do its Roman sentinels, wearing swords, scowls and leather skirts; a six-story replica of Herod's temple; a gift shop that sells Holy Land T-shirts, plastic swords and shields and biblical cookbooks; and park actors, such as 85-year-old Herb Maynard, whose tangled white beard and wild eyebrows allow him to play Moses with little makeup.
With its unusual blend of entertainment, evangelism and free enterprise, Holy Land Experience has stretched the boundaries of roadside religion. Confusion over its purpose has even spawned a state tax law tailored to its dual roles as church and theme park.
Critics argue that a church shouldn't charge for parking and admission -- a visit to Holy Land will set you back more than $30 -- but believers say Holy Land and other spiritually themed parks provide an effective medium for spreading the gospel.
"This began as an experiment in Christian ministry," said Dan Hayden, the park's executive director, who holds a master's degree in theology from Dallas Theological Seminary and a doctoral degree in ministries from Baptist Bible Seminary. "It's unique. We put flesh and blood on Bible stories."
Holy Land has been plagued with controversy since it opened in 2001. Jewish leaders protested the park's message that Jews should convert to Christianity. County officials sought to collect more than $1 million in back taxes from the park, which calls itself a ministry, not a business.
The park scored a major victory this summer when Gov. Jeb Bush (R) signed a bill granting a property-tax exemption to nonprofit organizations that display biblical manuscripts or that stage scenes from the Bible. Holy Land paid a team of lobbyists between $10,000 and $30,000 to push the legislation through, according to lobbyists' records.
Less politically savvy religious parks have not fared as well.
To the north, Dinosaur Adventure Land, a creationist theme park in Pensacola, Fla., where children are told that dinosaurs and humans coexisted after God created the world in six days, faces extinction because its founder refuses to pay income taxes or apply for building permits.
Kent Hovind, also known as Dr. Dino, argues that his employees are missionaries and that his park is a church. Hovind has been indicted on 58 federal charges, which include failing to pay about $470,000 in employee taxes.
Some tax collectors, county officials and religious scholars don't quite know what to make of religious amusement parks. But such places as Holy Land Experience and Dinosaur Adventure Land belong to a long-standing American tradition of evangelism as entertainment, said Timothy K. Beal, author of "Roadside Religion: In Search of the Sacred, the Strange and the Substance of Religion."
Other religious tourist destinations include Golgotha Fun Park, an 18-hole miniature golf course in Kentucky that takes golfers from Genesis to the Resurrection; a giant carving of the Ten Commandments on a hillside in Murphy, N.C.; and a replica of Noah's ark that is under construction in Frostburg, Md.
Packaging faith as recreation often comes at a price, Beal said.
"The risk there is compromising the sanctity of the tradition to the point where it's not distinct from the entertainment industry," said Beal, a professor of religion at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
"What you have is this radical, paradoxical combination of the sacred and the profane, or maybe the sacred and the trivial," Beal said.
The park's tax break has also angered church-state separationists who say it favors Judeo-Christian beliefs and makes no provision for other faiths.
The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said Florida lawmakers were duped into signing away tax dollars. "If a Mickey Mouse amusement park has to pay taxes, then a Jesus and Moses park has to pay taxes, too," Lynn said.
Holy Land's faithful disagree. Les Cheveldayoff, an actor whose slender 6-foot-2 frame, high cheekbones, pale blue eyes and long honey-colored brown hair match some portraits of Jesus, said the park's 200 employees share a single purpose: to bring the gospel to tourists, skeptics, atheists and the merely curious.
"There are a lot of things we could do here to bring in money, like serve alcohol, but we don't," said Cheveldayoff, one of three actors who play Jesus.