I’ve lived in my new city for five months — long enough so I should have friends, or at least acquaintances, but I’m so prejudiced against this town that when I meet people, I find myself questioning their judgment, like, why would I be friends with someone who chooses to live here? I see how hypocritical this is, considering that I also choose to live here, but every time I meet someone new, I think about this Walmart of a city and say, “You realize this place is awful, right?” This is not the best way to make friends, and so I don’t have any. While my neighbours spend the weekends shopping at IKEA and outlet malls, I generally leave every Friday at five to visit friends in cities where I’m not the only homosexual in the area code. This past weekend, however, a friend came to visit me, and I took her to the most interesting place within an hour’s drive: disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker’s abandoned Christian theme park, Heritage USA.
Jim Bakker and his wife, drag queen muse Tammy Faye Bakker, opened Heritage USA in the late 1970s. The Bakkers were founders of the hugely successful Trinity Broadcasting Network and PTL Club (short for Praise the Lord), a Christian talk show where the couple interviewed celebrities and counselled viewers. Their television ministries made the Bakkers rich and famous, and at its peak, Heritage USA had hotels, roller coasters, a shopping complex, a 400-unit campground, a TV production studio, multiple churches, a skating rink, a water park, a go-kart track, a castle and the world’s largest Wendy’s. At one point, Heritage USA was the third-most-visited theme park in the United States, attracting nearly six million visitors a year, with 2,500 employees and an annual income of $126 million. But after a sex scandal and, later, the revelation that Jim Bakker was using church donations to build his own fortune, he was convicted of fraud and sent to prison. Bakker’s personal troubles hurt the enterprise and, facing financial losses and structural damage after 1989’s Hurricane Hugo, Heritage USA closed its doors.
I first learned about Heritage USA through a documentary about Tammy Faye Bakker, a woman whose eye makeup looked like a mix between Miss Piggy and Alaska Thunderfuck. In the documentary, which was narrated by RuPaul as a hand puppet, Tammy Faye goes back to Heritage USA, wandering among the ruins of her former kingdom with a dazed look on her heavily made up face. Despite occasional efforts to redevelop the complex, Heritage USA has mostly stood empty for the past 25 years, and now land that once housed roller coasters and water slides is a suburban housing development with hundreds of identical three-bedroom, 2.5-bathroom homes. The neighbouring development stands in the shadow of Heritage Tower, an empty 21-storey high-rise with rusting balconies that looks like Soviet Bloc housing. Once a 500-room hotel, the Tower makes it easy to find the complex from miles away; it’s the tallest thing in a very flat landscape, and so even though we didn’t have directions, my friends and I just looked for the Tower and drove around until we found an old service road that led to the property. We smoked a joint in the car, hot-boxing it like we used to when we were both delinquent teenagers, 15 years ago, which seemed like it would only enhance what was bound to be a surreal experience.
“Surreal” does not begin to describe it.
We approached the park from behind the Tower, and while it looked, as advertised, abandoned, there were cars in the parking lot, so clearly we weren’t the only people there. We walked around outside for a while, contemplating the likelihood that zombies were going to start streaming from the empty buildings. Nothing about the park seemed overtly Christian, but the remaining architecture looked like it was modelled on both the Mormon Tabernacle and the Antebellum South, with mismatched columns and ornate spires. A bridge to nowhere spanned halfway across a man-made lake separating the park from the housing development, and geese and swans squawked in the brown water. There was hardly any vegetation, and everything was the colour of dried clay. The whole thing had a post-apocalyptic vibe. I wanted to see if we could get in any of the buildings, but my friend was creeped out. I convinced her that if we didn’t find a bathroom I’d have to pee on sacred ground, and we walked toward a nondescript brick building that we figured was probably an old church. And that’s where we found the remaining lifeblood of Heritage USA.
It wasn’t a church; it was a city. Before the collapse, this area had been called the Main Street Shoppes, a little urban centre constructed to look like a town, with housing and businesses in tall, narrow models of San Francisco Victorians. Sometime after the collapse, Main Street was covered by a giant dome, like it could be shielded from the ruins falling around it, and now the streets are lit only by soft, blue bulbs. Everything glowed. My friend and I walked around in silence, staring at couples lined up at a trolley selling barbecue and sweet tea. There were Christian bookstores and meeting rooms and coffee shops and cafés and dozens of people sitting at picnic tables by fake trees draped with blue Christmas lights. It was eerily quiet, and we were certainly the youngest people there and probably the only two who reeked of marijuana and think God is a myth. We didn’t stay long.
Toward the end of Main Street, we walked into a church with a huge atrium. Light filtred in, highlighting dust in the air and cracks in the walls. It smelled musty and unused, and I held my breath until we walked outside and into the sunlight, unsure how I’d describe this experience to anyone who hadn’t seen it. Even with the people inside, Heritage USA isn’t a vibrant place; it’s a time capsule overlooking a subdivision. As we drove away, I could see kids riding bikes and parents grilling hamburgers in the neighbouring homes, probably so used to the compound across the lake that they’ve stopped seeing it, this crumbling monument in the distance, not quite empty, but not quite dead.