(In photos: Neverland Ranch Map; Right: Contractor Tony Urquidez displays some of the memorabilia he acquired during his 20-year business relationship and friendship with the late pop star Michael Jackson
, such as a hat from the “Smooth Criminal” video and renderings of plans for the 2,700-acre property where he worked extensively. / Raiza Canelon/Staff)
When the news of Michael Jackson
’s death spread throughout the Santa Ynez Valley, where the “King of Pop” had many admirers, one local man felt a particularly deep sadness because he knew that his 20-year friendship with Jackson
could never be rekindled.
However, nothing can take away Tony Urquidez’s memories of the extensive construction he did to turn a cattle ranch into Neverland — from the gatehouse to the amusement park, train station and other elements — and even the piece of equipment he built for the “Smooth Criminal” music video.
Recalling his first project in 1988, he said, “I was called by a local architect to bid a proposal for a gate house, but didn’t know at the time who it was for. We weren’t the cheapest, but we estimated to get it built faster than the other bids.”
Urquidez, who owns Urquidez Construction in Los Olivos, came to think of his relationship with the late singer as more than just business as they often spoke on the phone and socialized in the years that followed.
While he was building the gate house, he said, a limousine came down the driveway and he had to quickly move the truck that was blocking the ranch’s driveway. As the limo drove by, it paused and the window rolled down a bit so that he could just see two eyes looking at him before it continued on.
That Sunday night after the project was completed, Urquidez received a phone call from a person claiming to be Michael Jackson
. He hung up on him, thinking it was a joke. The phone rang again, and the person on the other end assured him it was in fact Michael Jackson
. He asked Urquidez to come to a meeting the next week — and that was the beginning of Neverland.
“We sat at this huge conference table, and when Michael showed up everyone got up to greet him. He immediately asked me to step outside with him, and we took off from everyone, even his bodyguards. We zoomed around the ranch on a golf cart and he explained his vision for Neverland, the amusement park, the large animal zoo, theater, train, everything. I just thought to myself, ‘This guy is goofy,’” Urquidez said.
The next project Urquidez worked on at Neverland was the theater, with a state-of -the-art sound system, a candy and popcorn bar, a dance room, seats that had beds, and a stage big enough to fit an elephant under it if need be.
“He wasn’t the demanding type, but more of a little kid that wanted things immediately. We had crews working all hours of the day, and you could tell Michael was so excited. He put pressure on me, but it was a different kind of pressure, a fun pressure,” Urquidez said.
Once the theater was completed, Urquidez would get calls in the middle of the night from Jackson
, asking him to come watch a movie or just talking about ideas he had for the next project.
“Michael gave me a mental visual of what he wanted, and I had the freedom to create. After several projects like the ‘Magic Walkway,’ the bridge to the treehouse, the pirate ship, and the water fort, we had a language to ourselves. I knew what he was envisioning and I made it happen,” Urquidez said.
Urquidez’s son Aaron, now 28, said Jackson
would call when he was a teenager and ask him about the latest trends in toys and games, then have him and his older brother Chris come out to test them.
“My favorite was the water fort. It was made into ‘Old West’ buildings and we would have teams against each other shooting out of water canons and guns,” Aaron said.
In researching all the amusement rides and games Jackson
had on his ranch, Urquidez would go to conventions all over the country and even to amusement parks to test the rides in person.
“Michael always had to have the biggest and the best. The upside to all the strange requests was that I was able to work on projects I’ll never get to do again,” he said.
bid farewell to Neverland for good, Urquidez said, he started hearing less and less from the pop star.
“He would call me and we would have personal talks, but I can say in the amount of time I spent at Neverland I never saw anything out of the ordinary. Yes, he had sleepovers, but I never got a weird feeling.
“He asked sometimes for my boys to spend the night, and the only reason I said no was because I knew they would be up all night eating sugar, and I didn’t want to deal with them like that,” Urquidez said.
Urquidez still has a high opinion of Jackson
, and thinks of him as a philanthropist. Jackson
loved opening his ranch to underprivileged, inner-city and local children, he said, and when Urquidez built the steam-engine train that looped around the property, he had direct orders from Jackson
to make it possible for bed-ridden people to ride.
Shortly after the train layout was completed, a bed-ridden, terminally ill boy with cancer visited Neverland, and he died days after his visit. Urquidez heard that the boy was all smiles about the train ride, and died peacefully.
As Urquidez recently sifted through the boxes of memorabilia he kept from Neverland, such as pictures of him working on the steam engine and the Time magazine from 1993 that showcased the ranch’s amusement park, he recalled instances of Jackson
“Working with him so regularly, you forgot how big he was. I got a rare glimpse into his life and sometimes he would just burst into song or dance and I would think to myself, ‘Wow, that’s Michael Jackson
!,” Urquidez said.
He also has throngs of items that Jackson
personally gave to him, such as the original casting for the number 1 symbol off the steam engine, and the hat from the “Smooth Criminal” music video in which Jackson
Urquidez built the hitch that Jackson
could clip into the stage, allowing him to lean forward beyond his center of gravity.
“He was always giving and so considerate. In the years we spent together he never once tried to buy my affection. Michael was brilliant,” Urquidez said.