Unless you were one of Michael Jackson's hand-selected children, chances are you never stepped inside the gates of his magical Neverland Ranch. Years after its forced closure, we're heading in and uncovering the truth...
Let's start at the beginning: Neverland Ranch was Michael Jackson's dream. The 2,700 acres of gate-enclosed land offered the King of Pop a place to escape from the limelight and cameras and relax.
With all the attractions and entertainment features it contained, it was truly a manifestation of Jackson's wildest dreams. The childish components of the ranch left many speculating over its true intentions. Was Michael simply living out the childhood he missed out on, or was there a different agenda?
Left to Decay
After Michael Jackson passed, Neverland Ranch remained in its place. People did whatever they could to get beyond its walls and explore the site once strewed in secrecy. With the site no longer in operation, the buildings and attractions were left to decay and break down.
Although those who entered were likely shocked to see the once-magical site in such disarray, a lot could still be learned from its remains. Each piece of furniture and every corner of the ranch told a story and helped visitors to gain an understanding of what likely occurred there.
Back in the Day
In its prime time, Neverland Ranch was the place to be. From the second a guest entered through the gates, Jackson ensured they were having the time of their lives. Opportunities were limitless, and there was no saying what would happen next. From rides to fast food, it was a child's paradise.
Kids from all over would be invited to come and play at the Ranch. Michael extended the invitation to hundreds of children who were either underprivileged or critically ill. Much praise was sent Jackson's way as people were in awe of his extensive generosity.
Gaining a ticket to Neverland was like scoring a pass to Disneyland, and we don't mean that metaphorically. Michael designed the park's lawn entrance and central rail station to mirror what is seen in Disney's famous attraction - the Alice in Wonderland area.
Overall, he aimed to recreate that sense of magical adventure that is felt upon walking through the gates of Disneyland. Just like Disney, it was designed to be an escape from reality, a world of its own. The Neverland kids were carefree and having the time of their lives - according to Michael, at least.
When the kids weren't being entertained by the numerous amusement park rides on offer, there were plenty of other activities to keep them busy. MJ had a beautiful pool installed on the ranch grounds, which was designed to look like a natural lake rather than a manmade pool.
With two diving boards and plenty of sunbeds, the children were able to splash around and relax in the California sun. MJ would often sit with the children here, chatting with them and getting to know them. There's even footage of the kids pushing Jackson into the water!
When it came to Neverland, there was no detail left unplanned. After all that running around and adrenaline-boosting activities, the children understandably worked up an appetite. Thankfully, there was an entire team of chefs on hand, whipping up whatever it was that they desired.
With an outdoor grill area and a fully equipped kitchen, everything was on the menu. From burgers to hot dogs, the Neverland kids simply asked and were given. Finally, a place where no adult was stuffing vegetables down their throats! It was fast food all the way.
To the dismay of all those involved in the Ranch, Neverland was forced to shut its gates for good after numerous criminal accusations came MJ's way. Reports of misconduct on the grounds of Neverland surfaced, and Jackson was forced to cease operations until further notice.
An official trial titled 'The People v. Jackson' was officially underway in 2003, and the King of Pop faced numerous charges with multiple counts relating to inappropriate relations with the children. Michael was heartbroken over the dismantling of his dream.
In response to these claims, Jackson maintained his innocence. "Don't treat me like a criminal because I am innocent," he said on camera. "In the last few weeks, a large amount of ugly, malicious information has been released to the media about me. I could never harm a child," he insisted.
He insisted that he would never return to the Ranch after all this scandalous drama, even if he were to be acquitted of all charges. As far as he was concerned, the claims had tainted his dream and had destroyed its sense of home and comfort that he had designed it to contain.
Investigating the Site
Regardless of Michael's claims of innocence, an investigation into Neverland and its activities began in 2003. Police forces entered through the gates and began to inspect all of its aspects. If it wasn't clear before this, the fun times at the ranch were officially over.
As part of the trial, police were instructed to enter the Ranch in search of discriminatory evidence against the singer. Jackson would face years in jail if anything could be found to prove these accusations were truthful. To the relief of Jackson and all his fans, the authorities came up empty.
No Man's Land
True to his word, Jackson shut down the ranch for good shortly after being acquitted. In 2005, he fired all of the Neverland staff, sold off the rides and animals on the site, and never returned. In 2008, amidst great financial struggles, MJ teamed up with Colony Capital to share control of the title.
Following MJ's death in 2009, the Ranch remained untouched for many years, with no plan of action. Finally, in 2015, it was put on the market for $100 million but disappointingly had no interested buyers. At long last, in December 2020, it was bought for $22 million by Ron Burkle.
His Internal Child
Neverland was not just the name of Jackson's Ranch and amusement park; it was also the name given to his home and a description he felt passionately about. So what was the meaning behind this moniker? What was meant by the term Neverland and why did he choose it specifically?
Of course, this is an apparent reference to the residence of Disney's Peter Pan - the boy who refused to grow up. With this, many questioned why MJ chose to name his Ranch as such. Was he embracing his inner child and the side of him that never wanted to grow up?
Entering the Ranch
For the years during its opening, many stories were told as to what went down behind its gates, but little was ever officially confirmed or denied. Shortly after MJ's death, the Today show's Matt Lauer took the public on a virtual tour of the Neverland Ranch property grounds.
In 2015, when the Ranch was put on the market, the Today Show returned to the grounds again to see what remained. Although much had been removed or sold off, the public finally gained an insight into the activities and services that were offered to the children at Neverland...
As many now know, the Neverland Ranch contained an impressive zoo for the children to visit. By this, we don't mean a farm-animal-filled petting zoo but rather a full-fledged zoo with giraffes, elephants, flamingos, and alligators. It was a wild time!
Tours of the facility after its closure show that while the zoo structure remains in place, the animals are long gone, having been sold off by MJ's in-house vet Martin Dinnes. The Today show reported in 2015 that the only animal left remaining on the Ranch was one lonely llama.
The Remaining Rides
Children visiting the park were able to enjoy all the rides on the Ranch's grounds. This included a carousel, roller coasters, and high swings. On theme, the carousel played Michael Jackson's song childhood. As would be expected, the amusement park attractions had annual operating costs of $5 million.
After he was acquitted, Jackson sold off the rides to various amusement parks around the country. For example, Coney Island is now home to the Dragon Wagon kids' rollercoaster that used to be ridden on by the kids of Neverland. Those visiting the site in the years since its closure saw nothing but grass where the rides used to be.
Although the amusement park attractions themselves were removed from the Ranch immediately after its closure, some of the ground's more peculiar and eerie features were left behind for the world to see. Statues of children involved in various activities could be found dotted around the Ranch.
Whether standing and holding hands in a circle or playing together in a wooden cart, these figures seemed to mirror the assumed actions of the kids at the park. It's easy to picture kids dancing and playing alongside the statues. Over the years, they've grown rustier and, frankly, more sinister.
Most kids love trains, and Michael Jackson was no exception. So, when designing his dream fantasy land, putting in a life-sized train system was an absolute no-brainer. Neverland ranch contained two railroads that transported the children around the grounds where their little legs couldn't keep up.
One railroad contained a stem locomotive named Catherine, which Jackson named after his beloved mother. When potential buyers toured the property in 2015, all that remained of this transport system was the track and central train station.
The Movie Theatre
Considering the Neverland Ranch belonged to one of the greatest performers of all time, it's no surprise that he thought to include a full-size indoor concert venue on its grounds. With space for over a thousand audience members, it's presumed Jackson intended to perform for his guests.
Unfortunately, the concert hall was never used during the entire time that Neverland Ranch was open. After the site's closure, the auditorium remained in its place, and just like the rest of the remaining Neverland features, it's gotten eerier with age.
Yet another section of Neverland that was left to rust and decay was the children's playground, which stood at the Ranch's pride and center. Perhaps aimed toward the younger children invited to the grounds, this was once home to screaming, happy children.
Sadly, it told a very different story when discovered by those visiting the site all those years later. Broken and dirty, it could not reach its purpose after children left the grounds and never returned. Whether the new owners will reinstate or dismantle these remaining features is unknown.
As mentioned, the official police investigation into Neverland led the authorities beyond the gates of Neverland Ranch and into the mansion walls itself. Based on the later released police photographs, it's clear there was much to search through and much to unpack.
The 6 rooms of the 12,000 sq ft French country-style house were filled with stuff, and the authorities had their work cut out for them. All in all, the images gave the public a deeper look into the activities and services offered to the Neverland children when they fancied some time out of the sun.
While an abundance of children's toys doesn't sound too alarming at first, a closer look revealed some of them to be a little creepy in nature. Decapitated dolls and broken toys filled one of the main rooms in the mansion, forcing authorities to question their purpose.
Perhaps there was no ill intent, and the toys were simply there for the children to play with and enjoy. Others speculated whether Jackson himself took satisfaction from playing with these toys - bringing up further questions about the state of his mental health during these Neverland years.
The walls of the French house were filled with paintings from ceiling to floor. Colorful artwork welcomed the children as they entered the house, symbolizing the fun they were sure to have while on the site. Although they mostly seemed harmless, one piece of art, in particular, had everyone talking.
A very large framed painting depicted the King of Pop himself leading a long line of children through the grounds of what appeared to be Neverland. The sun was shining, and everyone involved seemed to be smiling happily. Colorful balloons and luscious greenery completed the tone of the piece.
One thing that Michael Jackson loved to collect more than most was Hollywood memorabilia, and boy, did he do it well. A tour through the Neverland mansion revealed a vast collection of items taken directly from famous film sets. Jackson would have paid a hefty price tag to take ownership of these.
This collection included the scissor-handed gloves from Edward Scissorhands, the original suits from the 1989 Batman movie, and even a life-sized Power Ranger. Considering the huge movie buff he was, he aimed to get his hands on the most valuable collector items on the market.
The Movie Library
Another incredible feature of the Ranch discovered by investigators in 2005 was the extensive movie collection established in a room of the Neverland mansion. Including movies from all genres, there were dedicated sections to cartoons, documentaries, horror, comedy, and much more.
A 2009 Architectural Digest article released shortly after Jackson's death included a first-hand account from a site visitor. Here, they detailed the movie theater which remained in the park. Presumably, the Neverland children were able to visit the movie library and play the film of their choice on the big screen.
As mentioned, kids from all backgrounds were invited to join in on the adventures at Neverland Ranch. Although this mainly included children from underprivileged backgrounds, the invitation was often extended to celebrity children too. One famous Neverland visitor was Home Alone's Macaulay Culkin.
MJ and Culkin were incredibly close and spent much time together enjoying the attractions at the ranch. In fact, when Jackson later became a father to Paris Jackson, he named Macauley as her godfather. When the authorities later searched the mansion, they discovered a painting done by an 11-year-old Culkin.
The Cherished Autograph
Jackson's Culkin collectibles didn't stop at just a hand-designed painting. The King of Pop made sure to honor the child's Home Alone fame while he could. He made the child star sign his autograph on framed Home Alone press photos. In this photo, he can be seen signing a tennis ball.
Investigators later uncovered these autographed items among the rest of the film memorabilia in the mansion. Unfortunately for the owners of the Jackson estate, the actor eventually vanished from the spotlight, meaning these items did not reach their expected value.
Footage of the property taken in the years after its closure introduced the public to the game room at Neverland Ranch. Children who visited the grounds could enjoy all of the arcade games for an unlimited amount of time. Especially for those underprivileged kids, this was a real treat.
In true Michael Jackson style, the king of pop included his 1990 Moonwalker video game which SEGA created after the success of his film of the same name. The game features Jackson himself as he works to save children from the evil character Mr. Big.
His Royal Throne
What's more suited for the King of Pop than a royal red throne? When Neverland was uncovered all those years later, investigators were hardly surprised to find a large throne inside the mansion. Although it was not made of real gold, it included an intricate amount of impressive detail.
As for the purpose of this throne? We'll likely never know. It seemed to have been part of a general royal room within the mansion - equipped with swords, MJ's royal-style blazers and gowns, jewel-encrusted crowns, and a regal portrait of the King of Pop himself. We would expect no less.
The Maid Speaks Out
In 2019, Michael Jackson's former maid at Neverland sat down with 60 Minutes Australia to give her side of the story. Adrian Mcmanus worked on the Ranch for four years, from 1990 to 1994. During this time, she grew close to the pop star and was allowed into his inner circle.
Matching the allegations made by some Neverland children back in the day, she said Jackson picked up on the fact that she knew the more sinister ongoings on the ranch. "There were some different sides to him. There was a kind side to him, and yet there was a dark side. I feel he was a manipulator," she said.
"I Know the Truth"
As explained by Adrian, Neverland employees were made to sign confidentiality agreements and told not to question or report anything that occurred there. She explains that this is why she never came out to the public with the truth about what she saw during her time on the Ranch.
"I know the truth; I was there," she told 60 Minutes Australia. "I saw stuff that I did not think was appropriate," she explained. Adrian explained she feared Jackson and therefore lied on his behalf. She claimed that he later came to her with payment for her silence.
A Different Person
While other celebrities and ex-staff members have had their say on the Thriller singer, Elton John had one particular encounter with the King of Pop, which he would never forget. The Rocketman singer recalled that when he originally met Jackson at age 13 or 14, "He was just the most adorable kid you could imagine."
However, as years passed, John encountered Jackson once again. But this time, it was not the Michael he originally adored. John expressed, "God knows what was going on in his head… but every time I saw him in his later years, I came away thinking that the poor guy had totally lost his marbles… a disturbing person to be around."
A documentary released in 2019 titled Leaving Neverland brought new life to claims made back in the day. Featuring Wade Robson and James Safechuck, the two children who accused Jackson back in the day returned with their startling claims, describing the Neverland Ranch as an "amusement park of evil."
In response to this film's release, many slammed these claims as opportunistic lies. Passionate fans of Michael Jackson refuse to accept these accusations are true, believing they only serve to taint the godly reputation of the King of Pop. Unfortunately, we may never know the truth...