The Magic Of Neverland Ranch Revisited

“You can always dream, and your dreams can come true. But you have to make them come true.” ~ Michael Jackson

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Neverland Valley Ranch (now renamed the Sycamore Valley Ranch) is a developed property in Santa Barbara County, California, located at 5225 Figueroa Mountain Road, Los Olivos, California 93441, about 100 miles north of Los Angeles. Five miles down Figueroa Mountain Road, the nearest town is Los Olivos with a population of 1,000 residents. Barely three square blocks, the former stagecoach town is now an artists’ community filled with galleries, antique stores and wine shops. About 5.6 miles away is its neighboring town of Solvang, a Danish-themed village, which Michael shopped and visited as well.

How the Dream Began

“What inspired me? It was so easy, because it was me being myself, creating things that I love. And what I love, kids happen to love, or the child that lives inside the adult happens to love… You know? It is so easy, because I’m just creating behind the gate what I never got to do when I was a kid.”  ~ Michael Jackson

Michael’s first encounter with the ranch came when he visited Paul McCartney, who was staying on the property during their filming of the “Say Say Say” video. The film was directed by Bob Giraldi, who had previously directed Michael Jackson’s music short film “Beat It.”  McCartney’s wife Linda and Michael’s older sister La Toya were also featured in the video. The video was filmed at Los Alamos near Santa Barbara, California to accommodate Michael’s busy schedule.

Several years later, Michael purchased the property from golf course entrepreneur William Bone in 1988. His realtor, Gloria Rhodes Berlin, stated that Michael wanted a place where he could look out the window and see bluebirds, do his own farming and feed his animals. He specified the place had to be accessible to deer, so they could prune his trees. Rhodes, who had known the Jackson’s since Michael was a pre-teen, had contacted him on another matter before becoming his agent.

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“I wrote him a letter about a family that was losing their home. The man was 87-years-old, Black and married to a White woman. They had three children, young teens. The father had heart disease…and died finally and there was no burial money. Michael Jackson paid for the burial of that man he didn’t even know.”

Note: Michael also paid to get the family another place to live and he helped to support the kids until they finished school.

This exchange opened the door for Michael, who had worked unsuccessfully with other realtors, to seek Berlin’s assistance in finding his dream home.

Berlin lists some of her fondest Michael Jackson memories at Neverland:

*    When he played ‘I Just Can’t Stop Loving You’ on the Boesendorfer grand piano in the living room of the main house.
*    When he ran along the top of a wooden fence on the Neverland property as if it were a balance beam.
*    Developed new dance steps on the stones in the middle of a stream.
*    Planted flowers in the flowerbeds around the main house at Neverland using different color schemes for each season of the year.
*    Slid down the banister and hid in the secret room inside the mansion.
*    Played “Ghost” using a Casper ghost costume in the playroom with moving walls.
*    Held my hand and walked with me throughout the entire ranch.

Making The Vision Come to Life

So, when you come behind my gates, you’ll see an amusement park, you’ll see animals, you’ll see everything that I’ve never got to do, there’s candy everywhere… It’s fun.” ~ Michael Jackson

This was NOW Michael’s home as well as his private amusement park. A place where he was free to enjoy himself away from the media and the pressures of being the most well-known person on the planet.  He made it a paradise escape, not just just for himself, but also for others to enjoy. It was a place of never-ending childhood bliss to those fortunate enough to be invited behind the gates.

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His residence was adorned with a huge floral clock.  The property contained a lake, movie theater, helicopter pad, petting zoo and a Red Indian village with tepees. Numerous statues of children were placed throughout the grounds.

Michael was an avid art collector and a voracious reader. His 10,000-volume library in the ranch, focused on art, psychology and poetry.

In the landscape of Neverland’s scenic and majestic view is a mountain named in honor of his mother.

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And who can forget his famous giving tree where he went to mediate and get his inspiration?

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His amusement park included two railroads: one 36″ (914 mm) gauge with a steam locomotive (Crown 4-4-0 (2B), built 1973, with two coaches) and the other a 24-inch (610 mm) gauge amusement train ride-type, and also a Ferris wheel, Carousel, Zipper, Octopus, Pirate Ship, Wave Swinger, Super Slide, roller coaster, merry-go-round, bumper cars, and an amusement arcade.

“Michael Jackson’s most personal favorite was the Chance ‘Zipper’ because it was wild,” recalls Lance Brown, Jackson’s ranch manager from 1989 through to 1993. “Michael liked spinning at the top up to three times if he hit it just right. Michael’s most popular ride with the kids was the Sea Dragon because they could ride it together. He’d put his hands up in the air with all the kids as it was coming down and back up with everyone squealing!”

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“Michael was so excited when a new amusement ride arrived. He would give his input where the ride was to be set up and he wanted the undulating lawns around the park for the kids to roll and tumble down. Michael was definitely a kid at heart!”

From the road, Neverland is completely isolated from view. The complex is surrounded by a simple wooden fence with “No trespassing” signs posted every few yards. A small herd of cattle lazily grazes near the security guard booth. Just beyond the entrance is the only clue of what lies beyond the gate, a small yellow sign that reads: “Caution: Children at Play.”

Brad Sundberg: “When you arrived at Neverland, the first thing you saw was the security gate, and the buzzer. Even though I have driven through that gate countless times, and the guards knew me and my big green Chevy Tahoe, I never had the freedom to enter the property if my name was not on the pass list. Once they found your name, the giant wooden gate would open, and you would drive to the guard shack just on the other side.”

Michael served as host for the weddings of two of his closest and dearest friends at the ranch.

In 1991, Elizabeth Taylor and Larry Fortensky exchanged vows there. Michael and her son, Michael Wilding Jr. walked her down the isle.

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His close friend, Miko Brando, son of actor Marlon Brando, was married there in 1994. Michael insisted on being his best man.

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Actress Kellie Parker, who worked with Michael as a child in his film Moonwalker, shares her special time and memories spent at Neverland. They were friends for many years and she remained private about their relationship until she visited the ranch after his death.

“Michael was magic, pure and simple. He was a man who believed in the goodness of mankind and embodied pure unconditional love for the world. I am so sad on so many levels. For the loss of an innovative genius and who was music and dance personified, for the loss of a man who loved the whole world and touched so many lives, but mostly, for me personally, the loss of a friend that I loved so dearly.’

Sharing the Dream: Michael As A Neighbor

“But I will never stop helping and loving people the way Jesus said to.” ~ Michael Jackson

Michael didn’t just take residence in the community. He gave back and became an active citizen and supporter.

“People outside of Los Olivos don’t know Michael like we do. They don’t know the love,” says Felicia Cody, whose family runs the Cody Gallery. She has met Michael and has been to Neverland for business and social functions. “His love is so big, so serene, so sincere. He’s a wonderful patron of this town.”

Cody says Jackson was not a recluse, and he’s definitely not eccentric, even though he may have occasionally come to town dressed as Spider-Man.

She rattles off a laundry list of good deeds Jackson has anonymously carried out, like the time he helped finance a new gym for Los Olivos Elementary School, or the time he bought baby strollers for a local day care center, or the countless locals Jackson employs on his estate.

“He’s a nice guy, probably the nicest guy you’ll ever meet,” says son Flynt Cody, 20. “He’s very neighborly.” He says Jackson’s personal fire-and-rescue squad often responded to local car wrecks and brush fires outside Neverland.

Bob Senn, owner of Los Olivos Wine & Spirits Emporium stated that people respected him and he was a good neighbor.

“Just about every kid in this town has gone to Neverland,” says Jeff Feeley, who runs the Stratford Coffee Shop in Los Olivos. His two children went to Neverland on school trips. “They take them up there and set them loose.”

Giving Back

“Michael was a very caring person. He had a lot of love in his heart. He cared about everybody, especially the people on the street.” ~ Miko Brando

Through the years, busloads of chaperoned schoolchildren have been entertained at Neverland, all at Michael’s expense. Two private schools, the Family School and the Midland School, border his property.

“Vans would bring small groups of children from Make-A-Wish up to Neverland Valley Ranch,” adds Lance Brown. “A lot of them were handicapped. Michael liked watching as we’d put them on the carousel with an adult, riding with them and making these kids forget their disabilities – their faces would light up like Christmas trees!”

Michael thought of everything to help sick children enjoy their visit even if they couldn’t run and play.  He had hospital beds and equipment installed in the movie theater so they lay there and watch cartoons or see magic shows from the stage. No one was ever left out at Neverland.

“We have children that come who are fed intravenously…they are very sick, bedridden. They can’t sit up and these beds, there are hospital beds, you push a button, you go up or you go down and they are able to watch. We have a magic show, we show the current films, there’s cartoons, anything so that they can escape to that world of magic that they don’t have a chance to experience…” ~ Michael Jackson

“Michael held an annual ‘Family Day’ for ranch employees and their families to show his appreciation,” Brown notes. “They rode rides at the amusement park, visited his zoo and petting zoo, reptile barn and alligator pond. I want people to know Michael Jackson was a very good person. Michael gave of himself in a way the general public doesn’t know about. Michael was very generous with what he had and loved sharing it with the children. He really enjoyed seeing their reactions and giving them the opportunity to see and do things not normally available to them – having a day in Neverland!”

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Visiting Neverland

“Neverland appeals to the child inside every man, woman and child. It’s a place where I feel like you can return to your childhood. You find grown-ups, you know, doing things they hadn’t done since they were like 10 years old. And it’s a… Just a fun, wonderful place to be; there’s so much to do. I’ve always wanted to have a place where you’re just busy all day and there is just unlimited space to go on quads and mountains and horse-back and all kind of fun things. So, it’s a… It’s just a fun place. I love it. And I will always love it. And I will never ever sell Neverland. Neverland is me… You know? It’s – it represents the totality of who I am. It really does… I love Neverland.” ~ Michael Jackson

Although Neverland was a carefree place, strict security procedures were followed. Cameras and recording devices were banned.  Confidentiality agreements were signed before entering.

Among the famous visitors to Neverland is Nicole Richie, daughter of singer Lionel Richie and Michael’s goddaughter. Richie recalls Neverland as a happy place filled with children who are pampered by staff in uniforms.

“I haven’t been up there since I was 13. But when I was young, I would go up there all the time. I would just go for the weekend and go hang out. It’s really big, really gorgeous. It’s like a big amusement park. When I was there, I went with people whose parents were friends of his. It was a group of us who grew up together. I never saw random kids there.”

In September 2003, Michael held a $5,000-a-couple benefit, raising $40,000 for the local Make-A-Wish Foundation. Farah Pajuheshfar was lucky enough to win tickets to the event after she had entered a Michael Jackson portrait-painting contest.

“When we went into Neverland, I thought I had died and gone to paradise,” says Farah Pajuheshfar, a Las Vegas mother and hairdresser.

“The whole day we were there, from 9 a.m. until 3 a.m., we had drinks, popcorn, candy, ice cream. There was even an open bar. The zoo was filled with elephants, giraffes, llamas, chimps, crocodiles, snakes, parrots and a black bear. “It was an adventure I will never forget. If I die now, it would be OK.”

“It was a lot of fun,” says her daughter, Julie, who was 12 at the time. “We went on the Ferris wheel and the roller coaster and the arcade. All the people working at Neverland were smiling all the time. I came home smiling at everybody in school. Michael had “tons of CDs.”

Neverland “smells like cinnamon rolls, vanilla and candy and sounds like children laughing,” says Sheree Wilkins, 32, a preschool teacher from Inglewood, Calif. Wilkins has been inside Neverland five times, making her something of a celebrity among Jackson fans. Most of her visits came about through her association with Jackson fan clubs. She also has brought her Girl Scout troops to Neverland on field trips.

“It’s like heaven. You never want to leave,” says Wilkins. Her last visit was at Jackson’s 45th birthday. Wilkins says she and a group of fans had gathered at the gate to sing birthday wishes to Jackson. After several hours, Jackson showed up in a golf cart and waved them in.

Rob Swinson, Michael Jackson’s personal ride consultant and developer for the Neverland Valley Amusement Park says, “The only other time I believe Michael Jackson was happier than when we created his teenage dream, Neverland Valley, was having three children of his own! Michael Jackson and I shared some of his lifetime’s most enjoyable personal moments and experiences.”

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This post was compiled from a series of articles, videos and books.

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