In search of Neverland…

Figueroa Mountain Road

Figueroa Mountain Road - Neverland is just out of view in the valley below. Image - Doc Searls, Flickr (license)

To reach Neverland, guests drove up Figueroa Mountain Road, which weaves its way up the Santa Ynez Valley. Around five miles from Los Olivos, and eight miles from Santa Ynez itself, they would come across the property at number 5225. The home of Michael Jackson.

Just like any other theme park, Jackson had maps produced for Neverland. Let’s take a look at one from around 2004, which features Neverland's distinctive logo in the top left corner:

Neverland Map

Image - San Sharma, Flickr (license)

As you can see, the scale of the Neverland Valley Ranch matched that of any other amusement park. In fact, it exceeded it – the map focuses only on the main entertainment areas, and doesn’t come close to covering the enormous ranch as a whole.

Neverland "No Trespassing" Sign

Image - Morten Rand-Hendriksen, Flickr (license)

Not much was visible from the road. The entire complex was surrounded by a wooden fence with “no trespassing” signs posted at regular intervals.

Neverland Children at Play Sign

Image - Jonathan Haeber, Bearings (license)

The only clue as to the playland within was a small yellow sign, visible just beyond the entrance, stating simply: “Caution: Children at Play”.

Neverland Main Gate

Image - Jonathan Haeber, Bearings (license)

Michael Jackson himself would enter through the now-iconic main gate, complete with gold “Neverland” letters on its archway. His own name sat above it, along with a king’s crown and an imitation royal coat of arms (with the motto “Honi Soit Qui Mal y Pense” – “Evil to him who evil thinks”).

Neverland gates

The Neverland gates as seen in 2007. Image - Anthony Trumbo, Flickr (license)

While the King of Pop swept through the gate in a stretch Rolls-Royce, most other guests would be admitted via a less glamorous side gate. After driving down a side road with a high fence to block the view of everything inside, they’d arrive at a sentry post. One visitor, renowned writer Paul Theroux, recalls: “This gate did not have a footman in Neverland livery but rather a fierce, khaki-shirted guard with a visual record of possible threats – the wall of the post was plastered with mug shots of people suspected of stalking Michael or otherwise threatening him or, in certain cases, believing they were married to him.” Captions included “Might be armed” and “Has been loitering near gate”.

Bronze Statues

Image - Jonathan Haeber, Bearings (license)

As they entered, guests would begin to appreciate the grandeur of Neverland. There was a five-acre, man-made lake, complete with a soothing five-foot waterfall and an imposing stone bridge. The paths were lined with dozens of life-sized bronze statues of children, animals and fantasy figures. In the lawns and flower beds, loudspeakers were disguised as grey rocks, filling the area with music (including some of Jackson’s own tunes, alongside Disney classics). Plants were molded into animal forms, and twinkling white lights were attached to many of the oak trees that were spread throughout the valley. Flower beds were completely replanted three times per year.

Katherine Station

Image - John Wiley, Wikimedia Commons (license)

The most recognizable element of Neverland is one of the first that guests came across. Katherine Station, named after the star’s mother, was an impressive faux-Victorian railway station, complete with a topiary Neverland clock outside. A snack bar was located in the station lobby, and a small spiral staircase led up to a sort of crow’s nest, complete with a fireplace, from which Jackson could watch the train in action.

The design was clearly based on Disneyland’s own Main Street Station, and just as Walt Disney had built a narrow-gauge steam railway in his own back yard, so had Michael Jackson. The 36” gauge Neverland Valley Railroad’s circuit covered around a quarter of mile, linking the main residence to the movie theater, amusement park and zoo. The engine, Katherine, was also named for Jackson’s mother, and had been built by Crown Metal Products in 1973.

The rides

Neverland Rides aerial shot

The funfair area, seen from the air in 2008. Image - John Wiley, Wikimedia Commons (license)

The funfair rides occupied the heart of the Neverland “theme park” area. Although they were situated in attractively-landscaped surroundings, they were very much standard midway rides – there were no Disney-style, elaborate dark rides here. That doesn’t mean they were strictly “off-the-peg”, though – the Bumper Cars’ control panel featured a prominent label that proclaimed: “Designed especially for Michael Jackson.”

Neverland Bumper Cars control panel

Image - Jonathan Haeber, Bearings (license)

To help him develop his personal amusement park, Jackson hired Rob Swinson, who was then working as National Sales Manager for Chance Rides, Inc. Swinson recalls that a small team came together in the early fall of 1990 to begin working building the funfair and zoo.

Neverland Sea Dragon

The Sea Dragon was one of the most prominent attractions. It’s a classic swinging ship ride, capable of holding up to 50 passengers at a time. As recently as 2013, second-hand Sea Dragons could change hands for as much as $670,000.

Neverland Ferris Wheel

Image - Jonathan Haeber, Bearings (license)

Not far away was the Ferris Wheel, which Jackson reportedly acquired for $215,000 in 1990. It stood at some 65 feet tall, offering views across the Neverland grounds.

Neverland Carousel

Image - Jonathan Haeber, Bearings (license)

The Carousel was fully customized to Jackson’s wishes. Rob Swinson recalls that Jackson initially ordered a 36-foot carousel with two chariots and 30 jumping animals. However, he could not whittle down his selection of animals to a mere 30. Instead, Swinson suggested opting for a larger 50-foot Grand Carrousel, with space for 60 such animals. Each was hand-painted and hand-decorated. Brad Sundberg, who worked with Jackson on the Captain EO attraction for Disneyland, provided the music and sound systems. Among other tunes, these played Childhood, Jackson’s theme song for Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home.

CP Huntington Train

A second train, with an engine named C.P. Huntington, ran on a smaller 24” gauge circuit and was supplied by Chance Rides. Like the carousel, the ride was heavily customized. The Neverland Valley Ranch logo was prominent on the engine and on each seat of the coaches. Strings of small lights were strung around the coach tops, and Sundberg installed a custom sound system.

Neverland Zipper

Image - Jonathan Haeber, Bearings (license)

The Zipper was another Chance Rides creation. It featured a long, rotating oblong boom with a cable around its edge to pull each of its 12 cars. The free-flipping cars were pulled around the perimeter of the boom, with the “flip” at the end of the oblong causing a sudden burst of speed and an unpredictable ride.

Neverland Wave Swinger

The Neverland Wave Swinger, seen at the Santa Barbara County Fair in 2014. Image - Anita Ritenour, Flickr (license)

The Wave Swinger was a classic “chair-o-plane” attraction, decorated with paintings of alpine cabins, Victorian women and bouquets.

Other rides that were installed at various times included an Octopus (with spinning cars attached to the ends of arms that rotate around a central axis), a Balloon Samba (eight balloons that rotate gently and rise up in the air), Jeeps (a mini-carousel featuring jeep-themed vehicles) and Dinosaurs (a Dumbo the Flying Elephant-style ride with “flying” beasts).

Dragon Wagon

A clone of the Dragon Wagon coaster, seen at the Arlington County Fair in 2009. Image - Kevin Harber, Flickr (license)

Obtaining permission to install new rides from County zoning officials was an ongoing challenge, and that probably prevented Jackson from installing a major attraction such as a roller coaster. Despite this, a Pinfari Looping Star (featuring a vertical loop) was installed temporarily for the 1995 Christmas holiday. The smaller Dragon Wagon was a permanent installation, and featured a basic oval circuit. The train was fronted by a grinning dragon, which looped behind a grey castle complete with gargoyles resembling dancers from Jackson’s Thriller video.

A huge Jumbotron screen overlooked the area, constantly showing cartoons.

Power for the funfair rides was provided by a large, silent-running generator that was located underneath a large oak tree. To conceal it, a castle-style treehouse was constructed, complete with copper turrets and two upper floors of rooms.

The Neverland movie theater

Neverland Movie Theater

Jackson’s Encino home had included its own movie theater, but the one at Neverland upped the ante. It was approached via a “Yellow Brick Road” (actually made of concrete that was designed to resemble cobblestones), which featured embedded lights that brought it to life in the evenings.

Candy was freely available and abundant from a counter inside the theater, along with ice cream, popcorn and soft drinks. The theater itself featured 50 plush red seats, each capable of reclining. State-of-the-art projection and sound systems were on hand to play the latest movies, and the stage included trapdoors for magician’s assistants.

On either side of the projection room were two bedrooms. These featured adjustable hospital beds, and were isolation rooms. This meant that children with suppressed immune systems could enjoy a movie without being exposed to other kids’ germs. A private dance studio was connected to the rear of the theater.

The Neverland Zoo

Neverland Zoo sign

Image - Jonathan Haeber, Bearings (license)

Towards the rear of the valley was Neverland’s zoo. Over the years, this hosted a variety of exotic species, including a crocodile, elephants, giraffes, orang-utans, chimpanzees, tigers and a bear. A rustic red barn was converted into a herpetarium, containing displays for a dozen snake species, including a Burmese python and a monocled cobra.

One of Jackson’s primary motivations for buying the ranch had been that it provided huge swathes of space for his menagerie. In his famous 1993 interview with Oprah Winfrey, he said: “The animals are everywhere [here in Neverland]. They’re in their habitats. They’re all over the ranch. And they come out in the day time and they play and jump around, they have their own playground and area. I find in animals the same thing I find so wonderful in children. That purity, that honesty, where they don’t judge you, they just want to be your friend. I think that is so sweet.”

Neverland Zoo Station

The zoo had its own train station, pictured here. Image - Jonathan Haeber, Bearings (license)

Some accounts of the Neverland zoo don’t paint such a happy picture. Paul Theroux claims that “the zoo was so ill-visited that the animals became ill-tempered and had to be relocated.”

He says of his visit: “In the reptile house, with its frisbee-shaped frogs and fat pythons, both a cobra and a rattlesnake had smashed their fangs against the glass of their cage trying to bite me. The llamas spat at me, as llamas do, but even in the ape sanctuary, ‘AJ’, a big bristly, shovel-mouthed chimp, had spat in my face, and Patrick the orang-utan had tried to twist my hand.”

Neverland Zoo aerial shot

The zoo area, seen from above in 2009. The barn, containing the herpetarium, is visible in the center of the shot. Image - John Wiley, Wikimedia Commons (license)

One of the zoo’s most famous residents was Gypsy, a five-ton elephant that had been given to Jackson by Elizabeth Taylor. “The elephant seemed to be afflicted with the rage of heightened musth [a hormonally-induced change in the behaviour of male elephants],” says Theroux. “’Don’t go anywhere near him’, the keeper warned me.”

Other accounts of the zoo from those who worked there differ significantly, with Jackson said to have employed a number of specialists to ensure that the animals received proper care. One of Jackson’s personal artists, David Nordahl, recalls that the elephants would be brought out of their enclosures in the mornings to graze on the trees, and the other animals would also be free to roam while their homes were cleaned.

And there’s more…

Tennis Court

As if the railway, amusement park, movie theater and zoo weren’t enough, there were a host of other amenities on-site at Neverland.

This included Teepee Village, a mock Indian campground complete with carpeted teepees with underfloor heating and interior sound systems. A bonfire area could be used for roasting marshmallows and storytelling.

Nearby, the Water Fort was a water play area equipped with cannons, a dunk tank and balloon launchers. Beyond this was the “sky pavilion” gazebo where Jackson’s close friend Elizabeth Taylor married Larry Fortensky.

Elsewhere, there were tennis courts and a basketball court with a working electronic scoreboard. A 14-foot-deep swimming pool boasted a high-dive board. Overlooking the pond was a treehouse, where Jackson wrote many of the songs for 1991’s Dangerous album.

Neverland Fire Engine

A Neverland Fire Department engine, pictured in 2009. Image - Jose, Flickr (license)

Neverland even had its own fire department, complete with a small fleet of working engines and full-time firefighters. Occasionally, the firefighters were dispatched to help contain brushfires on neighboring ranches.

The house

Neverland house

At the end of a winding road lay Neverland’s main house. Originally built for William Bone, it was a Hollywood-Tudor influenced design featuring dark shingles and bow windows. A thick lining of trees provided additional privacy, and a circular driveway sat in front of the house. The centerpiece of this was a statue of Mercury, which rose to a height of around 30 feet, complete with a winged helmet and caduceus (staff).

Neverland artwork

One of the many artworks depicting Michael Jackson that featured in his home. Image - Jose, Flickr (license)

The interior of the house was packed with works of art and memorabilia, and featured 18th century floors that had been shipped to the US from a French chateau. Theroux recalls that many of the images “depicted Michael life-sized, elaborately costumed, in heroic poses with cape, sword, ruffed collar, crown."

Neverland artwork

Image - Jose, Flickr (license)

"The rest were an example of a sort of obsessive iconography: images of Elizabeth Taylor, Diana Ross, Marilyn Monroe and Charlie Chaplin – and for that matter of Mickey Mouse and Peter Pan.” The portraits of Jackson included one of him as a king in full Elizabethan court dress, and another of him as a generalissimo, complete with medals, stripes and epaulets.

Neverland artwork

Image - Jose, Flickr (license)

One of the most expensive pieces of memorabilia was located in Jackson’s white-carpeted living room. This was the Best Picture Academy Award that had been awarded to Gone with the Wind in 1939. Jackson had paid $1.5 million for the Oscar, which sat on a rotating pedestal. A number of pictures sat on a piano nearby, including shots of Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Mickey Mouse and photographs of Jackson meeting President Jimmy Carter at the White House and Nelson Mandela in South Africa.

Neverland kitchen

Close to the kitchen was a life-size figure of a butler in a swallowtail coat. The kitchen itself was enormous, housing a large dining table, and looked capable of serving a restaurant rather than a private home.

The library contained a huge number of leather-bound books. “I love to read short stories,” Jackson told Theroux. His favorite authors were Somerset Maugham, Walt Whitman, Ernest Hemingway and Mark Twain.

Neverland bedroom

The floor outside Michael Jackson’s bedroom was wired so that whenever anyone came within five feet of the entrance, dingdong noises would sound. Inside, a movie screen dropped down from the ceiling, and Jackson’s pet rat lived in a cage. The room was connected by a secret staircase to a special guest room, the Shirley Temple Room.

Neverland games room

This fortune teller lived in the games room. Image - Jonathan Haeber, Bearings (license)

One area that was frequently opened up to guests was the games room, which sat in a separate building at the rear of the house. This contained a huge variety of arcade-style video games, pinball machines, a penny press machine and a photo booth. Candy and ice cream were readily available. All of the games featured slots for quarters, but none of them required actual payment. Everything at Neverland was free to enjoy.

Beast Busters

Image © SNK (Source)

“I love X-Men, pinball, Jurassic Park,” said Jackson. “The martial arts ones – Mortal Kombat”. A particular favorite was Beast Busters, a 1989 creation from SNK that saw players taking on the role of Johnny Justice, Paul Patriot or Sammy Stately and shooting their way out of a city overrun by the undead. “That one’s great, I pick each game,” enthused Jackson, although the star conceded “That one’s maybe too violent.” Jackson travelled on tour with two cargo planes and would usually bring some of the arcade machines with him.

Jackson didn’t skimp on details. The games room, for example, featured door knobs shaped like miniature basketballs, baseballs and soccer balls. One can almost imagine the singer uttering John Hammond’s words from Jurassic Park: “We spared no expense”.

Most guests at Neverland would not stay in the main house itself. Instead, they would stay in the guest house (each of the rooms within was numbered, motel style).



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