Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Re-Visitng Neverland

After answering questions from MJTP Team members and volunteers in our Christmas Special, Big Al returns to answer more, including questions from some of our members.

Valmai: What was Michael's favorite ride?

Big Al: I would say the Bumper Cars with the Sea Dragon a close second.

Valmai: Did Prince, Paris and Blanket have favorite rides?

Big Al: They were still too young for the big rides ... they liked all the Kiddie Rides ... the Lolli Swing was probably the favorite.

Valmai: Many people never understood the concept of why Michael built an amusement park. If you could be his voice, what would Michael tell the world?

Big Al: The Amusement Park, along with the rest of Neverland, was built to bring a magical day; a joy filled memory into the lives of all those sick and less fortunate kids who visited Neverland. 

Valmai: How often did Michael invite the underprivileged, handicapped and terminally ill children to Neverland? Once a month, every week or maybe several times a year?

Big Al: During the spring and summer, we tried to do a group every week, sometimes two a week. During the fall and winter we got a lot of rain, so not as often. We did not want the kids to look forward to their trip with great anticipation and then have to cancel due to rain.

Valmai: When a person thinks about an amusement park, typically they think of rides, cotton candy and children. Michael had much more than that; we know he had a zoo. What kind of animals did he have?

Big Al: We had an incredible petting zoo and reptile exhibit. We also had Chimpanzees, Orangutans, Giraffes, Elephants, Alligators, Tigers, Exotic Birds, a Black Bear and a Lion.

Valmai: Do you have any fond memories to share with us about Michael and the animals?

Big Al: Mr. Jackson loved visiting the zoo and enjoyed spending time with all the animals. We had a great group of employees in the zoo; very knowledgeable. Mr. Jackson would learn and retain some new bit of information on every trip to the zoo. I think the one thing that really sticks out, and it took me a while to realize this, but I think the animals knew who he (Michael) was. Does that sound off the wall (no pun intended)? Well ... it is true. I know some animals are smarter than others, but I think they ALL knew Michael. I would visit the zoo at least three times a week. The Chimps really knew me and really liked me, but I am pretty sure every animal down there knew who Michael was… well maybe Big Al (my name sake) the alligator didn't. He would only come up if he was hungry and you had chicken for him. 

Valmai: What was it like to have the animals around the grounds, and did you have any experiences with them? 

Big Al: On occasion the Zoo personnel would take animals down to the front or back yard of the house. One day I was up at the Steam Train and I heard some strange noises coming from the lake. I looked down to see the elephants playing in the lake. It was like being in a Tarzan movie ... totally awesome.

And speaking of the Neverland Zoo… one day I was in the Amusement Park when I got a call on the radio from the girl in charge of the Elephant Department. She asked if I could stop by when I had a few minutes. Since we had no guests on property, I headed to the Zoo. So ... here's the deal ... one of the elephants in the zoo actually belonged to a guy who had several exotic animals, and worked with the TV / Movie / Commercial industries. Since elephants like hanging out in groups, Suzy hung out at Neverland when she wasn't working. Also, the younger elephants learn from the older elephants and Suzy was a great teacher since she was well trained, very gentle and well mannered. So this was a win win situation.

Suzy’s owner also spent a lot of time with the girls in our elephant department teaching them all he knew about elephants. Well ... the request that involved me ... they wanted to do a thank you card to Suzy’s owner, and on that card they wanted a photo of Suzy and Santa Clause. Since I had a very nice Santa suit (yet another fun story), I was asked if I would take part in this thank you card. With permission from the management, the photo shoot was set up.

With my Santa suite on, I climb up on the fence, Suzy walks over and I get on. After several photos, Suzy drops me off at the fence. As I am heading back to the ranch house to change back into my work clothes ... I am stopped ... “Oh, we have one more photo we want to take”. They roll out this aluminum stand that the elephant puts her foot on when the girls clean and trim her feet (a regular event). They explain to me that I am going to sit on this stand, they will march Suzy in front of me, have her turn away from me and give the 'Trunk Up' command. As she raises her trunk her back legs will bend. The idea here is to make it look like the elephant is going to sit on Santa's lap.

I must admit that at this point I was ready to end my thank you card participation, but I said alright. So, with Suzy in position the command is given. Suzy looks back at me as if to say, “Hey, there is someone back there”. I thought this was pretty cool, and I was glad to see that she was concerned with my safety. Once we assured Suzy that all is well, she raised her trunk. Oh wait ... one more photo just to make sure we got the shot ... then it happens ... Suzy passes gas right in Santa's face. Let me tell you, when an Elephant passes gas it is like a giant high speed fan or a blast from a train horn. Once the elephant girls stopped laughing, I asked if we were done. “I need to go get the green speckles out of my Santa beard”. 

Valmai: Is there a campaign set up to support turning Neverland into a museum or public park, and if so, how do we go about volunteering?

Big Al: I have not heard of any plans for Neverland, but I would love to see Neverland open back up. Please read my comment in the last interview. 

Valmai: You’ve shared with us some funny stories. Is there anything that Michael said to you, whether it be profound, funny, moving or enlightening that you feel both you and he would be comfortable with you sharing; that has really stood out for you over the years?

Big Al: I would have to say the time Mr. Jackson was telling me about Earth Song. This was before the History CD was released so I had no idea what he was talking about. But the way he talked about the message and how much it meant to him ... the emotion ... I was almost brought to tears thinking about that conversation the first time (and every time) I heard that song.

Valmai: We often hear from people who met or actually knew Michael, of how just being in his presence seemed to be magical, uplifting, healing; as if his love and light shined through and radiated everywhere he went. From fans who met him, to sick children who experienced a healing effect, to close friends and loved ones, we have heard this many times. Did you ever experience something like this as well?

Big Al: It was always a great pleasure to work for and be in the presence of Mr. Jackson ... and yes, I witnessed his extraordinary positive effect on many people.  

The story and picture of Santa (Big Al) and Suzy the elephant, and the picture above of Bubbles and Michael, have never been published before. Before Big Al sent these to me, only a few of his close friends had ever had the pleasure of seeing them. I am honored and privileged that Big Al shared these for Dot to Dot, and for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions.

Thank you, Big Al.



© Valmai Owens, 2011
Director of Publications/Editor-in-Chief
Dot to Dot: Keeping Michael’s Legacy Alive


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