Get your photos now, but plan to check it out next summer: The Church of All Nations.

The Church of All Nations stadium is being built at the Holy Land Experience.

 ORLANDO – Jane Wilcox can see the people stopping their cars, getting out, and clicking photos of the property she works at. And with so much busy traffic rushing back and forth along Taft-Vineland Road, she sometimes wonders where they manage to park their cars.

“I don’t know how they stop,” she said. “They do seem to stop, though.”

What so many curious visitors have been taking photos of is a property highly visible to anyone who drives along Interstate 4 on a daily basis as they pass by the exit for Conroy Road: the massive stadium being built at the Holy Land Experience.

Construction has been going on all year, although the theme park’s guests will have to wait a little longer before they can check out the new building which will be called The Church of All Nations. It’s expected to be fully operational by early next summer.

Wilcox, the guest services supervisor at Hold Land Experience, said it would be a state of the art auditorium that would double as a high end, high definition television production facility that will air programming nationally and world wide by the Orlando theme park’s owner, Trinity Broadcasting Network.

Although billed as a theme park, Hold Land is different from competitors like Walt Disney World and Universal Studios, which offer thrill rides. Holy Land Experience is a non-profit religious institution, whose central appeal is faith-based. The purpose there isn’t to entertain crowds but to tell the story of Jesus Christ through passion plays and historical reenactments.

In 2007, Trinity Broadcasting Network — which operates a station next door – purchased the park that has theaters with live performances of passion plays twice a day, the largest indoor model of the city of Jerusalem at the time of Christ, talks on Jerusalem at the time of Christ by a Bible scholar team made up of archeologists, and the Scriptorium museum, a center for Bible antiquities, which hosts 60-minute tours of the historic artifacts it holds.  

Trinity Broadcasting Network purchased Holy Land in 2007.

Holy Land also has a children’s section that allows young ones to listen to classic stories from the Bible, plus gift shops and a dining area.

Since Holy Land owns 10 acres across the street and a neighboring industrial park, there have ben expansion plans in the works for years, including the construction of the Church of All Nations amphitheater.

It ‘s expected to resemble a traditional Roman amphitheater that will host evening Christian concerts, theatrical productions, and special events. There are plans in the works for a new “Passion of Christ” dramatization, with Jesus literally ascending on high with the angels, and a “Hell’s Flames and Heaven’s Gates” passion play.

The amphitheater will seat 2,000 people and include a new food court, retail outlets, seating areas and cinema screens.

At the same time, Holy Land is also constructing another new attraction, Wilcox said.

“We do have the Christus Gardens opening soon,” she said. “It’s a devotional walk-through depicting inspirational scenes, like the birth of Christ. It’s not up and running yet, they’re building it now.”

Attendance at Holy Land tends to go up by 25 percent during Christmas time.

Still, Holy Land’s busiest time tends to be around Easter and the holiday season this month, with business rising by 25 percent around Christmas. Wilcox noted that Holy Land hopes to unveil Christus Gardens this month.

“It should be opening before Christmas day – hopefully,” she said.

Holiday Gala helps raise funds for special children, the director says.

LOUGHMAN – There are folks who just can’t contain their excitement when they go to a major theme park like Disney, and act like they’re reliving their childhood all over again.

Then there’s the ones who save up all year to take a theme park vacation, and spend the entire time complaining about the long lines, crowding parking, and ticket prices.

For Rich Mergo, watching one young boy visit Disney recently turned out to an experience he’ll never forget. The boy couldn’t have been happier at the theme park.

“He was the happiest he could be,” Mergo said. “It was great to see him smiling and having fun.” 

Rich Mergo, director of development for the Sunshine Foundation's Dream Village, says their recent holiday gala raised more than $30,000 to help children.

The boy had come to Central Florida to visit the Sunshine Foundation’s Dream Village, where Mergo is the director of development. The Sunshine Foundation is a charitable organization that answers the dreams and wishes of chronically ill, disabled and abused children. This one young boy, though, left a very strong impression on Mergo.

“This little boy was really special,” he said. “He had come down with swine flu, and had both legs amputated on Christmas Eve last year. Since then, he’s been dealing with the depression and trauma of what he went through.”

The boy’s family brought him to Dream Village in the hope that a trip to the local theme parks would allow him to forget, however briefly, the agonizing medical challenges he was facing. And it seemed to work perfectly, Mergo. He was no longer a physically challenged child coping with a tough medical condition, but an excited boy ready to have fun.

“Everyone treated him like a normal kid,” Mergo said. “We let him ride every roller coaster there was. Some theme parks won’t let kids with prosthetics go on roller coasters, but this time they did. And it was great to see him so happy.”

The Dream’s Village recently held its first formal Holiday Gala on Dec. 4 at the Reunion Resort & Club, an event that Mergo said proved to be quite festive, with live and silent auctions for items that included an XBOX 360 with Kinect, round trip airfare on SouthWest Airlines and AirTran Airways, a ride for four people on the GoodYear Blimp, and dinner for two with a Limo ride and tickets to the upcoming Brad Paisley concert at the Amway Center in downtown Orlando.

It was also a fund-raising event for the non-profit agency, with a special Dream Auction that raised $5,000. That amount, Mergo said, was “enough to answer a dream” of another child hoping to visit Disney.

“There were 70-plus auction items, and overall we raised a little over $30,000,” Mergo said. “It was a great first step for us.”

He offered a special thanks to “all the volunteers that helped plan and run the gala. Without their help, this event would not have been possible. It was challenging  …  and turned out really nice.”

The event was attended by several members of the Kissimmee/Osceola County Chamber of Commerce, including Mary Ellen Kerber, who manages the Formosa Gardens shopping plaza on U.S. 192 in Four Corners. Kerber said the gala gave the guests a truly unique opportunity to meet some of the children being helped by Dream Village. Anyone who attended the gala and took part in the auction, she added, knew their support was going to a great cause.

“It really touched our hearts that night,” she said.

Mergo said the “number one dream of the children we serve is to visit the Central Florida theme parks,” and that the folks who supported the gala also helped those kids.

“Since opening 20 years ago, the Dream Village has welcomed over 20,000 special children,” Mergo said.

For more information on the Sunshine Foundation’s Dream Village and its future events, email Mergo at rich@sunshinefoundation.org, call 800-457-1976, or log on to www.sunshinefoundation.org.

Business leaders question the message, delivery behind two sales tax defeats.

CHAMPIONSGATE – For municipal leaders in Osceola and Polk counties, it all seemed to make perfect sense: create a special taxing system to help fund much-needed road improvements and to expand mass ransportation to help people find jobs.

There was just one challenge: county leaders were asking voters to approve ballot referendums to raise taxes for these projects. With the economy still struggling and the unemployment rate stubbornly high, voters in both counties solidly defeated the two referendums, sending elected officials back to the drawing board. Where they go from here is still an open question. 

Cars and trucks zip along U.S. 27 in Polk County, but don't expect to see buses anytime soon in this area near Davenport and ChampionsGate.

Doug Guetzloe, leader of the grassroots anti-tax group Ax the Tax, noted that a third ballot referendum to raise taxes for a rail project also lost in Hillsborogh County, making it three in a row. Ax the Tax was involved in fighting all three referendums, Guetzloe said. 

“We did some direct mail and some robo calls down there in Polk,” he said. “We figured it would go down anyway, but we helped add to that.”

The Polk County referendum would have imposed a half-cent sales surtax to create a single mass transit system that would serve the entire county. It lost solidly, 62 percent to 38 percent.

Tom Harris, a member of the Polk County School Board, said it was proposed because bus systems exist in cities like Lakeland and Winter Haven, but do not reach out to more rural parts of Polk County.

“There’s not a countywide bus system, so it’s real difficult for people in remote areas to get around,” he said.

Creating a bus route that serves all of Polk County, he said, would make it easier for residents to find jobs, regardless of where they live.

“If you solve the transportation issue, you can help solve the economic issue,” Harris said.

Polk County leaders also pushed the referendum because the county’s mass transit systems are now funded by the federal government. But solid population growth in Polk County over the past decade means Polk is now classified by the federal government as an urban county, while the federal transportation funding it gets are intended for smaller, more rural counties.

Harris said Polk’s municipal leaders are looking at the possibility of putting the issue back on the ballot in 2012.

“There is a conversation in Polk County on addressing it two years from now,” he said.

But Guetzloe said the defeat of all three measures should send a pretty loud signal to county commissioners that voters already feel taxed enough and don’t have faith in these proposals.

“Look at Osceola County,” Guetzloe said. “They lost. In Osceola, it was 72 percent again. We had an active Ax the Tax effort down there, too.” 

Doug Guetzloe says Ax the Tax delivered the right message: No new taxes!

Sonny Buoncervello, a Realtor in the Celebration area, said Osceola leaders didn’t get the message out that if voters raised their sales tax, tourists would pay a good share of the tax hike, and that the road improvements are desperately needed.  He noted that the business community actively campaigned against a statewide referendum, Amendment 4, which would have required voter approval before land use plans could be altered to allow more commercial development. Amendment 4 lost statewide in a landslide.

But business leaders were not as vocal in supporting the Osceola road tax, Buoncervello said.

“Amendment 4 had a lot of exposure, and we all knew to vote against it,” he said. “But I don’t think there was a strong enough effort to get the average voter to understand  (the Osceola tax hike referendum). You really had to get into people’s psyches to explain it. I don’t know if we really educated the public that tourists would pay a large share of the tax.”

Gene Terrico is the manager of Street Outdoor-Osceola County, a program founded with the West 192 BeautiVacation Project to address advertising needs along West U.S. 192, from Four Corners to Walt Disney World to Kissimmee. He said while road improvements are needed in Osceola County, the timing of the referendum couldn’t have been worse.

“It was a bad year for a tax,” he said. “No new taxes, it’s a one liner that works. It’s awkward, because I’m not sure there was a listening side to the message. People were just not interested, and that’s the day we live in now.”

Harris said a new law prohibiting elected officials from spending money to promote or defeat a ballot referendum has made it more difficult for county leaders to get out the message about how the tax hike would help the community. That means they have to rely more on private sector supporters to get the message out.

“Legislatively, the landscape has changed,” Harris said. “It kind of ties our hands.”

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