Strange Americana: What Is the Ark Encounter in Williamstown, Kentucky?

Photo Courtesy: Luke Sharrett /For The Washington Post via Getty Images; Culture Club/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Ever found yourself wondering how large a boat would have to be in order to carry two of every land animal that existed a few thousand years ago? As it just so happens, the founders of the Ark Encounter in Williamstown, Kentucky, may have the answer for you: 510 feet long, 85 feet wide and 51 feet tall. They know because they built it. And they used biblical measurements to do so.

Right off I-75, halfway between the major cities of Cincinnati and Lexington among a woodsy network of creeks, sits this massive replica of the ark built by Noah — a ship that was said to hold the sole survivors, both human and animal, of a massive flood that wiped out most life on Earth in biblical times. 

A visit to the Ark Encounter offers a lot more than the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the largest timber frame structure in the world, though. It’s a wholly interactive experience. And that’s just one reason why it’s a top-ranking tourist destination alongside the likes of the Kentucky Derby Museum, Mammoth Cave and the Louisville Slugger Factory. But just how did this riveting reproduction come to be — and why?

What Exactly Is the Ark Encounter?

An attendee photographs an exhibit inside the Noah’s Ark replica at the Ark Encounter theme park in Williamstown, Kentucky, on Tuesday, July 5, 2016. Photo Courtesy: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg/Getty Images

As you might guess, the main attraction is in the name — but the facility’s massive replica ark isn’t just something to admire from afar. You can step inside the structure, which comprises three stories of interactive exhibits. There’s a model of Noah’s living quarters, life-size (and surprisingly lifelike) animal statues in dozens of stalls, workshop dioramas, and exhibits featuring biblical antiquities from public and private collections. There’s even a display depicting humans fighting a dinosaur.

This isn’t just a massive boat permanently dry-docked in a forest, either. The Ark Encounter is also an educational theme park centered around Christianity and creationism. Marketing itself as an experience for the whole family, the facility occupies over 800 acres of land. The Ark itself only takes up a fraction of that, with other biblical models expected to spring up in the coming years. The first of these is a life-sized reconstruction of what the Tower of Babel may have looked like, and it’s set to open by 2025.

But the Ark Encounter isn’t only about replicas of biblical structures. Apart from the exhibits that depict life before the flood and the way Noah and his family lived within the boat, the theme park has so much to do that it actually offers a three-day pass for those who want to make their visit a full vacation.

If you decide to take a trip, you can partake in everything from a three-hour-long zipline course around the ark to a petting zoo where you can ride a camel. An interactive fossil-finding activity offers a science lesson from a biblical perspective, and if you’re hoping to get really immersive you can don a virtual reality headset and live through the biblical flood yourself in the A Flood of Reality! Experience.

Why Build an Evangelical Theme Park?

A replica of Noah’s Ark stands at the Ark Encounter theme park in Williamstown, Kentucky, on Tuesday, July 5, 2016. Photo Courtesy: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg/Getty Images

After more than five years of planning and construction, the Ark Encounter officially opened on July 7 of 2016. It represented the culmination of several goals of Ken Ham, founder of Answers in Genesis — the fundamentalist Christian organization that owns and operates the park. One of Ham’s primary goals was to recruit and convert new believers with a display of (literally) biblical proportions. But, in building the theme park, Ham and his business partners intended to attract Christians, too. “How do you reach the general public in a bigger way?” Ham mused when asked about the concept. “Why not attractions that people will come to the way they go to Disney or Universal or the Smithsonian?”

It was with this mentality that he hired 700 Amish builders to construct the $120 million ship. The ark in particular appealed to Ham’s notion, because, as the attraction’s website explains, “The biblical account of Noah’s Ark in Genesis is one of the most questioned sections of the Bible. The Ark Encounter provides solid answers to people’s questions about the feasibility of the Ark. Visitors will be presented with the powerful message that the history in the Bible is true and that the gospel based on that history is also true.”

Ultimately, the team figured that, by tangibly bringing Noah’s story to life — and by showing life-size animals actually fitting inside the boat — it’d be hard to dispute the validity of the event. However, not everyone was fully onboard with the concept of the Ark Encounter.

A Surprising Adversary Arises

An attendee photographs an exhibit of the Ark Encounter’s model dinosaurs, which TV presenter and science communicator Bill Nye called “absolutely wrong.” Photo Courtesy: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Just days after the Ark Encounter first opened its doors, a VIP guest stopped by to check it out and embark on an exclusive tour led by Ken Ham himself. This guest, vocally skeptical of the exhibit since its plans were first announced, is well known for his commitment to science — so much so that it’s in his name. The one and only Bill Nye the Science Guy boarded the ark for an inspection of sorts.

Unsurprisingly, the tour of the ark didn’t quite turn Nye into a creationist. After his visit, the famous TV host expressed that the science exhibits were “absolutely wrong” and the attraction itself was “much more troubling or disturbing than [he] thought it would be.” Not because of the religious aspects, though. His points of contention had more to do with the inaccuracy of the third deck’s exhibits and the model dinosaurs that teach visitors humans coexisted with the extinct creatures — instead of 65 million years later, which is regarded as scientific truth. 

Upon parting, the two men shared a handshake but agreed that acquaintances with mutual respect was all they would ever be to each other. And the Ark Encounter went on to see more than 1 million visitors a year — it’s now welcomed more than 10 million since its opening day.

No matter where our beliefs lie when it comes to one of the oldest debates of our time, we can’t deny that the Ark Encounter is an impressive feat of architecture. If you ever find yourself deep in the heartland and happen upon a huge wooden boat at the side of the highway, you might just want to grab your rainboots and head on over.