Frankfort, Ky. – The biblical wooden ship built to weather a worldwide flood was 500 feet long and about 80 feet high, according to Answers in Genesis, a Christian ministry devoted to a literal telling of the Old Testament.
This modern ark, to be nestled on a plot of 800 acres of rolling Kentucky farmland, isn't designed to rescue the world's creatures from a coming deluge. It's to tell the world that the Bible's legendary flood story was not a fable, but a part of human history.
"The message here is, God's word is true," said Mike Zovath, project manager of the ark. "There's a lot of doubt: 'Could Noah have built a boat this big, could he have put all the animals on the boat?' Those are questions people all over the country ask."
The ark will be the centerpiece of a proposed $155 million religious theme park, called the Ark Encounter, and will include other biblical icons like the Tower of Babel and an old world-style village.
It's an expansion of the ministry's first major public attraction, the controversial Creation Museum. It opened in 2007 and attracted worldwide attention for presenting stories from the Bible as historical fact, challenging evolution and asserting that the earth was created about 6,000 years ago.
"The ark is really a different approach" than the museum, Zovath said. "It's really not about creation-evolution, it's about the authority of the Bible starting with the ark account in Genesis."
Inside the ark's headquarters in Hebron, a small team of artists and designers are working on the visuals at the new park, but once the project begins early next year, there will be hundreds at the creation, including a team of Amish builders from Indiana who will erect the giant ark. Many of the same people who helped design the museum are on board for the ark project, including Patrick Marsh, who helped build some of the attractions at Universal Studios in Florida.
Zovath said the ark will have old-world details, like wooden pegs instead of nails, straight-sawed timbers and plenty of animals - some alive, some robotic like The Creation Museum's dinosaurs. He said it has not yet been determined how many live animals will be in the boat during visiting hours, but the majority will be stuffed or animatronic. At their count, Noah had anywhere from 2,000 to 4,000 on board.
There are a handful of replica arks around the world, but Zovath said this one will be authentic inside and out.
"When you get to walk through the boat and see how big this thing really was, and how many cages were there, and how much room there was for food and water … our hope is people start seeing that this is plausible, that the account could be believed," Zovath said.
A longtime critic of the Answers in Genesis ministry argues the attraction will bring in converts to creationism by challenging scientific findings about the world's history.
"Many think that since creationism is so irrational and so unscientific that nobody really could believe it, but that's not so," said Edwin Kagin, a lawyer in northern Kentucky who is president of a nationwide atheist group. The new park will be "so slick and so well done, you can get people to believe in anything. Creationism, when you're ready to believe anything."
The Ark Encounter won't be the nation's first theme park inspired by the Bible, or the first with Noah's big boat. A park in tourism-rich Orlando, Fla., features a portrayal of the crucifixion by actors six days a week, along with Jesus' resurrection and gospel concerts. The Holy Land Experience opened in 2001, but the nonprofit park struggled with debt before it was taken over by Trinity Broadcasting Network in 2007.
Other replicas of Noah's famous ship have been built around the world.
A huge fiberglass ark sits at the center of a Hong Kong Noah's Ark attraction, and another floating ark in the Netherlands is being built by a Dutch man, who wants to sail it to London for the 2012 Olympic games. Closer to home, a church in Frostburg, Md., is building a to-scale ark supported by a steel frame.
But attractions with religious themes can be a risky venture, according to an amusement park expert.
"In some ways it's a two-edged sword: If you go for the religious market, you already have something that is somewhat unique in the market, and that particular market is known to be willing to make a special effort, to drive an extra distance, to get the church groups to go out and make a special outing," said John Gerner, managing director of Leisure Business Advisors of Richmond, Va.
"The problem with that approach is you always risk bordering on being disrespectful if not sacrilegious," Gerner said. "There is a line as far as what you can do in this approach."
Some in the state hope it will be a major attraction. A feasibility study on the Ark Encounter declared that the park would attract 1.6 million visitors in its first year, Zovath said. The smaller Creation Museum has attracted well over a million people since it opened four years ago.
State officials are banking on the park's success and the 900 jobs it is expected to create, by making the project eligible for more than $40 million in sales tax rebates if the Ark Encounter hits its attendance marks.
Tying state incentives to a religious theme park has also attracted some criticism, though notably less than The Creation Museum, which received no state support. That facility was built on private donations.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington-based group, has said the park would run afoul of constitutional law.
"Noah didn't get government help when he built the first ark, and the fundamentalist ministry behind the Kentucky replica shouldn't either," the group said in a statement. But so far they have taken no legal action.
Kagin said challenging the project in court would likely be a losing battle because of the way the tax incentives are structured.
"The legislation is so drafted that they will give this incentive to any organization that is going to increase tourism in Kentucky," Kagin said. "And there's no question whatsoever that this group will."
Zovath said construction on the ark is expected to begin in the spring.