WILLIAMSTOWN, Ky. — Ken Ham built an ark, a Noah-sized ark, in the verdant, landlocked hills of the American heartland.
At the sight of the wooden vessel, tourists — decidedly more than two-by-two, a caravan of buses surrounding the site — gasp in wonder. Christian school students storm the ramps, many completing science quizzes based on anti-evolutionary teachings. Admission is $40 for adults, $28 for students, but school groups often pay less.
The founder of Answers in Genesis, an online and publishing ministry with a strict creationist interpretation of the Bible, employed 700 workers to erect the $120 million Ark Encounter, which is five stories high and a football field and a half in length, and packs a powerful whoa punch. He had the massive boat designed by a veteran of amusement park attractions, commissioned an original soundtrack to enhance the experience, and stocked the interior with an animatronic (and freakishly real) talking Noah, along with lifelike models of Earth’s manifold creatures. Including dinosaurs.
And he saw that it was good.
The ark opened last summer and is on target, Ham says, to attract more than a million visitors in the first year.
But Ham did not rest.
The 65-year-old Australian and his partners, Mike Zovath and Mark Looy, have launched an ambitious 10-to-12-year plan to re-create a walled city from the time of Noah and a 1st-century village from the time of Jesus.
Also, a Tower of Babel, concept snack shacks, a 3,200-seat amphitheater and a 10-plagues-of-Egypt thrill ride. Frogs! Fiery hail! Locusts!
Instead of building a church, Answers in Genesis is sharing its teachings through a controversial biblical theme park designed to attract believers and nonbelievers alike.
“How do you reach the general public in a bigger way?” Ham muses rhetorically, sitting in his expansive corner office at the Creation Museum, his first, more sober foray into the family entertainment business, which celebrates its 10th anniversary on Memorial Day. “Why not attractions that people will come to the way they go to Disney or Universal or the Smithsonian?”
Why not, indeed?
Answers in Genesis is certainly adopting a different approach from the Museum of the Bible, which is scheduled to open in November in Washington and aims to attract all religions. AiG wants to attract all tourists and introduce them to its specific brand of faith.
Ham and his brethren are creationists and Christian apologists who believe that the Earth is only 6,000 years old. (Contrary to scientists who say that it’s more like 4.5 billion years — or older.) Apologetics is a branch of Christianity whose adherents actively defend their faith, and Ham is a robust debater.
The author or co-author of 50 or 60 books — he’s not sure, a rare instance of uncertainty — he argues that the Bible is a historical narrative and that “the whole gospel message is found in Genesis.” He believes that dinosaurs prowled the planet alongside humans and that the biblical flood created the Grand Canyon. One of his books is titled “The Lie: Evolution.” He maintains that Noah labored seven decades to construct his vessel and was 600 years old when the storm surged. (By comparison, the AiG team took only seven years to build the Kentucky ark.)
Ham — is it coincidence that his name is the same as one of Noah’s sons’? — began his career as, of all things, a science teacher in a tiny Australian town. But evolution didn’t sit right with him as the son of parents who subscribed to creationist beliefs.
“I took students to museums and saw that all the museums were totally from an evolutionary perspective,” he says. He began researching the creationist view of science, and ultimately began lecturing on the subject and was invited to speak at the Institute for Creation Research, then based outside San Diego.
And he realized that America was the best location for getting his message out to the world. “It’s the center of the business world, the center of the Christian world,” he says.
He acknowledges that his views aren’t commonly shared.
“Obviously, we’re in a minority,” he says in his pronounced Down Under accent. But “just because a majority believes in something doesn’t mean it’s right. People love darkness rather than light. If a majority believes something, I’m naturally suspicious because of the sin nature of man.”
Ham has twice debated evolution with television science star Bill Nye, at the Creation Museum in 2014 and two years later at the Ark Encounter, events that Answers in Genesis touts as akin to a modern-day Scopes trial — and that Ham believes he won. Otherwise, why sell the videos and book to believers in his museums’ large gift shops? (Nye declined to comment.)
How did a former science teacher, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel (Zovath) and a former radio reporter (Looy), all based in Southern California and with zero tourism experience, come to build a museum and an enormous wooden boat to promote creationism in northern Kentucky?
The founders say they looked at multiple locations in several states and chose the region because of its proximity to the Cincinnati airport, once a Delta hub, and because it’s within a day’s drive of two-thirds of the nation’s population. But the sites are also situated firmly in the Bible Belt, where there’s less competition from other tourist attractions. Plus, AiG was able to negotiate attractive incentives to locate there.
Ham proudly points out that where many museums and attractions “are reliant on government subsidies or a few large donations,” the ark was funded by 42,000 small donors. “The average donation was $230,” he says, though there were several large gifts.
But the project’s single largest source of funding was actually $62 million in junk bonds floated by the town of Willamstown, population less than 4,000, home to the Ark Encounter and the county seat of Grant County, which faced bankruptcy this spring.
“In terms of revenue for the county, we don’t get too much from them,” says the county’s chief executive, Stephen Wood. The Ark Encounter negotiated a vastly discounted 30-year rate on property taxes in 2013 under a previous administration. “I hate it, but that’s the deal,” says Wood.
Unsurprisingly, the Ark Encounter and Answers in Genesis have attracted a loud chorus of critics who question this financial backing.
“Why would the state indirectly subsidize a nonsensible alternative to evolution?” asks Barry Lynn, an ordained minister who is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State and a frequent critic. “It’s not good science. It’s not good anything. It ought to be unacceptable for a state at any level to treat this like one more bond-funded enterprise. Most Christians do not accept this as a literal or natural interpretation of the Bible.”
Ham argues that his organization received a tourist tax break while creating jobs in a region battered by the economy.
Kentucky residents “should be thankful we’re here,” he says. “We’re creating all these extra jobs in the community, which wouldn’t be there if we weren’t here.”
Perhaps, but a year after the ark opened, downtown Williamstown, about two miles from the tourist attraction, still isn’t much more than a collection of resale and “antiques” shops and shuttered storefronts. At lunchtime on a spring weekday, Main Street was devoid of pedestrians, tour buses or open restaurants, except for a coffee shop with a tattoo parlor in the back.
Moreover, AiG limits who can fill its jobs, leading the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups to charge the organization with discriminatory hiring practices that should make it ineligible for state and local subsidies.
As a condition of employment, the museum and ark staff of 900, including 350 seasonal workers, must sign a statement of faith rejecting evolution and declaring that they regularly attend church and view homosexuality as a sin. So any non-Christians, believers in evolution, or members of the LGBT community — and their supporters — need not apply. (Although, due to less stringent hiring requirements for contractors, an actor who allegedly operated a gay porn site was hired to portray Adam in one of the Creation Museum’s original videos.)
Beyond the boat itself, the Ark Encounter attracts visitors — read kids — with reproduction dinosaurs, a petting zoo (those would be live animals), an insect exhibit (very dead), camel rides, zip lines, and fudge stands.
The goal is for the ark to become “something on people’s checklist when they’re traveling, like seeing the biggest ball of twine,” says Zovath, who supervised the encounter’s construction. “That gives us an opportunity for people who might never go to church to see something that is mind-blowing and get some information that could change their lives for the better and point them in the direction for a secure eternity.”
The partners are confident that they can achieve this soul-saving objective because, Zovath says, “God provided us with some incredibly talented people.”
Chief among these is Patrick Marsh, vice president of attractions design. A former Beverly Hills fashion designer, he helped create the opening ceremony at the 1984 Olympics, Universal Studios’ King Kong and Jaws attractions, and a Hello Kitty theme park outside Tokyo.
Marsh oversees a 65,000-square-foot warehouse that is part design studio — his team was busy finishing 10 biblical steles for the ark’s lake and the bus arrival area — and part Ikea warehouse stuffed to the rafters with building materials.
When the founders first suggested building a Noah-sized ark, Marsh told them, “If you want to attract people here, you need to do it at a Disney level. Kids are so used to high-quality things.”
The ship includes 55 elaborate exhibits in 120 bays, including the recent “Why the Bible is True” done as an art installation in the style of a graphic novel, and two theaters with separate Noah movies. The first is set in Noah’s time, the other in the present, featuring professional actors, including one who portrays an incredulous female reporter who undergoes a conversion experience in both films.
Marsh is proudest of the ark’s intricate family living quarters, which resemble a wealthy Middle Eastern retreat. The exhibit panels note that Answers in Genesis took “creative license” in developing backstories for Noah and his family. Noah’s daughters-in-law, unnamed in the Bible, are each assigned a different race to explain the varying physiognomy of the world’s inhabitants.
By comparison, the Creation Museum, 45 miles away, seems modest and antiquated. It features a buff Adam, a comely Eve, dragons — Answers in Genesis views dragons as a variation on dinosaurs — and more dinosaurs. Ham acknowledges that its visitors are mostly creationists. Recently, the facility was packed with church and Christian school groups, retirement communities and a German group meeting with Looy to discuss building its own creation museum.
The Ark Encounter doesn’t get public school groups, either, “though there are some that come under the radar,” says Ham. “They get threatened by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the ACLU or Americans United.”
But Ham thinks that more than a third of the ark’s visitors do not share his beliefs. “It’s not unusual to meet someone who says, ‘I’m not a Christian,’ or ‘I’m an atheist,’ or whatever,’ but the comment that we get over and over again is, ‘You really present your message very tastefully.’ ”
The ark is not completed. Still to open is an 800-seat restaurant on the top deck, where guests will be entertained by Noah-era reenactors, a Bible-inspired dinner theater.
The biblical theme park, ultimately featuring 80 structures, will be built gradually. The founders hope to open a new attraction every year. Next up is a 2,500-seat auditorium for events at the Ark Encounter, scheduled to open next spring. The Noah-era walled city comes after that. “Picture Disney Main Street with lots of shops, food and fun things to see,” says Zovath.
Then the plans are to build a village set in the time of Jesus, who is currently a lesser player in the Answers in Genesis sites, rooted as they are in the Old Testament.
When he looks around at his progress, Ken Ham sees that it is good.
A full summer of tourists awaits. The ark, he thinks, will attract twice as many visitors in its second year of operation. That will help fund future projects.
“You’ve got to be risk-takers to do something like this,” Ham says. “But I see it as stepping out in faith. There are people you couldn’t blow into church with a stick of dynamite that will come and visit an ark.”
And, quite possibly, embrace the Word.