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Neverland never more?

Sun., March 19, 2006, midnight

LOS OLIVOS, Calif. – Here lies Neverland.

Trains once packed with laughing children no longer roll around the grounds. The arcade that pulsed with rap music, the curse words edited out, has fallen silent. No one waits at the gate with ice cream for youngsters to arrive.

After years of rumors about its demise, the fantasy playland Michael Jackson created as a celebration of childhood and a retreat from his troubles is going dark.

The pop star, now living half a world away, dismissed many of the remaining employees Thursday after agreeing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in back wages to avoid a lawsuit by state labor officials. His spokeswoman characterized the moves as those of someone who will be away for an extended period, not someone abandoning a home for good.

Jackson once opened Neverland for everything from an Elizabeth Taylor wedding and celebrity fundraisers to field trips for busloads of children. That was before his trial on charges he plied a young cancer patient with booze and molested him in 2003 in the master bedroom. Following his acquittal last year, Jackson moved to the Middle Eastern kingdom of Bahrain.

He left behind troubled finances, a tattered reputation – and Neverland.

The 2,600-acre estate, which Jackson purchased for $14.6 million in 1988, is tucked into the California countryside amid wineries about 100 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

Some of the curiosities behind its gates are world-famous: a menagerie of exotic animals, a mini amusement park, two trains and prominent pictures of Jackson holding hands with children.

The singer’s trial revealed other oddities. A jukebox in the arcade concealed a wine cellar. Other rooms were full of dolls and mannequins dressed as superheroes and film idols. Walls of videotapes, many of Jackson’s Disney favorites, made some rooms look like a Blockbuster franchise.

On Friday, the home was undisturbed, except by an occasional fan and a delivery truck. The driver, who gave his name only as Larry because he has signed an agreement not to talk about Neverland, said he was delivering food for Jackson’s animals. He said a woman who cared for and trained the animals was still working there Friday and that the animals, a bear and giraffe among them, appeared healthy.

“The animals are well taken care of,” he said, adding that their food includes mangos, papayas and boxed fruit juices for the chimpanzees.

Jackson moved to Bahrain with his children after his acquittal in June. At least 30 Neverland employees said their paychecks stopped in December.

State officials effectively shut down the ranch this month and ordered Jackson to pay $306,000 in back wages. On Friday, they said he had complied.


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