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Star Tour: Inside Michael's Magical Kingdom : MTV contest winners spend a weekend at Michael Jackson's Neverland Valley Ranch--a cross between Oz and Disneyland.

June 23, 1993|CHRIS WILLMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SANTA YNEZ VALLEY — Toto, I don't think we're in Encino anymore.

It's been four years or so since Michael Jackson moved into his private preserve about an hour north of Santa Barbara and just a few fulfilled fantasies south of Oz. His place, the Neverland Valley Ranch, is like a cross between the old family homestead in the San Fernando Valley, which was apparently not the happiest place on Earth, and a certain Anaheim attraction that likes to believe it is.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 24, 1993 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Column 4 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 18 words Type of Material: Correction
MTV executive-- MTV programming vice president Andy Schuon's name was misspelled in an article in Tuesday's Calendar section.

"It's like Disneyland two minutes before it opens. Everything's on, but no one's here," says Ralph Linhardt of Irvine, lollygagging contentedly a few yards from the 2,700-acre estate's empty but continuously spinning Ferris wheel.

This is one of the most famous amusement parks on the planet--and certainly its least accessible. To get on the Neverland Valley guest list, it helps to be either a movie studio chief or a beleaguered child. The great majority of us who fall into the cracks between privilege and underprivileged stand about as good a chance of wrangling an invitation as child-ophobic Captain Hook himself, or LaToya's husband.

But with the public loosening up of Michael Jackson in near-full swing, even Neverland is no longer quite so hermetically sealed from the view of average Joes.

"It's a Willy Wonka deja vu ," remarks J. Randall Argue, 30, of Lake Forest. Argue is one of three MTV contest winners whose prize was a weekend stay here with their guests (Linhardt came with Argue). A few journalists were also invited to tag along on the chocolate factory--er, ranch--excursion for an afternoon.

It's noonish Saturday, and the MTV camera crew is arriving to shoot spots with the winners. Jackson may or may not take part. Any sign of the proprietor yet?

"No," says contest winner Eddie Barber, 36, of Sherman Oaks, looking around the unpopulated sprawl. "But we saw a movement in his bedroom window when we were walking up from the cars, so we know he's here."

Well, either him or Norman Bates' mother.

Sorry. It's almost impossible not to crack wacko-celebrity jokes at an estate where there are Peter Pan logos everywhere you turn. But then, the longer you hang around Neverland, the less oddball it all seems and the more a creeping acceptance begins to take over. Maybe those 360-degree high-altitude spins on the Zipper ride in the noonday sun do something to your equilibrium. But you begin to think you sort of even understand what Liz Taylor meant when she boldly described Jackson to Oprah Winfrey as "the most normal person I've ever know."

Neverland Valley Ranch isn't so much about superstar weirdness run rampant as it's about some sort of heightened remembered normalcy. Most everything is redolent of the Middle America a lucky kid might've grown up in decades ago--white gazebos, ornate street lamps, huge lawns and flower beds, lakes, trains, treehouses, multiple playgrounds, a zoo, a make-believe Indian tepee village.

A model T sits in the driveway outside the movie theater. A sign along the train tracks announces "Mac and Mike's Waterforts"--as in Macaulay Culkin's and Michael's special water-pistol range.

The Disneyland comparison is inevitable, what with orchestral soundtrack music constantly blaring out of speakers disguised as garden rocks. But it's as if Jackson--belying his tech-head rep--only got as far as Main Street U.S.A. and begged off Tomorrowland. By modernistic standards, the joint is somewhat modest.

Even the infamous amusement park area--with the tilt-a-whirl, merry-go-round, bumper cars, et al.--reeks of nostalgia, its classic rides borrowed from state fairs, not modern theme parks.

Lest anyone inevitably find this whole retreat ripe for deep psychoanalysis, it's been done for you. Even Jackson's staff will readily inform you that this estate is the erstwhile boy wonder's way of re-creating the childhood he never had, just as casually as they'll direct you to the nearest free candy counter.

Denial, schlemial . Anyone who ever grew up dysfunctionally or otherwise in the Midwest watching "Father Knows Best" and reading Boys Life would have to love the place just as readily as the busloads of poor and/or handicapped urban youngsters Jackson has out to the ranch as a humanitarian service.

MTV was jazzed and surprised that Jackson so readily acceded to the request for the ultimate exclusive prize: a two-night sleep-over in the happy part of the Twilight Zone. "It was the chance to send our viewers where only Oprah had gone before," notes programming VP Andy Schon.

Finally, Jackson emerges into sunlight from the movie theater where he's been holed up. Contest winners Argue, Barber and Bill Green of Hampton, Va., and their companions try not to stare. Not surprisingly, Jackson has a few small-fry around him, and seems playful enough.

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