Situated in the Santa Ynez Valley of Santa Monica, California, the almost 3,000 acre plot of land upon which Neverland Ranch was constructed has recently been placed back on the market. Nowadays, the one-time residence of international pop sensation Michael Jackson is going by a new name: Sycamore Valley Ranch. Much of the estate is as it was during the 15 years Jackson called it his home, except for a few glaring differences – namely, the removal of the fun-fair rides that gave the home its whimsical name Neverland Ranch. The very last vestiges of where the carousel once spun are still visible as you go through the grounds. Read on for an in-depth view of the ranch.
Decades ago, the Neverland Ranch was nothing like what we know it to be today. The plot of land and modest ranch situated in its center were going by a different name, the Zaca Laderas Ranch. It was only when property developer William Bone purchased the land in 1977 that the plans for the main home as we recognize it today first started to take form.
It had taken Bone 15 years, but by 1982 the sprawling green fields were finally situated with everything he could ever have wanted: a stone bridge, four-acre lake with a stunning waterfall, and a formal garden. It would only be a few years after construction was finished, that an unbelievable celebrity buyer would come knocking on the door of the estate, now known as Sycamore Valley Ranch.
In the years that followed, William Bone toyed with the idea of turning his completed Sycamore Valley Ranch into a country club, but by 1988, a celebrity buyer was on his doorstep ready to have the contracts drawn up and promptly sign on the dotted line.
It’s hard to imagine the shock Bone and his wife must have felt in the minutes it took them to register the man at their door. None other than the King of Pop himself Michael Jackson was eager to close on the property. In fact, he was so ready to take up residence in the ranch, that the interior furnishings were all included in the offer of purchase.
At the time, in the early to mid-80s, internationally renowned, chart-topping, record-breaking Michael Jackson had still technically been living with his parents (when he wasn’t on tour). On the recommendation of his good friend Elizabeth Taylor, Jackson decided it was time to find a place of his own.
Fresh on the heels of his seventh studio album Bad, the years of work and anxiety that had become tied up in his long-awaited follow up to Thriller had given the star a distaste for the spotlight. By 1988, Jackson was ready to close on the ranch – with major plans of turning it into something totally out of the ordinary.
How did Jackson come to hear about the property itself anyway? Well, Jackson actually had been there before, years before he’d come to own it himself. Back in 1983, Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney collaborated on a duet, “Say, say, say” and it was then that he’d first see Sycamore Valley Ranch.
During the production of the song, and filming of the accompanying music video Jackson first fell for the property. McCartney and his wife were staying at the ranch, and it even acted as one of the locations for the music video. It was then that Jackson first expressed an interest in the ranch — a dream that would eventually come to pass.
Reports on how much money Michael Jackson shelled out for full ownership of the ranch vary, ranging from $17 million to $30 million. Wherever the actual number fell along that line, it’s fair to say he paid a pretty penny. Next, Jackson had big plans for how the property would be transformed.
First, the ranch was to be renamed. Drawing inspiration from a favorite fairy-tale, Peter Pan, Jackson dubbed his new home and the surrounding land Neverland Ranch, after the fictional island from the J.M. Barrie book. Neverland was an island where kids stayed kids forever, and fun was the only order of the day, an environment Jackson was eager to make for himself.
Pulling his checkbook back out almost immediately after taking over ownership of the ranch, Jackson set to work creating an estate that contained every form of entertainment he had ever wanted as a child, and hadn’t had the opportunity to enjoy as a child star. First off was setting up a petting zoo.
The animal menagerie was quite extensive, and very impressive for a private zoo. On the property the zoo maintained two deer, two llamas, a python, alligators, giraffes, and exotic birds. Soon after opening the zoo, a celebrity friend of the pop star would gift him an animal that immediately became a star attraction.
Michael Jackson and Elizabeth Taylor’s friendship had been cemented back in 1983, but the two stars became ever more enamored of one another as Jackson spent more time at Neverland Ranch where Taylor was free to visit as often, and for as long as she liked.
As a token of his affection for the legendary actress, Michael Jackson painted a room in his ranch the exact color of Taylor’s iconic and rare violet eyes. To return the favor, Taylor had an elephant named Gypsy shipped from Asia to live with Jackson in his private zoo. Although, the impressive collection of animals were far from the only attraction at Neverland Ranch.
Jackson very much wanted to do the name of his ranch justice, and Neverland was all about wonderment. Jackson had a whole slew of fun-fair rides and games installed on the grounds, essentially in his very backyard, and the scale of the personal theme park was remarkable.
Some on the many rides that could be found on the property include a ferris wheel, carousel, wave swinger, bumper cars and more. Jackson had nearly ten different amusement park rides fully operational at all times. And even just to get to the theme park portion of his vast estate, Jackson had come up with an on-theme form of transport.
The main house and amusement park were nestled into the almost 3,000 acre plot of land, and once you entered the front gates of the property from the public road, there was still a ways to go to get to the fun and games.
However, Michael Jackson was so committed to the Disney inspired Neverland theme he had been building, he came up with a method of travel that was perfectly on brand — a private train would shuttle passengers in style around the estate. The train was named Katherine, after Jackson’s mother, and it’s first stop transported passengers to another world.
Along with his acquisition of a private train shuttle, Jackson had a train station built, and also named after his mother, Katherine Station. From the colorful flower clock in front of the train station, anyone aboard Katherine train knew right away that they were entering an entirely different environment.
Neverland Ranch and theme park was very much the product of Michael’s wildest imagination, and every detail within the grounds had been carefully accounted for, and was integrated into the theme. Once the passengers were shuttled to Katherine Station, the amusement park was just within reach, and there were still ever more entertainments to be found within the estate.
Throughout the entirety of Neverland Ranch, there were 22 various barns, guest houses, stables and other buildings littered across the sprawling landscape. And included on the property was a barn of particular importance to Jackson, his very own professionally equipped private movie theater.
Together with silver screen legend Elizabeth Taylor, the two would watch classic Hollywood films in the movie theater. Taylor would regale the pop star with tales of her time acting amongst fellow Old Hollywood heavy-hitters like Montgomery Clift, Rock Hudson, Clark Gable, and others. In fact, it would only be a few years after Neverland Ranch was fully constructed, that Jackson would host a very special party for his dear friend.
Michael Jackson had taken every detail into consideration when he had seen to the construction of his elaborate home, and so it was with that same attention and care that the musician turned to the planning of Elizabeth Taylor’s wedding to construction worker Larry Fortensky at Neverland Ranch.
In 1991 Jackson walked his close friend Elizabeth Taylor down the aisle and to a gardenia filled gazebo to give her away. Fellow famous friends looked on admiring the ceremony and reception, which had been almost entirely paid for, all $1.5 million, by Jackson. But he was more than happy to play host to his friends’ happy occasions at his home.
Despite Michael Jackson not actually being present for the special occasion, a young teenaged Kim Kardashian and her family were given admission into Neverland Ranch for the celebration of Kim’s 14th birthday party. At the time, Kim was dating one of Jackson’s nephews, and so without hesitation, the theme park was opened up to the birthday girl and her friends.
Kim recalls that from the very moment you drove up to Neverland Ranch, it was a place so unlike anything she’d ever seen. There were baby elephants and chimpanzees in overalls free to roam around the grounds. Kim and her friends even posed for a silly snap in Neverland’s photobooth. Another young star has similar memories of the rides at Neverland Ranch.
Among the many guests at Elizabeth Taylor’s wedding and a frequent celebrity guest at Neverland Ranch, was child star Macaulay Culkin. Macaulay was given free rein of the theme park and had his own particular preferred method of travel between rides.
Macaulay enjoyed racing from the swimming pool to the bumper cars or the ferris wheel, all on one of the fleet of golf carts Jackson maintained for added transport around the expansive estate. The same mischievous streak Culkin’s most famous character Kevin McCallister was known for, was always on full display whenever he was racing around Neverland Ranch. But what about the house itself?
The main house at Neverland Ranch was enormous in and of itself at 13,000 square feet overall. The home has six bedrooms, a commercial grade kitchen, large living room where Jackson had a piano set up to work on music for future albums, and within his bedroom, a secret closet.
Jackson was an avid collector, and kept all of his most valuable possessions inside the secret closet hidden within the master bedroom. Of the items supposedly stored within the in-house safe were many art books, the glove Jackson wore during the performance of “Billie Jean”, gifts of sentimental value from Elizabeth Taylor, and more.
By 1995 Jackson had someone to help him with the handling of the day to day operations of Neverland Ranch, his new wife, Lisa Marie Presley. Despite the many celebrity weddings Jackson hosted on-site at his home, Jackson and Presley were actually wed in a private ceremony in the Dominican Republic.
Here, the two are captured showing a group of visitors around the theme park, before the guests were allowed to spend the day enjoying the amusements. Presley’s daughter from a previous relationship, actress Riley Keough, recalls her time living at Neverland Ranch saying, “There were toys everywhere, animals everywhere, kids everywhere. It was like being at Disneyland all day.” How did he keep it all up and running?
With nearly ten fully functional fun-fair rides, a 50-seat movie theater, a dance studio connected to the theater, countless guest houses, pools, and acre upon acre of flower gardens, the running of Neverland Ranch was no easy task — it required help, and lots of it.
Reports have claimed that the annual maintenance costs for Jackson’s home/private theme park were $5 million annually, including the pay of his extensive on-site staff. With so much work to be done around the extensive estate, Jackson employed a wide array of animal experts for the petting zoo, personal chefs, and many more. As part of their terms of employment, staff members were asked to smile at all times.
By 2005 Jackson’s affinity for Neverland Ranch wasn’t what it once was, and the pop star moved out and into a home in Bahrain, along the Persian Gulf. Meanwhile, Neverland and all its amusement park rides, arcade games, and attentive staff stayed behind.
After a year away, and the near $5 million in maintenance costs unpaid, the California government ordered that Neverland Ranch was to be closed down, and the staff was free to seek employment elsewhere. All of Jackson’s belongings were to be packed up, and the fun-fair rides sat unplugged. Too large to sit in a storage container, something had to be done about the theme park and petting zoo.
The Ferris wheel, carousel, bumper cars, and every last ride that had made Neverland Ranch so different from a regular residence, were auctioned off to various traveling carnivals, amusement parks and fun-fairs, with the demarcated spaces they once occupied sitting empty. And as for the animals?
Michael Jackson entrusted long-time veterinarian Michael Dinnes with the dispersal of his many exotic pets. Dinnes told the press that some of the animals were sold, while others were simply given away. Ultimately, Jackson had the final stamp of approval over where each animal ended up. However, when it came to his home’s furnishings, Jackson wasn’t ready to see it all on the auction block.
Michael Jackson was adamant that he would sooner see his once beloved Neverland Ranch sold to a stranger, than have his items from within the home sold at auction. The remaining contents of the Neverland Estate were to be stored for his children to do with as they pleased when they got older.
Once the fun-fair rides, petting zoo, and personal belongings were removed from the premises, the ground were no longer a theme park, rather a vast estate, sitting empty and untouched. By 2009, a garden that had once been orchestrated to pay homage to Peter Pan was made over into a meditative zen garden. Slowly, all traces of Neverland Ranch were being erased.
With the removal of the amusement park rides and the dismantling of Neverland Ranch as it had come to exist after Jackson first took possession, the future of the theme park/home remained uncertain. Jackson struck a private deal with an investment company, and gave over partial ownership of the estate — until, an unexpected turn of events.
Michael Jackson passed away at the age of 50 of cardiac arrest, on Jun 25, 2009. Despite rumors that a memorial service would be held at Neverland Ranch, even as it sat uninhabited and entirely empty, Neverland Ranch remained closed. With Colony Capital as the majority owner of the estate, Neverland Ranch would never be the same. But what happened after Jackson’s passing?
After Michael Jackson’s untimely passing, Neverland Ranch underwent extensive renovations. Much of the main structures remained untouched, including the four-acre lake with waterfall, tennis court, main house, three guest houses, train tracks, and even the floral clock spelling out “Neverland” have been maintained. The property was ready for purchase.
It had been nearly a decade since Jackson had moved out and moved on from Neverland Ranch, seemingly poised for reinvention under fresh ownership, but for some reason, it went unnoticed and unlisted. Finally, in 2015, Neverland Ranch was put on the market, and the asking price was many times multiplied what Jackson had paid in 1988. But who was to purchase the once-lavish estate?
Listed for an astronomical $100 million asking price, the property went unsold. According to the listing agent Joyce Rey, the high price allowed Colony Capital “time to better determine the future of the Ranch.” It wouldn’t be for a while longer before the estate would find itself back on the market, and in a new way.
Renamed, or actually, under its maiden name of Sycamore Valley Ranch, the property was placed back on the market. Hoping to separate the listing from its celebrity past by stripping away the title of Neverland Ranch, the price was slashed too – to $67 million. Would it find a buyer to bring life back into the abandoned estate?
After its initial listing at $100 million, the 33% drop in price seemed to spell success for the sale of the one-time Neverland Ranch. Listing agent Joyce Rey felt optimistic about the property’s chances of finding new ownership, telling the Los Angeles times “This quintessential California estate is now ready for the next chapter in its journey,” in early 2017.
Having suffered considerably from the record-breaking droughts and wildfires that have been plaguing California since it was initially listed in 2015, the estate appeared to be a shadow of its former self. Still sitting unsold, it’s been placed back on the market as recently as early 2019, perhaps for the last time.
If you’re in the market for 2,700 acres in the Santa Ynez Valley of Santa Barbara, California, the Sycamore Valley Ranch (nee Neverland Ranch) is currently listed at its lowest asking price yet at $31 million. So, what remnants of Neverland Ranch and theme park would a potential buyer be getting?
After a series of upgrades made to the property, several features installed by Jackson in his time as owner are still standing on the estate, including: the train (formerly Katherine train), fire department building, many of the bronze statues commissioned by the pop star and sprinkled throughout the grounds, the topiary clock spelling “Neverland”, and the movie theater. Who knows what the future holds for Neverland?
Sources: dailymail.co.uk, forbes.com, mtv.com, latimes.com