A Theme Park, a Scandal, and the Faded Ruins of a Televangelism Empire
By Emily Johnson | October 28, 2014
If you happen to find yourself on I-77 just south of Charlotte, North Carolina, consider a detour to the crumbling ruins of what used to be the third-most-visited theme park in the United States. Heritage USA was founded in the late 1970s by Pentecostal superstars Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker as part of their ministry, PTL (Praise the Lord, or People that Love). Conceived and built during the rise of the modern religious right, Heritage USA combined the Bakkers’ growing televangelism empire with theme-park hedonism, offering an immersive experience in the sights, sounds, and practices of American conservative evangelicalism.
In its heyday, the “Inspirational Park for the Whole Family” boasted something for everybody. A miniature train carried visitors around the main campus, where activities included tennis, horseback riding, and swimming. In 1986, the Bakkers added a $12-million waterpark that included the world’s largest wave pool and a 52-foot waterslide. Heritage USA also included an extensive campground and R.V. park, timeshares, mid-range and luxury hotels, and even condominiums for PTL supporters—mainly retirees—who wanted to live near the ministry’s headquarters year-round.
Heritage USA’s size made it remarkable—spanning approximately 2,300 acres, it was more than 10 times larger than Disneyland in California and nearly 20 times larger than Disney World’s Magic Kingdom in Florida. But size was not the main feature that set Heritage USA apart from its secular rivals. This getaway spot was intended to be, as one park map put it: “A Special Place for God’s People.” Included among its other attractions were Billy Graham’s boyhood home, a shop that replicated the experience of shopping in a Jerusalem marketplace, and a passion play depicting the life and death of Jesus Christ, with the aid of light-show special effects.
Another major draw was the park’s life-size version of the Upper Room, which Christians believe was the site of both the Last Supper and the Pentecost (when the early disciples first received the Holy Spirit and found themselves able to speak in many tongues). Like the Jerusalem shop, the Upper Room offered a curated version of the Holy Land for Christians unable to or uninterested in travelling to the Middle East. In fact, Jim Bakker expressed his hope in 1986 that the park would one day include a “full-scale replica of Jerusalem as it was in the time of Jesus.”
But these attractions weren’t intended to be mere facsimiles. In promotional literature and on their television programs, the Bakkers described the Upper Room as a pilgrimage site in itself. They shared the testimonials of people who had received spiritual and even physical healing by praying in the Upper Room, or even by having someone else pray for them there. “Michelle was unable to afford a lengthy hospital stay,” one report began, but luckily she “knew of a physician who worked for free and was on call 24 hours a day.” Prayer in the Upper Room reportedly healed Michelle’s foot; it also saved people “from the brink of suicide” and “delivered [a man] from the practice of witchcraft” one Halloween night. The room was open and staffed by PTL pastors 24 hours a day. And for those unable to visit in person, the lower level housed PTL’s International Prayer Phone Center, where volunteers answered calls and prayed for believers around the clock. Within a year of opening, the Upper Room had its own show on the PTL television network that invited viewers to call in to share their prayer requests and testimonies. In this way, the Bakkers’ theme park and their media enterprise readily supported one another. The Upper Room provided content for PTL’s television programming, and PTL broadcasts advertised the Upper Room to potential visitors.
Heritage USA—as a part of the Bakkers’ broader ministry—offered visitors a very specific brand of Christian devotion and spectacle. During the 1980s, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker were among the most prominent examples of a reinvigorated prosperity gospel. (Interested readers should pick up a copy of Kate Bowler’s book Blessed for an in-depth analysis of this fascinating movement). Often derided as “health and wealth” theology, prosperity gospel ran through the Bakkers’ ministry, from their promises of divine healing to their own conspicuous consumption and flashy lifestyles. During a historical moment in which more and more Pentecostal believers were climbing into the middle class, the over-the-top experience of Heritage USA helped to reinforce the message of a new Pentecostalism. Far from banning makeup, soda, and leisure activities as their forebears had, this new generation embraced some measure of self-indulgence and they gave it Christian outlets, including a theme park. The Heritage Herald, a weekly newspaper published for visitors to the park, emphasized earthly pleasures like dining and shopping alongside testimonials about spiritual healing and renewal.
Believers who chose to vacation or even to live at the park were drawn in part by the opportunity to become a part of the Bakkers’ world. Guests were almost certain to be able to see the Bakkers in person by attending any number of live tapings throughout the day. By the mid-1980s, the PTL Satellite Network was broadcasting 24 hours a day. Many programs—from talk and variety shows to televised church services and Bible studies—required studio audiences, which were made up of Heritage USA visitors and residents. A visit to Heritage USA offered fans the opportunity to become a very real part of the shows that they were accustomed to watching at home.
The Heritage USA campus was also home to several of PTL’s other ministries, including Bible study retreats and Christian counseling services that were open to visitors. Supporters who had donated to any (or many) of PTL’s ongoing fund-drives could benefit from these services, but they could also come to see their money at work and to be reassured that their dollars were doing good. Park guests were also encouraged to spend part of their vacation time volunteering for the ministry in order to help “save the ministry thousands of dollars a year which can then be spent on other PTL ventures such as world missions.” And for those who wanted a more direct return on their investment in the ministry, PTL “lifetime partnerships” (offered for donations of $1,000 or more) promised three free nights annually at the Heritage Grand Hotel.
As much as Heritage USA offered a specific version of Christianity, it also demonstrated a particular vision for America, intertwining Christian and patriotic themes to the point that they were inseparable. Though Heritage USA was a centrally religious venture, its name did not directly evoke religion or even the PTL ministry. Instead, it called out to the nation and its past. The park itself was a pastiche of iconic Americana, from “Fort Heritage” to a stylized “Main Street” lined with pastel restaurants and old-timey shops, including Susie’s Ice Cream Parlor, the Noah’s Ark Toy Shoppe, and a “General Store.”
These features were not unique to this park—consider, for example, the Magic Kingdom’s “Frontierland” and “Main Street, USA”—but their inclusion in a religious theme park should not be taken for granted. Heritage USA exhibited a particular fusion of religious and national symbols that was becoming widespread in conservative Protestant theologies at the time, even within ministries that did not make political activism a central concern. Appeals to an idealized American past relied on the same assumptions about national decline that were fundamental to the religious right, and places like Heritage USA demonstrated what the nation could be if it returned to its moral, Protestant roots. It is not surprising, then, that the Heritage Passion Play had its opening day on July 4, 1984—one facet of the park’s annual Independence Day celebrations that year.
Less than three years later, a scandal broke that would spell the beginning of the end for PTL and Heritage USA. In March of 1987, The Charlotte Observer was finally able prove the persistent rumors that Jim Bakker had had a sexual liaison with a young woman named Jessica Hahn seven years earlier. More than that, he had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in PTL funds to buy Hahn’s silence during the intervening time. On March 19, the Bakkers stepped back from PTL and bestowed interim leadership to Jerry Falwell. Once at the helm, Falwell fanned the flames of controversy. Working with other prominent evangelists, he opened a broader inquiry into moral and financial misdeeds within PTL and added new allegations to a rapidly growing list.
In 1988, following a 16-month federal investigation, Jim Bakker was indicted on a total of twenty-four charges related to the ministry’s financial dealings, including 15 counts of wire fraud, eight counts of mail fraud, and one count of conspiracy. He was convicted on all counts and sentenced to 45 years in prison, though he ultimately served a little more than five years.
While the scandal captivated national and international media attention, Heritage USA became emblematic of the excesses of contemporary television ministers. For detractors, the park’s amenities stood alongside the Bakkers’ mansions and air-conditioned doghouse as evidence that their focus had never really been on God, but on money. One of the most iconic images of the Bakkers’ ouster from PTL was the widely published photograph of Jerry Falwell zooming down the park’s enormous waterslide, fully dressed in a business suit and tie.
The park’s financing was also central in the federal case against Jim. Internal memos revealed that although the ministry had raised more than double the money needed for a new hotel called Heritage Towers, the hotel had not been completed, and more money was still being solicited. Money donated specifically to Heritage USA had been diverted to other things, including high salaries and generous bonuses for the Bakkers and PTL board members. The ministry had also sold so many lifetime partnerships that if every eligible person claimed his or her three free nights at Heritage USA, the park would not have been able to accommodate them all.
In the decades since the PTL scandal, the Heritage USA property has been at the center of several legal battles and failed plans. In 1988, the new executives at PTL hoped that Charlotte Hornets owner George Shinn would buy the land to build a new professional sports complex. When that deal fell through, the Bakkers bid $165 million on the property but missed a critical deposit deadline and lost the opportunity to continue negotiations. Other potential buyers emerged during that year, but each of them also failed to meet the conditions of sale.
In 1991, the Pentecostal evangelist Morris Cerullo bought the property and attempted to reinvigorate both the Christian theme park and the televangelical network, but a disagreement between Cerullo and his investors eventually led to Cerullo’s ouster from the venture. A secular iteration of the resort run by Radisson Hotels was ultimately unsuccessful.
To see what remains of the park today, interested explorers can take exit 90 off I-77 in South Carolina. Driving southeast on Carrowinds Boulevard for a mile, you will pass subdivisions and townhouses that have sprouted up on much of Heritage USA’s former 2,300 acres, courtesy of a local real estate developer. Pass by the refurbished golf course and stop a moment to notice the brass-capped pyramid that once held PTL’s main offices as well as the PTL World Outreach Center. It is now the U.S. headquarters of Welsh textile company Laura Ashley, a fully owned subsidiary of the Malaysian MUI Group.
You will eventually come to a crumbling parking lot, with the still-unfinished Heritage Grand Towers ahead of you and the remains of Heritage USA on your left, bordered by a chain-link fence and overgrown with weeds. If you peer through the fence, you can see the lake that sat at the center of the park and you can make out the island on which the Heritage USA waterpark stood. You are unfortunately too late to see the fiberglass “King’s Castle” that had become emblematic of the park’s excesses. Intended by Jim Bakker to be the world’s largest Wendy’s restaurant, it was eventually repurposed as a go-cart track but was demolished last year.
Across the parking lot and behind the Towers, in the building that was once the Heritage Grand Hotel, you will find a burgeoning evangelical ministry that in some ways resembles the vision of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. Rick and Julie Joyner founded MorningStar Ministries in 1985 and began buying former Heritage USA properties in 2004. What was once the Heritage Grand Hotel is now the headquarters of their sizeable ministry, which includes regular church services as well as conferences and retreats, a K-12 school and a university, an online television broadcast, and targeted ministries for men, women, youth, and children as well as those interested in particular spiritual gifts including healing and prophesy. The Joyners are currently involved in a legal battle over the right to finish and restore the Heritage Grand Towers. But while they envision a Christian retirement community adjacent to the MorningStar church, many in the Fort Mill area are desperate to see the deteriorating towers torn down.
The Joyners are not the only ones to have reclaimed pieces of the park for evangelical purposes. In late 2010, local Christian concert promoter Russell James reopened the Upper Room, which is once again staffed by volunteers and open for prayer on weekends. The Billy Graham boyhood home is now a part of the Billy Graham Library site in Fort Mill, which also houses museum exhibits, “Ruth’s Attic Bookstore,” and the “Graham Brothers Dairy Bar.”
Tammy Faye Bakker died in 2007, but Jim Bakker now leads a new televangelist ministry based in Branson, Missouri. That town has become a center of kitschy Christian tourism in itself (explored in-depth in Aaron K. Ketchell’s Holy Hills of the Ozarks), and a powerful reminder that the spirit of religious tourism is alive and well in the United States. Indeed, even if you don’t find yourself driving down I-77, just south of Charlotte, chances are you’re not far away from a vacation spot brimming with religious sights. Heritage USA did not survive, but its ruins are a persistent reminder of an important era in American religious history—and of the ways in which the country’s landscape is marked by the legacies of this changing but still-popular brand of Christian Americana.
Emily Johnson is a lecturer in religious studies at the University of Tennessee. She recently completed her doctorate in history at Yale University, where she wrote a dissertation entitled “Activists, Authors, Apostles: Women’s Leadership and the New Christian Right.”
Writers tell us stories about where they discovered religion and politics in their states.
A setting to debate the issues of the day.