Inside Mission Valley’s Legacy International Center religious resort
Televangelist opens his Bible-themed attraction — from wailing wall and catacombs to luxury lodging
The golden-hued limestone facade rising above the freeway in Mission Valley came straight from a century-old quarry in Israel. The domed motion-seat theater, housed within the meandering 18-acre resort, draws inspiration from Disney alums.
And those dancing, multi-colored fountains at the project’s front door? Their muse was the now-iconic Bellagio water show in Vegas.
Welcome to Legacy International Center, a $190 million Bible-themed resort rooted in a vision that 88-year-old pentecostal preacher Morris Cerullo says was handed down by God. Widely known for his overseas crusades and worldwide ministering for the last 70 years, the longtime televangelist has relocated the headquarters of Morris Cerullo World Evangelism to the retreat. The project was built debt-free, financed with a combination of donations from thousands of Cerullo’s followers and proceeds from the sale of ministry assets, including the organization’s former offices on Aero Ct.
An intriguing high-tech mash-up of religious-themed attractions, museum-quality exhibits, meeting space, and luxury lodging, Cerullo’s Legacy center will make its public debut on Saturday as part of a grandiose Christmas tree-lighting ceremony choreographed with digital LED lights, holiday music and illuminated, 30-foot-tall fountains. Much of the resort, though, including mural-lined catacombs, an interactive world globe, the dome theater, and a 126-room hotel, will be off-limits until February.
Seven years in the making, the Legacy center, located on Hotel Circle South, marks a dramatic transformation of a once nondescript site off Interstate 8 that had been home to a ‘60s-era motel, a gym and mini-mart. The now striking complex of low-rise stone and glass buildings that have taken shape over the last two years holds the promise of drawing tourists to an area that has traditionally been more of a way station for visitors heading to attractions outside Mission Valley.
“Historically, Mission Valley has been a place where families go to stay on the cheap while you take your kids to SeaWorld and the zoo, and this project is changing all that,” said land-use consultant Gary London, who worked with the Cerullo organization very early on to assess the feasibility of the hotel portion of the project. “This is such a departure from the usual project for this area, and it’s not just an architectural upgrade but a land-use upgrade.
“The jury is out, though, on to what extent people outside the evangelical community will find this interesting, but it does tell the story of the old religious world, which makes it an interesting project.”
Religious-themed attractions, while not common, have had mixed success over the years. Among those currently operating are the Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Fla.; the Creation Museum in Kentucky; and the Ark Encounter, a Christian evangelical theme park, also in Kentucky, that allows visitors to immerse themselves in biblical history on a life-size replica of Noah’s Ark.
While the team behind the Legacy center believes that it will have widespread appeal to the public, both secular and Christian, there is little at the quasi-biblical theme park that doesn’t have religious overtones. Decorative monument signs throughout the property quote well-known psalms and scriptures; the dimly lit catacombs are lined with murals depicting the New Testament, from the baptism of Christ to his resurrection; and a featured film in the motion-seat theater, “Walk Through the Bible,” uses special sensory effects to bring to life Moses parting the Red Sea and the plagues of Egypt (imagine being poked in the back of your seat to simulate lice assaulting you).
The admission price for the attractions hasn’t been finalized yet, but it will likely be around $15 to $20.
“Most people in the world are curious, they want experiences when they go on a vacation, and that’s a big part of what Legacy is — in a setting that’s very inviting and welcoming,” said project manager Jim Penner, who is also executive director of the Legacy Center Foundation. “It’s not like walking into a church, and we believe people will have a great experience, they’ll be able to experience the nations of the world, go through the motion theater and an international market where we will have goods from Africa, South America, Indonesia and Bali.
“The word will get out.”
The project, though, has not been without its critics. The LGBT community, in particular, had concerns early on about the center given its affiliation with Cerullo and what some characterize as his anti-gay preaching in years past. Some members of the community still have hard feelings about the project.
“This is a legacy project to honor Dr. Cerullo’s history, and that history is tainted by the fact that his ministry has promoted gay conversion therapy, which is illegal in California and is dangerous and harmful,” said Will Rodriguez-Kennedy, immediate past president of the LGBT organization, San Diego Democrats for Equality, and current chair of the San Diego County Democratic Party. “It will be up to the owners and operators of this complex to demonstrate that they are inclusive of the LGBT community, and if they demonstrate that, I’m sure it will be a welcome addition to the community.”
Cerullo, raised in an Orthodox Jewish orphanage until nearly 15 years of age when, as it states in his online bio, he “gave his life to Christ,” said he’s not sure what he can say to mollify his critics other than to reaffirm that the Legacy center is designed to be a welcoming destination.
“I’m 88 years of age, and my time on this earth may not be very long,” Cerullo said in an interview last week. “I wanted to leave something that would be of value and speak to the principles I’ve upheld for the past 70 years. All I can tell you is that everybody is welcome at the Legacy center. We can’t draw any lines of demarcation. It’s like saying Jesus didn’t die for the Muslims. He died for the world. Our job is to love everybody and to love them sincerely but not hypocritically.”
As the Legacy center prepares for its upcoming holiday celebration, Cerullo’s team provided the Union-Tribune with a sneak preview of what to expect once the entire four-building complex fully opens in February.
Designed to mimic the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the 16-foot tall, 110-foot-long replica is fashioned from “Jerusalem Gold” limestone which, like the facade of the entire complex, was sourced from a quarry outside Jerusalem. Unchiseled by humans, the rough-hewn stone for the wall was cut directly from a mountainside, Penner explained. Visitors to the wall will be able to insert their own written prayers in the rock’s crevices, and each week, the Legacy Center Foundation’s prayer team will collect the written messages and pray over them.
“In Jerusalem, the rabbis take the prayers out of the wall every so often and bury them in Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives,” Penner said. “The rabbis honor and cherish those prayers. We’re working on how to figure out where to store those prayers. We don’t have a Mount of Olives.”
Legacy Plaza Fountains
Some 30 different fountain heads will shoot water reaching heights of up to 30 feet. Illuminated with colored lights, not unlike the look of the well-known Bellagio hotel fountains in Las Vegas, the Legacy center fountains will be the centerpiece of nightly shows choreographed to various musical selections. For the holidays, expect a 10-minute-long orchestral compilation of Christmas favorites, including Josh Groban’s “O Holy Night” and Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” Starting next year, new water shows will be introduced as frequently as once a week. Nearby is the 250-seat Fountains Restaurant, which will serve casual fare. It opens for business on Saturday.
4-D Dome theater
Cerullo spared no expense on the $14.5 million, 100-seat theater located in the project’s Welcome Center that will house most of the Legacy Center’s attractions, many of which were conceived with the help of cutting-edge technology. The theater will initially feature two films — “Wings Over Israel” and “Walk Through the Bible” — that were created with the help of individuals who worked on the “Soarin’ Over California” attraction at Disney’s California Adventure.
The seven-tiered theater is equipped with sophisticated motion seats that will rock side to side and back and forth and are able to simulate wind blasts, the scent of salt air and the sensation of mist in your face. For instance, when Moses parts the sea in “Walk Through the Bible,” people in the theater will smell the salt air, see and feel the mist, and their seats will rumble as the waves part.
“When I saw ‘Soarin’ Over California’ at Disney, I thought, why couldn’t I do the same thing,” Cerullo recalled. “I don’t want to take people over California, though. I wanted to take people to the Bible land where people are able to get into a chair and I’m going to fly them to Jerusalem, to Galilee, to the desert.”
Eventually, says Penner, there could be a “Wings Over San Diego” film that takes moviegoers hang gliding over Torrey Pines and soaring over the Fourth of July Big Bay Boom.
In a nod to ancient biblical times, Legacy has created its own Roman catacomb experience that will take visitors through a dimly lit, curving corridor lined with simulated rock and filled with commissioned artwork depicting a number of religious scenes, including the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the resurrection and the Last Supper. In one section of the catacombs, there is a painting of the apostle Paul, as well as a replica of his prison cell. He will be heard whispering words from the Book of Philippians while his chains rattle.
Legends of Lightfall
This children’s area is themed around a comic book series in which teens do battle in an underground science-fiction world. Built around parables from the Bible, the attraction will be heavy on technology with interactive touch screens and a multi-action table that will bring the comic book stories to life.
Located on the upper level of the Welcome Center, this mammoth globe of the world will be lined with individual screens and projection mapping that will show 360-degree views of various parts of the world. Situated behind a railing around the perimeter of the globe will be 10 interactive stations with individual touch panels that will allow users to zero in on different parts of the world. Those selected areas, in turn, will be mirrored on a 6-by-8-foot section of the globe as it continues to rotate. Touch a locale, and information and imagery about the area’s music, culture, population will instantly pop up.
A collection of Cerullo’s precious artifacts, from a 1611 Oxford Bible to a Torah that survived the Holocaust, will be displayed under glass in a special exhibit area located between the motion theater and the catacombs. Close by will be another exhibit area dubbed Legacy of Nations that will document Cerullo’s worldwide travels, from Africa and Indonesia to Russia and Mexico, and how his teachings have affected the populations he visited.
Not far from the Western Wall will be an indoor-outdoor marketplace selling goods curated from more than 30 vendors from around the world. Designed to resemble the open-air marketplaces common in the Middle East, the 8,000 square feet of retail space will include imported women’s apparel, jewelry, and handbags; specialty coffees and teas; olive oil and nuts. “We even have chocolates coming from a monastery in Oregon,” Penner said. In another area of the resort will be a year-round Christmas store.
Legacy Resort Hotel and Spa
The five-story, 126-room hotel will also include a full spa, pool and fine dining Italian steakhouse — Theresa’s Restaurant, which will seat 75 inside and 75 outdoors. Hotel rooms, which will be available starting Feb. 1, can be booked now for nightly rates as low as $136. Managing the hotel and the center’s conference facility is OLS Hotels and Resorts, whose portfolio is largely concentrated in California and Hawaii, plus a few other states. OLS is already in the early stages of booking various events at the resort, including weddings, corporate meetings and a Bat mitzvah.
Located on the western side of the Legacy site, the two-level building houses the executive offices for Morris Cerullo World Evangelism, a 6,000-square-foot ballroom, library and a 500-seat theater. The theater, which will include a 45-foot-wide screen, can be rented out to groups and will also be used for performing arts, concerts and even first-run films. Cerullo’s organization will also host events in the conference facility related to his global ministry.