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Neverland rides deliver thrills in a new setting
Michael Jackson was never a fixture on the county fair circuit, but his Neverland rides now are on a never-ending tour.
The attractions he set up in his estate's private amusement park have been auctioned off and are being trucked from carnival to carnival, pitched as a chance to take a spin on a piece of history.
At the far end of the midway at the Tulare County Fair in the Central Valley this month, signs announced: "Michael ride here! This is one of Michael Jackson's rides from Neverland Ranch!"
Like children of privilege who suddenly have to work for a living, the Spider, the Wave Swinger and the Zipper -- once reserved for charity events and the pop star's solo amusement -- were waiting for paying customers.
"It was a blast!" said Benny Vasquez, a Visalia, Calif., welder who was regaining his bearings after a dizzying turn on the Spider, an arachnid-shaped contraption with blazing green bulbs lining its black legs. "It's exciting for people to be able to sit on something that he owned."
Over the years, Jackson acquired about 18 rides for his 2,600-acre ranch in Santa Barbara County. Some gradually were swapped out for newer models and hit the carnival circuit without fanfare. But most stayed in place even after Jackson, acquitted on child molestation charges in 2005, left Neverland for good.
Several big amusement companies purchased what remained in 2008, repainting and sprucing up rides run down by weather and lack of use.
At the California State Fair in Sacramento several weeks ago, Jackson impersonators roamed the midway, Jackson tunes thumped from speakers, and, on a couple of days, the first 5,000 fair-goers were handed free coupons for Neverland rides.
On the Internet, there were predictably snarky comments about an accused child molester and kiddie rides. But on the midway, the reviews were glowing, said Erica Manuel, assistant general manager of the Cal Expo fairgrounds.
"Based on the feedback we got, it was a positive, nice experience," she said. "For some, it was a way to say goodbye."
At the sweltering fairgrounds in Tulare, fair-goers traipsed past the usual enticements -- a glimpse of a 1,000-pound pig, an exhibit called "A Day in the Life of a Market Lamb," a booth selling the "World's Largest Funnel Cakes" and try-your-luck games that required all the luck in the world. There were plenty of rides, but the attractions from Neverland were the only ones touched by cel- ebrity.
Take the Wave Swinger -- an over-the-top pink wedding cake of a ride, decorated with cameo paintings of bouquets, alpine cabins and Victorian women. It must have been a natural fit at Neverland, whose 25-room Tudor mansion featured a room devoted to Shirley Temple and a painting of the "Last Supper" with Jackson's face imposed over Jesus'.
"It's awesome that some part of Michael lives on," Stacey Lowe, a 16-year-old student from Lindsay, Calif., said as Jackson's "Beat It" blared and riders screamed from the Wave Swinger's flying swings.
"It's the absolute best," she said.
Corey Oakley, a manager with Helm & Sons Amusement, the Colton company that owns and operates the rides that were at the Tulare fair, has heard that a lot.
"It's a big deal for people," he said. "They've heard so much about Neverland: They want to touch it, to see it, to feel it, to ride it."
Oakley's boss, David Helm, acquired rides for Jackson and bought used rides from him. Oakley would not disclose how much the company has spent on its Neverland purchases but said a new Wave Swinger would go for at least $1.5 million and a new Zipper -- a vertical thrill ride with spinning, free-swinging gondolas -- would cost at least $600,000.
"We always had a confidentiality agreement with Jackson," Oakley said. But that changed, he said, after Jackson's death, when other amusement companies and fair managers trying to boost attendance started Neverland promotions.
Butler Amusements, of Fairfield, Calif., bought six of the rides.
"It didn't dawn on us to mention they were from Neverland until after his passing," said company spokeswoman Andrea Owen. "We were at the Alameda County Fair when the news came out. The owner mentioned our Neverland connection to the fair people and they got really excited."
Some of the Neverland rides are now as far away as New York's Coney Island. His Ferris wheel, owned by a Missouri company, has been touring fairs in Arkansas. His Sea Dragon, a Viking ship that swings through the air, resides at the Beech Bend amusement park in Bowling Green, Ky. In tribute to Jackson, the park offered mourning fans free Sea Dragon rides for a few days after his death.
Though busloads of sick and underprivileged children would occasionally visit Neverland, Jackson sometimes hopped on rides alone, chugging through sleepless nights on his steam train, tooting a whistle heard on ranches for miles around.
But mostly the rides were unused, a silent amusement park with no cotton candy, no flashing lights, no stomach-churning exhilaration.
"These rides are built to move people every day," said Oakley. "But at Neverland they just sat and sat."