Nearly eight years after Michael Jackson’s death, Neverland Valley Ranch – the magic kingdom of the King of Pop – still lies vacant. Jackson’s Estate and investment company Colony Capital, who own the ranch as a joint venture, are eager to sell it off, but Jackson’s fans disagree. In their view, Neverland should be preserved as a Michael Jackson museum. Here are seven reasons why they could be right.
1. Neverland will forever be Jackson’s home
Let’s start off with the obvious. Neverland Valley Ranch, the sprawling 2,700 acre estate in Los Olivos, Santa Barbara, will always be Michael Jackson’s domain. No matter who buys it, fans will continue to gather at the outer gates of the ranch, leaving their mementos, thoughts and prayers for the King of Pop.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. For nearly twenty years, Neverland was Jackson’s beloved home. “Neverland is me…you know? It represents the totality of who I am”, he said in his Private Home Movies in 2003. No wonder Jackson spent countless hours perfecting his magic kingdom, which included a main house with formal gardens, a guest house, an amusement park, a zoo, sports facilities, a dance studio, a movie theatre, and even a train station.
Although most of Jackson’s traces at Neverland have disappeared, the ranch still lives and breathes his presence. Neverland is where Jackson dreamed his dreams, raised his family, and lived his secluded life. Despite the fact that Jackson left the ranch in 2005 and agreed to sell the place, Neverland sits and awaits his return.
2. Neverland still hasn’t sold
Neverland, which now goes by the name of Sycamore Valley Ranch, was put on the real estate market in May 2015 and still hasn’t sold. Estimated to be worth at least $27 million, the initial asking price was a whopping $100 million. No buyers applied, so the price was dropped to $67 million in March 2017. Still, no one has been willing to cough up the dough.
In the meantime, agents targeting the upper end of the real estate market come and go. Of course it could be a matter of time and patience, as Forbes magazine suggested in 2016. There are only so many billionaires interested in buying a remote ranch in California. But the question really is, if Neverland should be sold at all.
3. Neverland sits vacant and is costing money
When Neverland was still in full operating order, the maintenance and exploitation of Jackson’s ranch was estimated to cost $3 million a year. Although the ranch is now unoccupied, with the amusement park gone and the zoo nearly empty, the upkeep of the property is costing Jackson’s Estate and Colony Capital some serious money.
Property tax, insurance, maintenance, security to prevent vandalism, and the occasional PR events to keep real estate agents and other parties in the loop: it all adds up. As long as Neverland sits vacant, the property loses value every day. Which makes you wonder why it hasn’t been turned into a money-making asset.
4. Neverland can help preserve Jackson’s legacy
Elvis has Graceland, Prince has Paisley Park, and Chaplin has Chaplin’s World. Former homes, especially estates, make great museums. Why should Neverland be an exception? It makes little sense leaving the property as it is, while Jackson’s Estate at the same time lacks a museum to preserve the King of Pop’s legacy.
It’s about time, too. Countless memorabilia that are part of Jackson’s life story have been sold off through auctions. From Neverland amusement rides to Jackson’s legendary outfits worn on stage and in his videos, and from personal drawings to private video footage: Jackson’s legacy has been up for grabs.
In the meantime, Jackson items that have not (yet?) been sold, are collecting dust in warehouses. The same is true for Jackson’s art, which was rediscovered in a Santa Monica Airport hangar in 2011. Jackson’s art mentor, Brett-Livingstone Strong, still dreams of exhibiting the drawings and paintings in a proper museum setting.
5. Neverland is big enough to receive large crowds
Despite the ranch’s remote location – a three-hour drive from Los Angeles – Neverland is the perfect venue for a museum or theme park. The estate has plenty of acres to receive and accommodate large numbers of visitors. In fact, that’s what Jackson bought the ranch for in the first place.
Unknown to many, Jackson regularly received busloads of underprivileged youth and terminally ill children. Groups were invited to visit the ranch and enjoy the rides, even when Jackson was away from home. The 50-seat movie theatre included two fully equipped bedrooms with large glass walls that allowed terminally ill children to be part of the fun.
In addition to having enough space, the ranch has a fairly good infrastructure. It has private roads, parking facilities, walking trails, and even two railroads. Jackson’s two steam trains – the smaller ‘C.P. Huntington’ and the bigger ‘Katherine’ – chugged and whistled their way around the grounds to transport Jackson’s guests.
6. Neverland can’t be recreated elsewhere
Of course there are objections from neighbours: turning Neverland into a Jackson museum would disrupt the small-town charm of Los Olivos. The infrastructure doesn’t support large numbers of tourists and any changes would ruin the town’s architectural character of wineries and tasting rooms.
This may be true, but rezoning Neverland from agricultural to commercial use has its advantages as well. Opening Neverland to the public would bring a steady cash-flow not just to Jackson’s Estate, but also to the region’s hotels, restaurants, wineries, tasting rooms and other visitor attractions.
Alternatively, Neverland could be sold off and recreated as a theme park elsewhere. This idea, however, can be compared to watching a Michael Jackson impersonator. Tributes are great, but they don’t even come close to the real thing.
Some have tried, though. In 2010, BWA architects designed a Michael Jackson theme park in Las Vegas. The project included a museum, casino, hotel, event centre, entertainment complex, TV studio and more. In addition, the architects planned on recreating parts of Neverland, such as its gilded gate, main house, formal gardens, lake and train station.
The project never materialized, which is something to be grateful for. Even though Jackson enjoyed spending time in Vegas, Neverland deserves better than a tacky copy in a gambler’s paradise. Its rolling hills, majestic trees and distant mountain ridges, bordering on the Los Padres National Forest, are what makes Neverland… well, simply Neverland.
7. Neverland is a dream worth keeping
Neverland is more than a home. Neverland is a vision, a dream, a legacy. Neverland is creativity, compassion and music history materialized. It’s a place of playfulness and magic, carrying the imprint of its creator. Neverland – second star to the right and straight on ‘til morning – is what Michael Jackson was all about.
Perhaps this is best explained by Jackson himself. “There are so many children in the city who haven’t seen the mountains, who haven’t been on a carousel, who haven’t pet a horse or a llama, never seen them. So if I can open my gates and see that bliss, an explosion of screaming laughter from the children, and they run on the rides, I say ‘Thank you, God.’ I feel I’ve won God’s smile of approval, because I’m doing something that brings joy and happiness to other people.” (interview with Geraldo Rivera, 2005)
A full restoration of Neverland, the enchanting home of the King of Pop, may be difficult but it’s not impossible. The Chaplin Estate faced similar problems when transforming Chaplin’s former home, the estate of Manoir de Ban in Switzerland, into Chaplin’s World. Yet they succeeded: the mansion has been succesfully restored and a magnificent film museum has been created right beside it.
If the Chaplins can pull it off in the pristine Swiss village of Corsier-sur-Vevey, then surely Colony Capital, Jackson’s Estate or any other investor can do the same in Los Olivos. Neverland was, and still is, Jackson’s visionary world of natural beauty, music and magic. If that’s not worth preserving for future generations, what is?
© Annemarie Latour