LOS OLIVOS, Calif. — From outside the gates of Neverland Ranch, it appears as if Michael Jackson‘s former home and fantasyland has been frozen in time. The backyard circus is long gone, but heartfelt notes placed by saddened fans at the property’s entrance remain intact five years after Jackson’s death. And visitors are still making the pilgrimage. “I figured it would just be a closed gate, but I still wanted to see it for myself,” said James Chen of Seattle, a fan who stopped outside Neverland during a recent road trip with his father.
While many Jackson ventures are thriving after his death, including a new album and Cirque du Soleil shows, there’s not been similar movement at Neverland, despite rumors the property could be transformed into a Graceland-like homage or sold to the highest bidder. Caroline Luz, spokeswomen for Colony Capital LLC, the real estate firm that bailed Jackson out after he defaulted on the $24.5 million he owed on Neverland, said the Santa Ynez Valley property about 150 miles north of Los Angeles is being maintained, but she declined further comment.
The estate was built in 1981 by real estate developer William Bone, who called it Sycamore Valley Ranch. Jackson paid $19.5 million for the hilly, oak- and sycamore-studded property in 1988 and rechristened it Neverland after Peter Pan’s island dwelling. He soon added such over-the-top amenities as a zoo and small amusement park. For nearly 20 years, Neverland was both Jackson’s home and a pop culture landmark.
It’s where Elizabeth Taylor lavishly married Larry Fortensky in 1991; where Oprah Winfrey famously interviewed Jackson live in front of 90 million viewers in 1993; and where then-wife Lisa Marie Presley and Jackson welcomed children from around the globe ahead of the United Nations’ 50th anniversary in 1995. Jackson later turned his back on Neverland after his 2005 acquittal on charges he molested children at the ranch, opting to live elsewhere in the world until his death in 2009.
“I guess they ruined it for my dad,” Jackson’s eldest son, Prince, told a civil court jury last year. With no crush of fans or media throngs in years, and the amusement park just a whirling memory, Neverland’s future remains unclear.
During a recent stop outside the property, a landscaper could be seen zipping along the driveway in a red buggy as a guard manned the security shack at the front gate. The wireless router inside was named “SVR Security,” a nod to the property’s original name.
“It has been really quiet,” said local real estate broker William Etling in his office a few miles away in the wine-tasting town of Los Olivos. “There hasn’t been any noise about stuff happening out there. I’m surprised they haven’t sold it to someone else already.”
Etling, author of the Santa Ynez Valley tell-all “Sideways in Neverland,” wondered who the buyer of the $35 million, 2,600-acre property might be when a nearby 3,250-acre ranch recently sold for $22 million.
His only guess: Someone who really likes the King of Pop.
Associated Press Entertainment Writer Anthony McCartney contributed to this report.