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5 religious theme parks you have to see to believe

Summer has arrived, bringing with it plenty of opportunities for kids and teens to reconnect with their faith at vacation Bible school, on a mission trip or through summer camp. But what if parents want to come, too?

The beach could be a great spot for a Bible study or meditation session. Thousands of faithful and curious travel to traditional religious sites like Vatican City, the Holy Land or Mecca each year as well. Another option, however, is the little-known phenomenon of religious theme parks, attractions designed to entertain visitors of all ages and faith traditions while imparting moral wisdom.

For religious folks seeking faithful fun for the whole family, here are five of the world's most divine theme-park destinations:

Holy Land Experience (WikiCommons)

1. The Holy Land Experience, Orlando, Florida

Opened in 2001, the Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida, completed the city's trinity of family friendly attractions. Disney World has Mickey Mouse; Universal Studios has Harry Potter; the Holy Land has Jesus.

This theme park promises to surround its visitors with the sights and sounds of the Bible (for $50 per adult guest compared to an overseas excursion to the real thing.) "It is a living, biblical museum that takes you 7,000 miles away and 2,000 years back in time," reports the Holy Land's website.

Peering into Jesus's tomb, strolling through the ancient city of Jerusalem, worshipping in the Church of All Nations, all are possible in the 15-acre park. But above all, explains the Holy Land's directors, visitors are encouraged in their search "for enduring truth and the ultimate meaning of life."

Holy Land Experience (WikiCommons)

2. Suoi Tien, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Vacationers seeking a more exotic adventure could consider Suoi Tien Cultural Theme Park in southern Vietnam. The site, dubbed the world's first Buddhist water slide park by Atlas Obscura, aligns with the animistic style of Buddhism practiced in southeast Asia.

"The amusement park, which opened in 1995, is full of huge sculpted dragons, tortoises, phoenixes and Buddhas. Employees dressed as golden monkeys scamper around the grounds, tasked with creating mischief," reports Slate. Visitors will enjoy water slides that "emerge from the beards of sculpted Buddhist sages."

Suoi Tien is not all fun and games, however. Its Palace of Unicorns presents the Buddhist vision of hell, a house of horrors that's not meant for the faint of heart. The crocodile pond is also a dangerous attraction, although the opportunity to feed raw meat on fishing poles to the beasts may be too tempting to resist.

Tierra Santa (WikiCommons)

3. Tierra Santa, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Tierra Santa, a Spanish phrase meaning "Holy Land," is billed as the world's first religious theme park. Vice reported in 2011 that the site, which was a soccer field in its previous life, offers an eclectic mix of faith-affirming attractions.

The park focuses on the figure of Jesus Christ, telling the biblical stories of his birth, crucifixion and resurrection.

"It's not all plaster and fiberglass at Tierra Santa," wrote Ella Morton for Slate. "Human employees in era-appropriate garb weave among the mannequins (of religious leaders) to serve food and change trash bags. During Easter a team of actors performs the Stations of the Cross."

The soccer fields of South America are getting plenty of attention during this month's World Cup, but what will happen when the final whistle blows? If Brazil is anything like Argentina, there may be more religious theme parks on the way.

Tierra Santa (WikiCommons)

4. The Ark Encounter, Williamstown, Kentucky

Although construction has just begun on this full-sized replica of Noah's ark, project managers are right to predict that it will be a one-of-a-kind attraction. The big boat will be based on the dimensions provided in Genesis 6, which should make it the largest timber-framed structure in the United States. The project is supervised by Kentucky's Creation Museum, a religious tourist attraction in its own right.

The ark's owners predict that it will open in the summer of 2016, complete with a petting zoo (though don't get your hopes up for two animals of every kind.) USA Today reported that it took almost four years to raise enough donations to begin construction, but Creation Museum founder Ken Ham seems confident that the site will quickly expand to include other Bible-based attractions.

"Additional future phases for the attraction include a Walled City, the Tower of Babel, a first-century Middle Eastern village, a journey in history from Abraham to the parting of the Red Sea (and) an expanded large petting zoo," the Ark Encounter website reports.

Tierra Santa (WikiCommons)

5. Haw Par Villa, Singapore

Last but not least, Haw Par Villa is the most ominous option on the list. This theme park is famous for its depiction of the 10 courts of hell.

"Built in 1937 by Burmese-Chinese brothers Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par the park has more than 1,000 statues and dioramas depicting Chinese folk tales, myths and Confucian beliefs," reports CNN Travel.

Visitors are immersed in Chinese mythology and graphically warned about the punishments for a variety of ethical missteps. And although plane tickets to Singapore won't be cheap, Haw Par Villa has been free to the public since 2001.

Email: kdallas@deseretnews.com Twitter: @kelsey_dallas

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