Michael Jackson’s Universe: The Sea Dragon Ride surrounded by stars
“It seemed as if a switch could be flipped and the park would come alive again. It never did, and all of the rides were removed only a few months before he died.”
Few places are as eerie or as melancholy as an abandoned theme park. The laughter and screams of delight that we imagine once echoed around the rides and other amusements have gone, leaving a strange silence that seems all the more heavy in contrast with the joyful cacophony it has replaced. Add a full moon and a back-story replete with scandal and tragedy, and you have an intensely atmospheric subject for a photographic series.
Michael Jackson’s Neverland was once a children’s fantasy made real. Then came the infamous child abuse allegations. In 2005, Jackson declared that he would never return to Neverland because he felt violated by the police searches that took place there, which he claimed were conducted without a warrant.
Behind the Curtain: Entrance to the bumper car tent
With Jackson’s privacy invaded, an intended dreamland had turned into a place of nightmares for the late entertainer. In 2008, he went on to sell the property, and its many rides and attractions were also sold off one by one. Fortunately, not before these photographs were taken.
Peter Pan: A Neverland statue of the character Michael Jackson saw himself as
After the property had been placed in foreclosure, intrepid photographer Scott Haefner and his friend Jonathan Haeber decided to make a clandestine visit to Neverland. Haebner had discovered the site while driving back from San Francisco. After a solo tour of the property he called Haefner. The pair then hatched plans to visit the park together and capture it on camera in its abandoned state "before it was too late."
Neverland Main Gate: The iconic front gate of the park with a photo of Michael Jackson leading a group of children on the left
Getting into a closed-off Neverland involved a certain amount of stealth and was no small challenge. Haefner and Haeber had to hike through farmland and over rough, hilly terrain for a couple of miles to avoid the main entrance to the park, which was under 24-hour guard. But they got there in the end. Haefner told us “the main gate was quite a spectacle,” and the feeling of standing outside it for the first time “pretty incredible” given that it is such a familiar icon.
Ashes to Ashes: Bronze statue of children known as the 'Circle of Peace'
From the gate, Haefner was able to see the entrance booth and some of Neverland’s famous bronze statues. In its time, the park boasted many of these sculptures portraying children at play – an eerie sight in the now empty park lit only by the moon.
Neverland Rides: The amusement park rides under the moon and stars
“Wandering around abandoned relics is oftentimes a visceral or even surreal experience,” explains Haefner. Yet, surely few locations could be more surreal than Michael Jackson’s famous – and infamous – Neverland.
Round and Round: The rather creepy looking carousel
Although some people might consider the nightime creepy for exploring an abandoned amusement park, Haefner, an experienced moonlight photographer, actually didn’t experience it as particularly spooky. At least, no spookier than any of the other places he has visited under cover of darkness. Indeed, he prefers taking his pictures under the full moon, as he says it makes the photography easier. No doubt it’s more straightforward sneaking into places undetected at night as well.
Weeping Swings: One of the rides lit by the full moon
“I loved wandering around and photographing the rides at night,” Haefner says of the visit. “Photographing at night – under the full moon – adds to the drama of the photos and allows me to control and manipulate the lighting, lending more control over the photography process.”
Welcome Façade: Brick frontage just inside the main entrance
Haefner has a good deal of experience exploring abandoned places – or, as he describes urbex, “venturing into normally forbidden and/or unseen parts of society that most people don't pay attention to, or even intentionally ignore.”
Broken Paradise: Train tracks running through the park
One of the characteristics of Neverland that surprised Haefner was its sheer size. He told us it was a lot bigger than he had expected, “sort of spread out, Disneyland-style.” Fortunately for his guests, Jackson provided two train loops around the park, one a 36-inch steam locomotive and the other a 24-inch gauge amusement-style train. After all, it wouldn’t have done to wear oneself out walking from attraction to attraction back before Neverland was deserted.
Train Station: A site apparently full of Jackson’s relics
Before it was dismantled, Neverland boasted an incredible number of rides, including the Carousel, Ferris wheel, Octopus, Pirate Ship, Wave Swinger, Zipper and Super Slide. In addition to such attractions, Haefner saw the mansion (Michael Jackson’s former residence), duck ponds, gardens, arcade, various winding roads and, of course, the train station. In its day it all must have made for a pretty impressive back yard.
Bumper to Bumper: Parked for good – the bumper cars
Despite having been closed since 2006, the rides at Neverland were still in remarkably good condition at the time of Haefner’s visit – as if Jackson himself might return at any moment for a ride on the Ferris wheel or a spin in one of the bumper cars. Strangely, in 2009, an unexplained “shadow" seen in a CNN report filmed in Neverland's mansion sparked rumors that the place was haunted by the late singer himself!
Jackson Exclusive: The specially designed bumper car control box
Ghost or not, the deceased entertainer's presence could be felt all over the fun park – even in the smaller details such as this bumper car control panel, which proclaims: "Designed Especially for Michael Jackson." The torn canopy seen hanging down in this shot was one of the rare signs that Neverland was derelict. Normally, one of the things Haefner particularly enjoys about exploring deserted places is “finding and exposing beauty in decay,” as he puts it. But not here.
Innocence: The Neverland logo on the bumper car control box
In this shot of the back of the bumper cars’ control panel we can clearly see the logo for Neverland, a young child sitting on a crescent moon. The sweet image of innocence stands in stark contrast to the sordid allegations connected with the property and its owner during its later years.
Your Wish is My Command: The genie from Aladdin almost reaches the roof of this building
If there’s one trait Michael Jackson wasn’t known for, it’s minimalism. This sparkly sculpture of the genie from the Disney movie Aladdin is two stories high! Relics like these – which speak of happier times in places now forsaken – add to the fascination abandoned spaces hold in people’s eyes.
Cavalry in Hiding: The ornate carousel curtain
“I’ve visited many incredible sites that few people have had the opportunity to experience first hand," Haefner says of his photography. “Not everyone ‘gets’ the whole exploring abandonments thing. But I’ve found that almost everyone appreciates the work on some level.”
Misunderstood: A gilt cash register in the arcade with a picture of what looks to be Jackson himself hung behind it
Not all the artifacts at Neverland were larger than life. Smaller relics such as this cash register evidence Jackson’s love of fine details as well. Behind the register we can see a picture of what looks to be the pop icon slotted into a fantasy scene, a common theme in the art he commissioned.
Kissing Knocker: A door knocker portraying a kissing couple on a neglected looking door
The 'castle', one of whose doors this knocker adorns, was one of the few buildings and sights in Neverland that Haefner describes as having looked rundown. During its peak, it’s said that Jackson spent $10 million a year on the maintenance of his beloved property. Having your own amusement park certainly can’t be cheap.
Play Nice: Another picture of the Neverland logo from the bumper car tent
Here’s another example of the Neverland logo from the bumper car area, which Haefner lit using a flashlight. The sign above it requests that people avoid "head on collisions."
Understatement: A sign beside the road to the park warns, 'Children at Play'
One part of the sprawling park that Haefner says he didn’t get to see was the famous petting zoo, which would have been empty, in any case. Luckily for the animals, they were adopted by a foundation in Arizona when Jackson was forced to give them up for financial reasons, or so it was claimed.
Gone Too Soon: A giant pocket watch – perhaps representing the one swallowed by the crocodile in Peter Pan
This giant pocket watch is another of the oversized sculptures that still sat on the property. Although it may well have not worked for years by the time Haefner visited, he says that coincidentally it displayed the correct time when he took this photograph. Spooky.
Humanitarian Award: A plaque honoring Michael Jackson from the Boy Scouts of America
We wondered if Haefner chanced upon any unexpected finds in the empty amusement park. He told us: “I was surprised to stumble upon many of Michael's keepsakes in the Arcade. He kept many random things, like Pepsi bottles from the '80s that had his name on the label as a promotion. He also kept stacks of memorabilia that adoring fans had sent to him over the years.” This particular plaque, a humanitarian award, was on the back wall of the train station.
Welcome: The coach tent near the Neverland entrance
The light of the full moon almost makes this coach tent near Neverland's entrance looks as if it's glowing. Among the visitors to the private park during its heyday were attendees of expensive charity functions, local school kids and children with terminal or serious illnesses. There's no denying that the park brought joy to a lot of people before its closure.
Neverland Gate Emblem: The golden seal on Neverland's gates
Despite the fact that he was there at night, and notwithstanding the park's abandoned state, Haefner says the vibe he got from Neverland was that it was “a very happy place – an incredible place for kids a kid to visit,” he adds. “I would have loved it."
Neverland Valley: A signpost to the famous residence
Haefner came away from Neverland with the feeling that Jackson's motivation was to create something that would “make kids happy, and give kids something he felt like he missed out on growing up.”
"After visiting Neverland, I have a strong sense that Michael was innocent of the charges that were filed against him," the photographer holds. "I don't have anything tangible to base my feelings on. I think he was just deeply misunderstood, unfortunately." We may never know the truth for certain.