The planning of their pilgrimage to Michael Jackson's grave in Los Angeles, for the second anniversary this week of the music icon's death, hit a lucky patch when Brendan Nolan and Jody Flower discovered that a Santa Barbara helicopter tour company offers flights over M.J.'s fabled Neverland Ranch. After booking two seats with Channel Islands Helicopters for a morning trip, the young couple from Bath, England, made their way north.
They took a moment Friday to recollect their British reserve during the emotional day and share their thoughts before becoming the first fans to hover over Jackson's sprawling property in the Santa Ynez Valley. Friends, before the two set off for the U.S., called them “jammy” (lucky).
“It's an honor to be here for both of us,” said 22-year-old Flower, who works at her parents' transportation business, Chariots of Leisure. “Michael was a great person,” she went on, saying she and Nolan stuck by him during his legal troubles when others were too quick to write him off. “He wouldn't hurt a fly,” she reminisced as Nolan nodded solemnly in agreement. Nolan said his favorite M.J. song is “Man in the Mirror”; Flower's is “Earth Song.”
“We both like his music, but we also really respect what he did for charity,” said 26-year-old Nolan, an engineer. “People didn't pay enough attention to the good things he did.” Nolan said he had planned on buying tickets for Jackson's highly anticipated “This Is It” comeback tour, but instead used the money for their trip to California.
Before this reporter sat down with the couple, I was offered an opportunity to take a 30-minute tour above what, is actually, only a poignant shadow of what used to be the Neverland Ranch. Piloted by Channel Islands Helicopters' Josh Jones with company owner Dan Casey in the co-pilot position, the yellow four-seater took off from the Santa Ynez Airport under a quilt of fog and quickly buzzed to a clip of 120 mph toward a patch of clear sky near Jackson's four-square-mile estate.
As the valley opened below, with red-roofed ranches and dot-sized cows sprinkling the rural landscape, Casey explained that Friday's tours were completely sold out but a few slots were still open for Saturday. He expected to take around 150 reservations total and had clients coming from eight overseas countries so far. When the Associated Press reported on his company's offer earlier in the week, his office was inundated with calls.
Each flight group is given a safety briefing, Casey said, and handed flowers of remembrance to drop onto nearby Zaca Peak overlooking the property. Fans can attach personal notes to the flowers if they want, Casey went on, as M.J.'s greatest hits are played through the helicopter's headsets.
In mere minutes, Neverland's train station came into view and we began circling what had been both Jackson's private sanctuary and decadent amusement park. One of the spots on the lot that appears fully maintained, the station — with its flower clock (accurate, by the way), coiffed hedges, and baby blue trim — stands in stark contrast to dilapidated play structures, an abandoned zoo, and lonely platforms that used to showcase carnival rides. The exotic animals and over-the-top installations were carted away long before Jackson's death.
Jackson left Neverland in 2005, promising never to return after he was accused, but eventually acquitted, of molesting a child there. Unable to pay the $24.5 million he owed on the property in 2008, the pariahed Jackson sold his defaulted loan to real estate investor Tom Barrack. Soon thereafter most of the items that made Neverland so recognizable, though infamous, disappeared. Barrack has since expressed interest in refurbishing the property. In July 2010, California legislators floated the idea of buying the land and turning it into a state park, but the suggestion was quickly dismissed considering the state's bone-dry budget.
Looking past patches of overgrown grass and slightly shabby structures, the estate's movie theater, front gate, and main house seem — from 500 feet above — well-kept. The swimming pool and tennis court are bright blue and green, respectively, and the pathways between them are clean and lined with freshly clipped shrubbery. The massive oaks and other trees surrounding the main house, however, all but shield it from a bird's-eye view.
The tour was over in a flash, and we headed back — spotting on the way a few dozen fans gathered at Neverland's far outside gate — so pilot Jones could pick up the next group. In line after them were a trio of giddy Italian women filling out paperwork and glancing expectantly at the tarmac.
Before she boarded, Flower jotted a quick note to M.J. (Nolan did too, but said it was too personal to share.) His girlfriend's message read: “Dear Michael, It's an honor to be here today, you were a legend, so talented and a caring person who wanted to help and change the world. You were [a] great person. I hope you are at peace. Love, Jody Flower.”
“That's very nice,” Nolan said after he read it, turning to Flower with a sad smile. “Thanks,” she replied, and looked down.