Ever since Michael Jackson died, Al Williams’ family had begged him to take them to Neverland Ranch. And each day, Williams, 42, a roofer from San Bernardino, said no, that there were too many people crowded outside Neverland’s gates.
On Thursday night, he finally gave in.
Williams, his wife, Josie, and their two children woke up at 4 a.m. Friday and piled into their burgundy Scion for the roughly three-hour drive to Jackson’s fabled Santa Barbara County hideaway.
When they arrived at the two-lane, winding Figueroa Mountain Road in the hills of Los Olivos, they passed news trucks with huge satellite dishes parked on both sides of the street and vendors selling commemorative T-shirts and bottled water, and joined throngs of fans who wanted to pay tribute to the late pop star.
The Williams family took a picture in front of Neverland’s black gates and Josie Williams, 40, a child-care worker, said, “Just knowing that there’s where he was living, it was exciting to be there.”
Since Jackson’s death June 25 in Los Angeles, dozens of journalists and hundreds of fans have traveled to his 2,600-acre estate.
At Corner House Coffee in Los Olivos, clerks kept a list of countries journalists had come from -- including Belgium, Germany, Poland and Venezuela -- to poach their wireless Internet and eat their sandwiches.
While CNN’s Larry King interviewed Jackson’s older brother Jermaine on the ranch grounds Thursday, fans left flowers and wrote messages such as “Michael, You gave us Magic, Love, Dreams!!! I’ll love you eternally” on large whiteboards.
Some pitched tents and sat on fold-out chairs watching the action, while others posted signs that said “Your Mexican fans will never forget you,” “Gone too soon” and “Spain loves you.”
“We brush our teeth right here,” said Belen Morales of Lincoln Heights, who was standing on a slope of grass near the ranch Friday.
Belen, 14, her older brother and a friend drove to the ranch in a 1988 pickup truck and arrived at 2 a.m. Wednesday.
They said they did not believe media reports that there would be no public viewing or burial at the ranch.
“We’re still thinking that they’re going to bring him here,” she said.
(A spokesman for the ranch said Neverland would close its gates to the media Friday evening and conduct no events until after Tuesday’s memorial service.)
Nearby, 22-year-old Jason Osborne of Santa Maria sold white T-shirts for $15 that said “I paid my respects at Neverland.” Osborne said he was there to “make a buck, of course, but I want to be part of it somehow. Give people something to remember.”
Mike Ortiz, 34, a cook between jobs from Lompoc who was wearing a black Michael Jackson T-shirt, said he and his wife planned to stay outside the ranch “until it’s all over.”
“Being here is priceless,” he said.
Many Los Olivos residents worried that the crowds would never cease and that Neverland would be transformed into a Graceland-like landmark for Jackson’s fans.
“It would be nice if it faded into obscurity,” said John Bennett, 56, a contractor who has lived in Los Olivos for more than two decades. “If they turn it into Graceland, it’ll be a mess. . . . Can you imagine all the traffic?”
John Maier, 64, was riding his bicycle when he stopped outside the ranch Friday morning.
“This is our local ride, but there’s usually not this much traffic,” said Maier, a retired mailman who moved to Solvang three years ago.
“The thought of it being a Graceland wasn’t good to me,” he said. “I moved here because it’s a small town, and I’d like it to stay that way.”
Not all residents were upset about the idea of a landmark dedicated to Jackson nearby.
Fred Lambert, 65, a retired operating engineer who has lived at the end of Alta Street for three decades, said he visited Graceland about two years ago and had such a good experience that he wanted Jackson’s fans to be able to experience something similar.
“It’d be all right,” he said. “I went to Elvis’ and it was pretty awesome.”
Lambert said that one of his sons worked at Neverland Ranch for a short time after high school and that Jackson had “brought a lot of good to the valley.”
Thomas J. Barrack, chairman and chief executive of Colony Capital, which owns the ranch, said in a telephone interview this week that there are no immediate plans for Neverland except to continue its restoration.
“At the moment, our only objective is the polishing and restoration of this Hope Diamond,” Barrack said. “The burden we have is to provide stewardship to this timeless asset and an elegant and timely transition.”