Televangelist Morris Cerullo, widely known for his overseas healing crusades and the occasional legal skirmish, now is hoping to cement his spiritual legacy with the help of hologram-filled catacombs, a 20-foot-tall wailing wall and an interactive biblical museum.
More than four years after purchasing a foreclosed Mission Valley hotel, the Pentecostal preacher is banking on faithful followers and religious-minded tourists to flock to a planned Christian-themed resort that will transport them to biblical times — with underground passages reminiscent of Rome and a domed theater outfitted with full-motion seats and sensory effects simulating wind, snow and fog.
The $125-million project, which needs approval from the San Diego City Council, promises to transform the 18-acre site into a tourist destination that could draw as many as 400,000 visitors a year. And according to Cerullo, not all of them will be seeking the Gospel, project leaders said.
"This idea of themed entertainment is going to start reaching into … museums, the waterfront," said Jim Penner, executive director of the Morris Cerullo Legacy Center. "It's a business model. It's just based around religious themes rather than secular themes."
Cerullo is no stranger to religious tourism. In the early 1990s, he sought to salvage a Christian theme park in South Carolina founded — and bankrupted — by disgraced evangelist Jim Bakker. Cerullo's investment turned out to be short-lived, coming to an end after a dispute with his business partners.
Now 84, Cerullo was unavailable to comment on his latest venture. But associates said the San Diego project was conceived, in part, as a vehicle for his teachings long after he is gone.
Lynn Hodge, chief executive of Morris Cerullo World Evangelism, said what Cerullo "doesn't want when he dies is for this ministry to die."
Celebrating his more than six decades of evangelical missions and teachings, the proposed Legacy International Center will serve as Cerullo's headquarters.
Plans for the resort call for 127 time-share units, a spa, a fitness center, and retail and fine dining options. San Diego real estate consultant Gary London, who was hired by Cerullo, said that part of the business could generate $86 million in annual revenue, enough to sustain the entire development.
Cerullo has enlisted an Orange County firm, Visioneering Studios, to bring to life the project's vision for a theater where visitors would experience a 12-minute journey through the Bible — complete with mists of water during the parting of the Red Sea — as well as see Moroccan souks, hang-glide over Israel and explore haunted catacombs.
"Part of our job is to design it for the broadest market possible," said Visioneering President Mel McGowan, a Walt Disney Co. alumnus. "We're not doing our job if this is supposed to be a weird, evangelical mecca."
Though the number of religious-themed attractions is growing — there's the Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Fla., the Creation Museum in Kentucky and Hobby Lobby President Steve Green's $400-million plan for a Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. — they tend to draw a niche audience.
"History has shown with these kinds of projects that they don't really break out beyond the evangelical Christian market," said Robert Niles, editor of Theme Park Insider. "People's fear of proselytizing overrides whatever technology they can throw at you. If you feel there may even be a mild sell, they won't come."
Over a lifetime of ministering, Cerullo has accumulated legions of followers and encountered controversy. He's beaten charges of fraud and tax evasion and been dogged by critics who've challenged claims that his Miracle Crusades have helped the lame to walk and the blind to see.
If the City Council approves Cerullo's plans, the theme park could break ground later this year, with a potential opening in late 2017 or early 2018.
Weisberg writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.