The death of Tammy Faye Messner, self-proclaimed "mother of Christian television," was an occasion for the national news media to review her remarkable career.
Messner, a poor girl from Minnesota, rose to the heights of TV evangelism; suffered a major reversal of fortune when she and her first husband, Jim Bakker, were expelled from their bizarre Garden of Entertainment, Heritage USA; then rebounded as a cable TV celebrity, champion of overdone makeup and heroine to the gay community, before succumbing to cancer.
Her passing led many news outfits to resurrect an old taradiddle about the 2,300-acre complex that hugged the state line not far from Fort Mill. For example, The Charlotte Observer reported: "At its height in 1986, about 6 million people visited Heritage USA for its hotel, shopping mall, rides, Christmas lights and more." The Washington Post described it as a "theme park and hotel compound that once rivaled Disney World." Other respected news organizations, including The Herald, The Los Angeles Times and Religion News Service, repeated similar claims.
The problem? Those reports are untrue.
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Heritage USA never "rivaled" Disney World, nor did the number of people it drew ever approach numbers racked up by, say, Disney Land, Tampa's Busch Gardens or -- dare I say -- Carowinds, the amusement park that's barely a New Testament toss from Heritage USA.
Where the myth of Heritage USA's being a major attraction arose, I can't say, but I suspect it was generated by Bakker and his flacks during one of their frequent flights of fantasy.
Remember, this is the man who went to federal prison for over-promising 150,000 free-room nights to PTL contributors. Since the Heritage Grand Hotel had only about 500 rooms, Bakker pledged more than 80 percent of available-room nights, and that would count winter months when few wanted to visit. Most hotels break even at about 75 percent occupancy; Bakker promised to give away a higher percentage!
No one can satisfactorily explain to me how a complex with so few spaces, including villas, condos and camping spaces, could accommodate 6 million people annually.
For that many visitors to stay the night, Heritage USA would have had to have space for nearly 16,500 to lay their heads -- again assuming visitations could be spread out evenly 365 days a year. In reality, there are only about 2,500 hotel rooms for rent in all of York County today!
Bakker, of course, never claimed that 6 million people SLEPT at Heritage USA, only that the Christian theme park drew that many. His estimate included motorists who drove through the resort to see Christmas decorations during the holiday season.
If so, it's illogical to base Heritage USA's status as a major attraction on such loosey-goosey figures. When Disney World reports attendance, it counts tickets sold. Using Bakker's methods, Carowinds executives could put a traffic counter on I-77 and claim they had surpassed Disney World as the nation's top attraction.
In truth, because Heritage USA didn't charge admission, the estimate of 6 million visitors in 1986 can't be proved or disproved. Bakker just as easily could have chalked up 12 million.
My point is that journalists do a disservice to readers when they perpetuate unsubstantiated claims. How might they avoid such traps? By exercising some skepticism. Anyone who visited Heritage USA in its heyday and who's also familiar with a major tourist attraction should have challenged Bakker's numbers.
For instance, I haven't been to Disney World in decades, but I know the roads leading to the Magic Kingdom are far more plentiful and wider than anything around Heritage USA. Disney World employs an army of attendants to direct cars and transport visitors to the ticket gates; nothing on that scale existed at the old Heritage USA.
Could 6 million people have at least ridden through Heritage USA in a single year? Possibly, but consider this: If the resort's gates were open 12 hours a day and if a fleet of 48-passenger buses operated 365 days a year, to move 6 million visitors would require more than 28 buses every hour.
Anyone recall ever seeing that much traffic leading to the Christian theme park?