Neverland could rival Graceland as tour attraction

LOS ANGELES Thu Jul 2, 2009 4:10am IST

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Abandoned by Michael Jackson after a humiliating child molestation trial in 2005, the late singer's Neverland Ranch could now become one of the biggest draws in the world as a memorial to the King of Pop.

Jackson's family has said there are no plans for a funeral or burial of his body at the ranch in central California after his death last week.

But the rural playground inspired by Jackson's alter-ego, Peter Pan, would remain an attraction in a region already visited by tourists, and it could rival Elvis Presley's Graceland as a future venue for his millions of fans around the world.

"Michael Jackson has worldwide appeal and probably a stronger fan base than even Elvis. Neverland is a lot larger than Graceland and Los Angeles is a major tourist destination already," said Roger Brooks, CEO of tourism company Destination Development International.

"Neverland embodied who Michael Jackson was -- the good and the bad. I think it could draw about one million visitors a year," Brooks told Reuters.

Los Angeles-based private equity firm Colony Capital bought the ranch in 2008 in a joint venture with Jackson when he went $24 million in arrears on his mortgage. Colony said "any discussion on the future of the property is premature."

But there has been a burst of activity around the ranch in recent days as fans gathered to mourn and place flowers at its iron gates, and TV pictures have shown moving vans and landscape workers going in and out of the property northwest of Los Angeles.

"If Elvis Presley has Graceland, Michael Jackson can have a place for him here at Neverland. And that's how I feel, and I hope it becomes a museum in memory of Michael," Amey Avila of nearby Solvang, California, told Reuters outside the ranch.

Graceland, the Memphis estate where Presley died in 1977, was opened to the public in 1982 and gets more than 600,000 visitors a year, according to Elvis Presley Enterprises, a subsidiary of CKX Inc.

The Presley business, including worldwide licensing of music rights, as well as Graceland and the Heartbreak Hotel, reported $11.7 million in operating income in 2008.

NEVERLAND SPIRIT VIOLATED

Jackson bought the 2,800-acre (1,133-hectare) Neverland ranch in 1988 and filled it with theme-park rides, a zoo, and statues of Peter Pan -- the fictional boy who never grew up.

It was there that Jackson hosted parties for local children and controversial sleepovers for young boys that prompted charges of child sexual abuse in 1993 and 2005.

But after a grueling 2005 trial and acquittal on child molestation charges, Jackson left Neverland, vowing never to return. He said its spirit had been violated by police raids looking for evidence.

Last year, auctioneers emptied the house of Jackson's furniture, toys, platinum records and its vast iron gates for an auction in April that was canceled at the 11th hour.

Many of those 1,400 items -- which included sequined costumes and Jackson's red gilded throne -- were thought to be among the belongings returned to Neverland this week.

"We removed everything -- the gates, the fireplaces, the chandeliers," said auctioneer Darren Julien, who spent three months at Neverland last year with the approval of the singer.

"It was still a magical place when we were given access to it. The outdoors was a little bit run down -- the rides needed maintaining. But on the inside, the rooms were exactly the way Michael left them in 2005," he said.

Brooks doubted the murkier associations of Neverland would deter potential tourists. "People are always curious. They want to see where things supposedly happened. Jackson had some of the most troubling times of his life at Neverland and he ran away from it, but that is part of the draw," he said.

(Editing by Sandra Maler)

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