The Ark Encounter site in Kentucky is bigger than Disneyland and still growing

Creationism, it turns out, is big business.

It's been 15 years since Answers in Genesis opened the Creation Museum and 6 years since it opened its Noah's Ark-themed park, both in Northern Kentucky.

Now Ken Ham, CEO and founder of Answers in Genesis, says by 2024 he's expecting to open the next big attraction – the largest indoor model of Christ-era Jerusalem in the world. And after that? A model of the Tower of Babel, complete with an amusement-park style ride.

"It'd be sort of like – if you've been to [the] Haunted Mansion in Disney, how you sit in those seats and it takes you to various sections – it'd be sort of like that and you go through various exhibits," Ham said.

A view of the 510-foot-long replica of Noah's Ark at Ark Encounter in Williamstown, Ky., on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022. Answers in Genesis has created two attractions with Ark Encounter and the Creation Museum. Ken Ham, Answers in Genesis CEO and founder, said the plan is to expand the attraction by adding a replica of the Tower of Babel and an indoor model of what Jerusalem may have looked like at the time of Jesus Christ.
A view of the 510-foot-long replica of Noah's Ark at Ark Encounter in Williamstown, Ky., on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022. Answers in Genesis has created two attractions with Ark Encounter and the Creation Museum. Ken Ham, Answers in Genesis CEO and founder, said the plan is to expand the attraction by adding a replica of the Tower of Babel and an indoor model of what Jerusalem may have looked like at the time of Jesus Christ.

Answers in Genesis is so big now that it plans to move its headquarters into what was once Toyota's North American engineering headquarters in Northern Kentucky. Answers in Genesis is the umbrella non-profit that presides over the Ark Experience in Williamstown and the Creation Museum in Petersburg, which are for-profit entities.

Construction on a Welcome Center to house the 2,000 square-foot model will likely begin this spring, and will include efforts to redo the entrance to the Ark Encounter.

The Ark Encounter is bigger than Disneyland. At 800 acres, it dwarfs the 500-acre park in California, though not all of it is developed yet. The re-creation of Noah's Ark is one of the biggest tourism draws in Northern Kentucky, bringing in about 1.5 million people per year, the organization says.

Ken Ham, Answers in Genesis CEO and founder, stands inside his office at Ark Encounter in Williamstown, Ky., on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022. Answers in Genesis has created two attractions with Ark Encounter and the Creation Museum. Ham said his organization plans on expanding the attraction by adding a replica of the Tower of Babel and an indoor model of what Jerusalem may have looked like at the time of Jesus Christ.
Ken Ham, Answers in Genesis CEO and founder, stands inside his office at Ark Encounter in Williamstown, Ky., on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022. Answers in Genesis has created two attractions with Ark Encounter and the Creation Museum. Ham said his organization plans on expanding the attraction by adding a replica of the Tower of Babel and an indoor model of what Jerusalem may have looked like at the time of Jesus Christ.

Christmas lights and hydroponic farming

This year, the ark's annual Christmas display has an additional feature: a heated indoor petting zoo area.

That's in addition to a light display, which Ham says rivals the Cincinnati Zoo's PNC Festival of Lights. There will also be an animated show on a 70-foot LED screen, concerts, and singalongs.

By next year, a walkable, netted bird aviary will be added to the zoo area. The Creation Museum, located about 40 minutes north of the ark, is adding a butterfly house.

"We try to do something at both places new every year, and upgrade every year. ... it always helps to add things new," he said.

Away from the tourist areas, hydroponic gardens are thriving and a soon-to-be opened 100-bed dormitory will house high school or college-aged workers during peak spring and summer seasons.

A view of one of the residential dorms for seasonal workers at the Ark Encounter in Williamstown, Ky., on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022. Answers in Genesis has created two attractions with Ark Encounter and the Creation Museum. Ken Ham, Answers in Genesis CEO and founder, said the organization plans on expanding the attraction by adding a replica of the Tower of Babel and an indoor model of what Jerusalem may have looked like at the time of Jesus Christ. The expansion also includes more housing for workers.
A view of one of the residential dorms for seasonal workers at the Ark Encounter in Williamstown, Ky., on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022. Answers in Genesis has created two attractions with Ark Encounter and the Creation Museum. Ken Ham, Answers in Genesis CEO and founder, said the organization plans on expanding the attraction by adding a replica of the Tower of Babel and an indoor model of what Jerusalem may have looked like at the time of Jesus Christ. The expansion also includes more housing for workers.

The hydroponic garden produces 130 heads of romaine lettuce every day, which helps feed the animals at the petting zoo. The gardens also produce plants for the Creation Museum and the ark landscape. It's all done in greenhouses with fish excrement helping to fuel nutrients plants need.

The former Toyota headquarters in Erlanger, which Answers in Genesis bought for $31 million, will become the hub of Answers in Genesis's global teaching and training facility. It will also become a K-12 school, Answers Academy, which could accommodate 450 to 500 students.

Ham said in a news release that the purchase of the 205,000-square-foot building would save the organization millions of dollars in the long run.

“Overall, this facility will provide a home for Answers Academy without having to build a major school complex. It will also house our general offices including our Answers.TV streaming platform service, the growing curriculum and graphics art divisions, our Embark training program facilities, and much more. As a result, we will be able to expand the Creation Museum into the current office space without the need for erecting additional buildings," he wrote.

The Ark Encounter's most recent master plan shows the ideas for expansion on the 800-acre property in Williamstown, Ky..
The Ark Encounter's most recent master plan shows the ideas for expansion on the 800-acre property in Williamstown, Ky..

What does all this growth mean for tourism?

Hundreds of people – from young children to grandparents – crowded at the ticket booth at the Ark Encounter in September. It was sunny, but unseasonably cold for late September. But parkgoers didn't mind.

Cynthia Hampson, a teacher from South Merrimack Christian Academy in New Hampshire, later said she and six chaperones took buses to the ark with 41 eighth and ninth graders.

"The ark is amazing. You hear about the size of it, but until you can see it in person, you just can't grasp how enormous it is and how great it is and seeing everything inside," she said.

The ark is one of the largest free-standing timber structures in the world at 510 feet long, 85 feet wide and 51 feet high.

The Creation Museum opened in 2007 and its counterpart, The Ark Encounter, opened in 2016.

About 600 full-time workers are employed at Answers in Genesis and the two attractions. There are an additional 600 part-time workers during peak seasons in late spring and through the summer.

The Ark Encounter has brought millions of tourists to the area since it opened in 2016.

Julie Kirkpatrick, president and CEO for meetNKY, said hotel demand in Northern Kentucky went up 20% within the first three years of the ark's operation.

Typically, she says locations see a 2-3% increase in that kind of time frame, which is how they know it's demand created by the ark.

In Florence, Kirkpatrick said seven hotels have opened since 2017, which she attributes to a combination of the ark, Interstate 75, and Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport growth. The northern Kentucky riverfront, by comparison, has had one hotel open during that timeframe, she said.

While meetNKY has not conducted a full economic impact study of the ark, Kirkpatrick says visitor studies show that the ark has a broad draw when it comes to bringing tourists to the area.

"If you look at visitation from NKY as a whole, our biggest demand cities are Lexington, Louisville, Indy, Columbus and Cincy, as well. But the ark visitor comes from much further away – Atlanta, Birmingham, Charlotte, Texas, Oklahoma," she said in an email.

The ark sparks controversy

The ark has gotten grief for teaching young-earth theories, claiming the planet is only 6,000 years old. It also suggests dinosaurs lived at the same time as humans. Replicas of dinosaurs appear in enclosures alongside sloths and deer species on the ark.

Mainstream science does not support those ideas. The prevailing evidence is that the Earth is more than 4 billion years old and dinosaurs went extinct nearly 65 million years before humans.

People stand next to a work of art depicting the covenant made between God and Noah in the Book of Genesis at Ark Encounters in Williamstown, Ky. The Ark Encounter features a 510-foot-long replica of Noah's Ark.
People stand next to a work of art depicting the covenant made between God and Noah in the Book of Genesis at Ark Encounters in Williamstown, Ky. The Ark Encounter features a 510-foot-long replica of Noah's Ark.

There's also the issue of the ark getting an $18 million tourism tax incentive. Former Gov. Steve Beshear's administration tried to take the tax break away from the organization because of its hiring practices, the Courier Journal reported.

Prospective employees are required to confirm a statement of faith, which demands unmarried workers abstain from sexual intercourse and a barrage of anti-gay and anti-transgender policies.

Answers in Genesis sued the state in 2016 to get the tax incentive and later won the lawsuit, the Courier Journal report.

Ham says the controversy around Answers in Genesis is primarily raised by people who are out to attack the organization.

He says the ark took advantage of tax incentives from the state in the same way other businesses take advantage of tax incentives, and it's discrimination to deny the ark that money because it's a Christian business.

"Originally, we were looking at [building in] Ohio, or Indiana and, because of the tourism tax rebate, that's why we decided to build it here: because it helps us over 10 years, a little bit, to get some of that capital cost back," he said.

Kirkpatrick says the teachings from Answers in Genesis may be controversial to some, but nearly everything can be debated.

"We also market our bourbon industry and sometimes that generates issues or our regional racinos or concerts. The Ark is a premier visitor attraction that happens to have a great family and faith-based message. I get at least one phone call a week disappointed when we run bourbon ads or upset with something in politics in our state they do not agree with."

She says people should be able to plan their trips based on their interests and the region will "welcome them with true southern Hospitality."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ark Encounter company Answers in Genesis park northern Kentucky