The seven dwarfs are singing. Their voices are floating out of speakers hidden among the trees and lush flora surrounding Michael Jackson's mansion, in Neverland Valley — his 2700-acre, $22 million oasis in the Santa Ynez Valley, an hour north of Santa Barbara, California. "Michael's very own Xanadu," as his friend director John Landis puts it.
At Neverland, Jackson has created a secluded and secure environment far from businessmen, attorneys, managers, music-television-channel VIPs and even members of his immediate family. Here he can stand in front of his house and the only sounds to hear are the birds in the oak and sycamore trees and, of course, the Seven Dwarfs. And if he chooses to gaze past the expansive lake that stretches out in front of his three-story Tudoresque country home, past the lush green lawns and neatly manicured flower beds, the bronze statues of young boys beating tambourines or playing toy accordions, he sees simply a peaceful hillside dotted with oaks.
In any direction, as far as the eye can see, lies Michael Jackson's Magic Kingdom. "Sure he's a little afraid of people," says choreographer Vince Paterson. "When you have people that, from the time you're a little kid, want you, they want pieces of you, they want your clothes, they want your hair — you're going to get nervous around people."
But here at Neverland, protected by armed guards that patrol the grounds around the clock, Jackson doesn't have to be around people. And he never has to grow up.
Though Jackson is now a thirty-three-year-old man, his associates and friends say he still has the interests and enthusiasms of a child, and at Neverland he has created the ultimate child's playground. "Being with Michael is like being in Santa's workshop," says Paterson.
Santa has been working overtime at Neverland. One can ride a turn-of-the-century C.P. Huntington amusement-park-style train that holds several dozen passengers. Hop on board and it will take you from the main house out past an Indian village (tepees, full-size replicas of Native Americans, a totem pole and campfire), a two-story fort (complete with hefty artillery that shoots water) and an amusement park (including a carousel with custom-made, hand-painted animals, a Ferris wheel, a three-story-high slide and a heart-stopping ride called the Zipper).
Continue on and you'll see the $2 million-plus Neverland Cinema complex (where Cape Fear is playing tonight, according to signs posted at every stop along the train's route). Walk in and feast your eyes on the candy counter, filled with every kind of popcorn and confection imaginable. On either side of the large main projection room you'll find separate glassed-in viewing rooms, complete with beds for children who are ill.
Ride past the zoo, with its horses and zebra, buffalo and chimpanzees, ostriches and swans, deer and llamas. And the zonkey (a cross between a zebra and a donkey). And let's not forget the three giraffes.
Or go boating in the lake. You can choose between a swan boat, a canoe and a red dinghy. Perhaps you're up for playing some kind of electronic game. The rec building contains two floors of arcade games ranging from Sega's Time Traveler hologram unit and Galaxy Force Version 2 to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and something called Ghosttown.
At night, Neverland looks like it has been sprinkled with a kind of high-tech fairy dust. Out by the amusement park, for instance, Jackson has had white lights installed up the trunk and on the branches of the oak trees. As these lights flash on and off, glittering trees appear to materialize before one's eyes, only to vanish. A winding yellow-brick road (with recessed gold-colored lights) leads to the amusement park, which is lit against the black sky. Back at the house, the lake, the statues and the wood and stone buildings themselves look like set pieces from a fairy tale.
Amid this magical environment, Jackson will sometimes get in the outdoor Jacuzzi, remove a large piece of stone that conceals a TV and VCR and, sitting beneath the stars, watch one of the hundreds of videos that are stored in his tape library upstairs in the main house.
Jackson frequently has children over to play. According to his personal spokesperson, Bob Jones (who first worked with Jackson at Motown when the singer was a member of the Jackson 5), these regularly include "busloads" of underprivileged and terminally ill kids (such as the late Ryan White), as well as young personal friends of the superstar.
"When the children are here, sometimes they get so excited they just can't go to sleep," says Lee Tucker, who helped design Jackson's movie theater and serves as his projectionist. "I'll get a call at 2:00 a.m. sometimes: 'Lee, can you show such-and-such movie?' Neverland isn't about kids going to sleep at a certain time. The kids really run the place when they're here."
Jackson is extremely fond of children. Those who know him believe that one reason he can relax with kids is that he truly believes they like him for himself, not because he's a big star. As one associate observed, "If you're under three feet tall, you can have complete access to Michael Jackson."
Jackson's house is exquisitely furnished. The main floor includes an oak-paneled library stocked with rare editions of classics by Charles Dickens, Mark Twain and dozens of others. The spacious living room houses a Bosendorfer custom-made rosewood piano and numerous rare art pieces, among them a Raymond Bigot sculpture of a rooster and chickens. There is a roomy den with a Bouquet Canyon stone fireplace, a fully equipped professional kitchen and a spacious dining room with its own fireplace. Down a hall is Jackson's bedroom, which is off limits to most visitors; it looks out onto a garden enclosed by a six-foot-high stone wall.
While the main floor would make an English lord feel right at home, the upstairs is, like the grounds of the estate, filled with the stuff that children dream about. There is a doll bedroom, a large room with a canopied bed that is crowded with dozens of dolls. Many more dolls, some with sad faces, some smiling, peer at you from every nook and cranny. A three-story, elaborately furnished doll house containing miniature figures sits on one side of the room. Wizard of Oz plates and jack-in-the-boxes, each featuring Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man or one of the other primary characters, have been placed on shelves. There is an old-fashioned typewriter with a piece of paper in it on which someone has typed: "And all we want for Christmas..." Sitting on an end table is Shirley Temple Black's autobiography, "Child Star."
Another room is jammed with children's games and toys. There are coloring books and crayons, a gun that shoots soap bubbles. A table full of trucks and cars and spaceships. In front of a window stand life-size cutouts of Batman and the Joker. Simpsons characters are everywhere.
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