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The Spiritual South

Reading the Bible is one thing. Experiencing it is another.

From walking through a replica of Noah’s Ark to exploring ancient life in the Holy Land or seeing the Passion story enacted on a grand scale, groups can immerse themselves in the history and heritage of Bible stories that form the foundation of Christian faith, right in the heart of America’s South.

If your group hasn’t already visited these marquee faith-based attractions in the South, it’s time to plan a trip.

Ark Encounter

Williamstown, Kentucky

Built in 2016, Kentucky’s Ark Encounter features a full-size replica Noah’s Ark that is more than 500 feet long and soars more than 50 feet in the air, faithful to the dimensions in the biblical account.

The ark is stunning in its scale and the largest timber-frame structure in the world. There’s plenty to see inside as well, with three floors featuring dozens of educational exhibits that tell the biblical story of Noah and the ark’s creation.

Answers in Genesis, the organization behind the creation of the Ark Encounter, also operates the Creation Museum, a sister attraction in nearby Petersburg, Kentucky, less than an hour’s drive away. Many groups opt to tour both attractions during their visit to the area, since combination tickets are available.

“The real focus for Answers in Genesis is to proclaim and defend the authority of God’s word and the Gospel from the very first verse, and that’s exactly what happens at both attractions,” said Patrick Kanewske, Answers in Genesis’ director of ministry and media relations.

Coming this spring to the Ark Encounter is a new 2,500-seat auditorium called the Answers Center that will accommodate large groups, speakers, concerts and more.

Many groups take advantage of the overnight stay option, available at both the Ark Encounter and the Creation Museum every night except Saturday. “Groups come with their own bedding, and our staff leads them in a scavenger hunt and games, as well as a movie, snack and behind-the-scenes tours,” Kanewske said. “And in the morning, breakfast is included. It’s hugely popular.”

Biblical History Center

LaGrange, Georgia

At Georgia’s Biblical History Center, travelers can explore life as it might have been in the ancient Middle East, from the day-to-day duties of a shepherd or a farmer to the bustle of a busy market street.

In the Archaeological Replica Garden tour, groups will see full-scale, authentic reconstructions of more than 20 structures of the ancient world, from millstones, olive presses and city gates to historically accurate tombs from the Old Testament and New Testament periods.

Exhibits also feature more than 250 artifacts on loan from the Israeli Antiquity Authority, items like Stone Age tools and Iron Age pottery, which are displayed in lifelike settings.

“We are really just about bringing to life the history and culture of the time period so that our visitors may better understand their own faith practice, whatever that may be,” said Holly Winner, the center’s director of development and marketing.

Costumed docents are available to guide groups through the Garden, offering an engaging trip back in time. Exhibits here are meant to be touched and explored.

“You can feel the stone,” Winner said. “We put you in the sheep fold. We’re all about immersing you in the experience.”

While there, many guests also opt to take part in the Biblical Meal experience, which offers an educational overview of ancient meal practices such as displayed in Passover and the Last Supper, along with the opportunity to enjoy a four-course meal that features more than a dozen foods.

“Participants do not leave hungry,” Winner said. “They leave with full bellies and a new appreciation for ancient foods.”

Great Passion Play

Eureka Springs, Arkansas

You know the story of Jesus’s last days on earth, but seeing it played out by a cast of 150 costumed actors in a 4,000-seat outdoor amphitheater in Arkansas’ Ozark Mountains is the type of experience you don’t forget.

“I remember the first time I saw the play, as a 6-year-old child,” said Kent Butler, an actor in and director of operations for the Great Passion Play. “I can vividly remember certain scenes and exactly where I was sitting. The sheer spectacle of the performance is what people are enamored by. The scale of it makes you feel as if you’re observing the biblical events as they happened.”

The play is performed on select nights from May through October, with additional performances during Holy Weekend in April. On weekends from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day, guests can enjoy an elaborate Christmas light display on the property.

The grounds are open year-round and provide access to the famous Christ of the Ozarks statue, a Bible Museum and a Sacred Arts Museum. Visitors can also enjoy the Holy Land Tour, an interactive re-creation of the people and places of the ancient Middle East, as well as other faith-based attractions.

Since its launch in 1968, more than 7.9 million visitors have attended the Great Passion Play, with each generation’s production of the drama more spectacular than the last.

“Over the past few years, we’ve added a lot of special effects,” Butler said. “The Resurrection scene has intense sound effects, as well as special effects with lighting and pyrotechnics that are not performed anywhere else in the world. People are just so in awe, you can hear audible gasps from the audience.”

Holy Land Experience

Orlando, Florida

The Holy Land Experience is an entirely different kind of Orlando, Florida, theme park, one where stories from the Bible come to life.

The park’s highlight attraction is a live stage production performed in its 2,000-seat Church of All Nations auditorium. A new marquee drama is showcased each year; this year’s feature is “The Empire and the Kingdom,” which follows Peter as he journeys to Rome to encourage early Christians facing persecution.

Additional live dramas are performed at other smaller theaters and sites across the property throughout the day. This season’s more intimate stage productions tell the stories of Maria Magdalena, Simeon, Lazarus and other early believers.

“When you’re watching the shows, your heart is going to be moved,” said Sherri Patko, sales manager for the Holy Land Experience. “They’re just so impactful.”

In addition to theatrical performances, guests can enjoy an array of exhibits, including the Wilderness Tabernacle and the Scriptorium, where the Van Kampen Collection — one of the world’s largest private collections of rare Bibles, scrolls, biblical artifacts, and religious manuscripts — is now on display.

The park is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and two-day tickets are available. To see everything in the park, allocate roughly a day and a half, Patko said.

“Even though we’re a smaller park than Disney or Universal, we have things to keep visitors entertained and active throughout their stay,” Patko said. “When people arrive, they’re just blown away by the quality of our attractions and the inspirational content that we have here.”

Billy Graham Library

Charlotte, North Carolina

The Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, North Carolina, is a tribute to Graham’s life and ministry work. But it’s also a place where that ministry continues on.

Opened in 2001 and set on 20 acres, the library’s main attraction is its “Journey of Faith” exhibit, housed in a 40,000-square-foot building that resembles a barn, a homage to Graham’s early days as a farm boy. Featuring multimedia displays, interactive kiosks, and rare photos and personal memorabilia, “Journey of Faith” showcases Graham’s path to find and solidify his faith and become one of the most influential Christian ministers in modern history.

While on-site, guests can also tour the Graham Family Homeplace, where Graham lived as a boy. The home was meticulously preserved and reconstructed on the Billy Graham Library campus after it was moved from its original location about four miles away.

The Library’s Memorial Prayer Garden offers guests the chance for prayerful reflection in a peaceful setting near the burial sites of Billy Graham and his wife, Ruth Bell Graham.

Tours of the library are typically self-guided and take about two hours.

“The library tells a story of the 70-plus years of Billy Graham’s life and ministry,” said Melanie McIntyre, communications manager for the Billy Graham Library. “We are a tourist attraction, but we’re also a ministry. Ministry happens every day here.”

The library’s team of dedicated volunteers are available to minister to visitors as needed. “Lots of times, when people finish the tour, their hearts are tender, and they may feel ready to dedicate their lives to Christ; and our volunteers are here to pray with them for whatever they may be dealing with,” McIntyre said.