Wednesday, May 28, 2008
In the summer of 1988 I returned to Heritage USA to work at Recreation Village. I worked with a good group of people and my boss was absolutely fantastic. Jim Bakker was about to be indicted and Jerry Falwell had declared bankruptcy. The place was a shattered mess financially, but the park went on almost as if nothing had happened.
My main duty was driving the miniature train around the park and giving a tour to the people visiting. My tour was mostly ad-lib. Once when riding with my supervisor I said something about how this used to be a great place before Jim Bakker pissed it away. My supervisor was shocked, of course, and I pointed to the intercom which was turned off. Still, it was true. We were all cynical about it at that point.
I also rented bikes, worked at the pool/golf shop selling snacks and rounds of putt-putt, the antique cars, and a few other miscellaneous things. It was an easy job. I loved being outside and having the whole park to roam. The trams were still running, but usually I walked or took a bike during my lunch break and just explored.
Most of the regular employees like me left after the summer to start college. I stayed. I still had my senior year and besides, I liked it there. I worked driving the train on a limited schedule and later, when it neared winter I helped put up Christmas lights for Christmas City. The show still went on, even after everyone had left.
I also worked in the hotel at the Concierge desk selling tickets to the dinner theater. When it was cold my supervisor would stop the train outside and blow the whistle. I'd switch places with him so he could warm up a bit. The lights at night on the lake were beautiful and I'd drive slowly to keep the wind from freezing all of us. Even with the cold we always had a packed train during Christmas City.
Cars would line up outside the park almost back to I-77 for hours and pay a few dollars to drive through to see the lights. It was a pain for us locals.
Eventually the place shut down, or at least recreation village did and we were all laid off. I think the hotel kept running for several more years under new management after the bankruptcy. For a while it was managed by Radisson Hotels. Here's a map to show you how big the place was.
I tried to visit again when I was in college, but I was turned away at the front entrance. The gate at the back entrance was locked. Eventually I forgot about the place as I went on with my life.
I saw an interview with Jim Bakker back in 96 on 20/20 and I was actually convinced that he'd changed, that he was more humble, and that he wouldn't try the same things again. I was wrong.
When I saw he was preaching again in Branson, MO, I wondered what had happened to Heritage. I looked around and found Standing But Not Operating and a few other sites. It was only looking through the pictures again that I felt a pang of nostalgia. It's sad what happened with the place, but I kind of like the idea of it rotting away. It was a monument to the monstrous fraud of religion and maybe still a warning to those who would try to cheat people in the same way again.
PTL was not the only place to take advantage of people in the name of religion. It's still widespread. But it's perhaps the most notorious.
The rotting structures have mostly been replaced by residential homes in the last few years and the blight has mostly faded or been forgotten. The cycle has begun again.
Read the other parts of my story