Since 1998, Savannah Christian Church has hosted The Journey. The walk-through reenactment of Bethlehem on the night of Christ's birth has always attracted thousands from around the Southeast.
The church hosts the event in two-year runs and produces an indoor drama on the third years, so crowds have not had the chance to experience this dramatic production since 2011, an event that drew more than 17,000 people to the church.
But church officials say they expect 20,000 or more to attend this year's re-enactment. Why the increase in guests? Because a large group of volunteers have been working since April to recreate a totally new Bethlehem and bring crowds an even bigger journey to experience.
According to Esther Griffin, Savannah Christian Church's communications team leader, the church "wanted to make the village even more authentic."
"When you enter the gates of Bethlehem, it really is as if you are stepping back centuries in time into an ancient Middle Eastern town," she said.
The set covers several acres and the event takes place the first two weeks of December at Savannah Christian Church.
Griffin said once guests come to The Journey, they will register and be assigned to a group of about 30 people to accompany them as they make "the journey to Bethlehem."
"First, you will go into our indoor worship center, where you will experience the first part of The Journey, a live production of beautiful Christmas music," she said. "Then you will be led outside to begin your journey. You will ride a boat across the 'Sea of Galilee,' (a lake on the church campus) and you will walk a trail where you will encounter Mary, Joseph, an angel and Mary's cousin, Elizabeth."
Guests then continue to a temple "and see prophecy foretold."
The Journey isn't just a group of people playing roles; it's also filled with a variety of live animals who played a big part in the original Christmas story.
"You will see evil King Herod plotting and pacing in his palace, guarded by live tigers, in cages, of course," Griffin added. "You will come upon wise men and their live camels following a star. And finally you will come to Bethlehem, teeming with ... spice shops, a bakery, a very crowded inn along with hundreds of costumed citizens of Bethlehem."
After leaving the city walls of Bethlehem, guests will "find a tannery and blacksmith shop, along with sheep, goats and geese that small children are welcome to pet," Griffin said. "You will then encounter shepherds and their sheep and will follow them to a cave-like stable where Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus await."
Griffin said The Journey is handicap accessible and they have trams available for people who can't walk the trail. They also will have a certified sign language interpreter at 6 p.m. Dec. 12.
Be prepared for long lines unless you plan ahead and purchase a time-specific ticket. According to Griffin, these tickets allow you to bypass the general admission line, but they are going fast.
Tickets are $5 each and can be purchased online or in advance at The Source Bookstore at Savannah Christian Church. Discounts are available for groups, families, military, firefighters, police and first responders. Check the church website for more information on discounts.
General admission tickets are good for any night between 6-8 p.m., and if you buy a time-specific ticket and miss your time, you can use the ticket as a general admission ticket any time.
Griffin added that The Journey is a volunteer-based production.
"We have hundreds of volunteers who serve as actors, vocalists and musicians. We have hundreds more who direct parking and greet visitors. It takes well over a thousand volunteers to make The Journey happen."