The billboards go up in early November: the flushed cheeks of a Coca-Cola- reminiscent Santa Claus rendered 10 feet high. The words, the call to action, read simply, “RideTheChristmasTrain.com.”
In less than two days, the 50,000 tickets available for the 2011 season of The Christmas Train in Dry Gulch, U.S.A.—the annual Christmas-time attraction produced by Broken Arrow’s Church on the Move—were gone. They’d sold at a rate of nearly 20 every second.
Boomtown-style wooden buildings and bales of hay line the paved streets. The shelves at the shops—there are three, each bright and packed with candy, ornaments, toys, and shoppers—could pass a white-glove test. Strands of soft, white lights crisscross the streets, and families—fresh from the bumper cars, the arcades, or maybe the pony rides—eat cinnamon rolls together in the glowing windows of one of the three sit-down restaurants. The smell of freshly baked cookies is trumped by the aroma of cowboy stew, then BBQ , then back to cookies again, and action-movie music and bluegrass Christmas songs are played on a loop throughout the park. The streets are free of crumpled candy wrappers and cigarette butts—one of the few places smoking is allowed at Dry Gulch is in a fake cemetery on the outer edge of the park. Dry Gulch at Christmas is a sparkling place. It’s like Silver Dollar City and Disney World’s Frontiertown had a baby, plunked it down in rural northeastern Oklahoma, and kept all the good rides for themselves.
It was originally constructed as an Old West movie set for family films, and now it’s a well-funded, self-conscious reflection of the culture at Church on the Move, of what the church thinks about people, said Kirby Andersen, a pastor at Church on the Move and director of Dry Gulch U.S.A. He patrols the grounds of the park in a black hat and black cowboy boots. He wears a five-pointed star on his chest, and he introduces himself as Sheriff P.K. Andersen. “We believe God deserves our best,” he told me, smiling.
The train conductor wore an impeccable uniform of gold and navy blue. He offered me his hand as I stepped onto the train from the concrete platform: “Watch your step, miss.” The loudspeakers hidden somewhere above our heads hummed with the folksy tenor of the doughy-faced Church on the Move founder Willie George as the steam locomotive pulled the train away from the station. A scene of neon orbs dangling from the ceiling of a long, dark tunnel served as the gateway for the attraction, a black light making it seem more like a portal into space than a ride through the story of Christ.
Three young girls in candy-pink coats sat next to me, very still and well behaved, as we rode past dozens of billboards painted to depict key scenes of the Bible, or visions of angels and broken men inspired by the words found there. The train groaned on its rails as we rounded a corner where some church volunteers had slipped into red capes. They used long spears to poke at a bleeding figure, affixed to one of three crosses. The sky had started to spit, and mist clung like little lights to the oversized windows of the passenger car as we watched from the other side of the glass. When we de-boarded, I realized the whole ride, from creation to resurrection, had lasted less than 15 minutes.
We were reloaded into a theater, where we sat through a video pitch for a service at the church that looked more like a Taylor Swift concert than a celebration of the birth of the ancient Nazarene. Another man in a conductor’s suit handed me a CD labeled “The Gift.” In two tracks it retells the story we’d heard on the train and invites listeners to take Jesus Christ into their hearts, “to forgive all your sins, so that you can know that you’re God’s child, that you’re going to heaven.” I wondered if maybe altar calls weren’t cool anymore. Or maybe the church had decided that tallying saved souls wasn’t the kind of thing to take care of at a theme park, that it was best saved for the long, dark drive home, the kids snoring softly in the back seat.
My son’s bedroom light was still on when I got home. I remembered the Santa Palace, one of the tallest houses on the grounds of Dry Gulch. It was just before 9 p.m. when I’d squeezed my way in. The previous year’s Christmas service at Church on the Move played on a video screen above the door where, every few minutes, a child and its entourage of adults would go in or come out. I heard a couple of grandparents balk at the wait time, still over an hour. A smiling teenager with swoop bangs stood in front of a bank of pagers, like the kind you get when you check in with a hostess at a restaurant, which were issued to kids as they signed in at the Santa Palace. She explained that even if the time came when the gates of the park had to be closed, each of the little ones would still get their chance to see Santa Claus.