Los Olivos, California, March 20 (AP): Here lies Neverland. Trains once packed with laughing children no longer roll around the grounds. The arcade that pulsed with rap music, the curse words edited out, has fallen silent. No one waits at the gate with ice cream for youngsters to arrive.
After years of rumours about its demise, the fantasy playland Michael Jackson created as a celebration of childhood and a retreat from his troubles is going dark.
The pop star, now living half a world away, dismissed many of the remaining employees on Thursday after agreeing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in back wages to avoid a lawsuit by state labour officials.
His spokeswoman characterised the moves as those of someone who will be away for an extended period, not someone abandoning a home for good.
Jackson once opened Neverland for everything from an Elizabeth Taylor wedding and celebrity fundraisers to field trips for busloads of children. That was before his trial on charges he plied a young cancer patient with booze and molested him in 2003 in the master bedroom. Following his acquittal last year, Jackson moved to Bahrain.
He left behind troubled finances, a tattered reputation ' and Neverland.
The 2,600-acre estate, which Jackson purchased for $14.6 million in 1988, is tucked into the California countryside amid wineries about 100 miles north-west of Los Angeles.
Some of the curiosities behind its gates are world-famous: a menagerie of exotic animals, a mini amusement park, two trains and prominent pictures of Jackson holding hands with children.
The singer’s trial revealed other oddities. A juke box in the arcade concealed a wine cellar. Other rooms were full of dolls and mannequins dressed as superheroes and film idols.
On Friday, the home was undisturbed, except by an occasional fan and a delivery truck. The driver, who gave his name only as Larry because he has signed an agreement not to talk about Neverland, said he was delivering food for Jackson’s animals. He said a woman who cared for and trained the animals was still working there on Friday and that the animals appeared healthy.
“The animals are well taken care of,” he said, adding that their food includes mangos, papayas and boxed fruit juices for the chimpanzees.
A man at the guard house just inside the gate, speaking through an intercom hidden in a mailbox, said he was a relative of Jackson’s but declined to discuss the ranch, where he said he lived.
The singer named Neverland after the home of Peter Pan. In an interview aired in 2003, he insisted he didn’t just identify with the boy who wouldn’t grow up. “I am Peter Pan,” he said.
Jackson even opened his home to fans after a January 2004 court appearance, the same one at which he famously danced on his SUV outside the courthouse.
Guests arriving at Neverland on that sunny day were stopped by security guards from the Nation of Islam and required to sign a waiver promising not to carry cameras or cell phones. Entering, they shuffled past an ice cream cart to find a Charlie Chaplin impersonator wandering about.
A man who had survived serious burns ' one of hundreds of injured or hurting people Jackson has invited to the ranch ' played air hockey as a cleaned-up Eminem song blasted through the arcade.
One of the Nation of Islam guards made a cell phone call, saying the person at the other end wouldn’t believe where he was.
Jackson’s favourite parts of the ranch aren’t visible from the quiet road outside, which winds from the boutique town of Los Olivos past several horse ranches.
He has said he spent much of his time sitting in a “giving tree” overlooking a lake, where he wrote such songs as Black or White and Childhood.'
The latter title reflects the same feelings Jackson cited as his reason for creating Neverland ' early stardom with The Jackson 5 forced him to grow up too fast.
“People say I’m not ok, ’cause I love such elementary things,” he sings. “It’s been my fate to compensate, for the childhood I’ve never known.”
Jackson moved to Bahrain with his children after his acquittal in June. At least 30 Neverland employees said their paychecks stopped in December.
State officials effectively shut down the ranch this month and ordered Jackson to pay $306,000 in back wages. On Friday, they said he had complied.
Regina Rivera, 29, a nurse who lives in nearby Santa Maria and attended Jackson’s trial there, brought her grandfather and cousin to the ranch Friday because it has been in the news.
“I don’t think he’ll be back for a while,” she said.