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Last Updated: Wednesday, 19 November, 2003, 16:05 GMT
Jackson's mystery ranch
Until a decade and a half ago, the name Neverland stood for childhood - it was the home of Peter Pan, JM Barrie's boy who could not grow up.

Since then, it has been synonymous with Michael Jackson, who idolised Peter Pan and wanted to create his own fantasy kingdom in a California valley.

Now it stands for mystery, and with Jackson spending the past decade fending off allegations surrounding his private life, it has also become a metaphor for the unconventional lifestyle of an embattled superstar.

Jackson bought the ranch, in the rolling hills of the Santa Ynez Valley in Santa Barbara County, in 1987 for a reported 11.3m.

Until the 1960s, the area was full of working ranches. Now it is divided into luxury developments - the ideal hideaway for the Los Angeles jetset.

At the time, Jackson was at the very height of his career. His third solo album Bad was released to global acclaim and record-breaking sales across the planet.

But he was not untouchable - the media had noticed how his skin was getting lighter, and his hated nickname of "Wacko Jacko" was coined.

Once inside Neverland, Jackson began to build his private playground, with its own funfair, lakes, cinema, and zoo.

'Middle America'

Described as "the middle America a lucky kid might've grown up in decades ago", it also featured white gazebos, ornate street lamps, lovingly-kept lawns and flower beds, tree-houses - and a make-believe Indian village.

Neverland
Giraffes wander in a paddock on the ranch (AP/ Santa Barbara News-Press, Mike Eliason)
Free sweets were readily available, while an orchestral soundtrack blared out from speakers hidden in rocks.

One of the zoo's inhabitants, Bubbles the chimp, became Jackson's most famous companion while in 2003, a former security guard claimed the singer threw rocks at his lion simply to make it roar.

Celebrity friends were entertained there, and in 1991 Jackson's confidante, actress Elizabeth Taylor - who had donated an elephant to the Neverland menagerie - married seventh husband Larry Fortensky there.

Children were taken to Neverland by Jackson, including slumber parties for child stars such as Macaulay Culkin, and others selected by charities with which Jackson was involved.

Los Angeles Times journalist Chris Willman reported that in 1993, next to the model railway, a sign read "Mac and Mike's Waterforts" - a water pistol range for Culkin and Jackson.

Willman is one of the few reporters to have gained access to Neverland, having joined a party of MTV contest winners who scooped a weekend at Jackson's home.

'Disneyland'

"It's like Disneyland two minutes before it opens - everything's on, but no-one's here," one of the winners said of Neverland's ferris wheel, which remained empty but continued to spin.

Comparisons with Disneyland have been frequently made - and in 1998 Jackson was linked with a scheme to build a Neverland-style theme park in Poland.

Neverland
Neverland Ranch Railroad Station is a replica of the train station at Disneyland (AP/ Santa Barbara News-Press, Mike Eliason)
But while past allegations of child abuse - consistently denied by Jackson - have not derailed his career, his professional fortunes have taken a turn for the worse.

In 2003 it was reported Jackson was putting Neverland on the market to ease debts - a story his spokespeople denied.

And local tax officials found Jackson had been benefiting from tax breaks he was not entitled to thanks to the land's previous use as a cattle ranch.

In September, he finally opened the gates of Neverland for a public party - with a fifth of the $5,000 entrance fee going to charity.

Typically for Jackson, the media was banned, and reporters had to stand outside the front gates.

There they witnessed two guests being escorted from the premises in tears. Their crime? To attempt to take a photograph of Neverland.

Whatever the truth about what goes on inside the gates of 5225 Figueroa Mountain Road, its inhabitant is still determined to keep them a secret from the world.


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