[b]Jackson hosts 200 children at Neverland[/b] 12/18/04 By DAWN HOBBS ‘I LOVE YOU,’ HE TELLS THEM NEWS-PRESS STAFF WRITER Michael Jackson opened the gates of Neverland Valley Ranch on Friday to about 200 children and parents who erupted in screams and applause when the star emerged from his home. Dressed in a black-and-white suit and with a black umbrella in hand, Mr. Jackson stood on a cobblestone bridge next to a pond with flamingos and swans, smiling and waving to children whose parents hoisted them above dozens of cameras and boom mikes to glimpse the entertainer. “Welcome to Neverland!” Mr. Jackson said. “I just wanted to take a moment to say hello. . . . There is a lot for you to see and do, so have fun! . . . I and my family are wishing you a very merry Christmas and a wonderful happy new year. God bless you. I love you all.” When several children yelled, “We love you Michael,” he responded, “I love you more! Happy holidays!” And just as suddenly, he hopped into a limousine that whisked him to a waiting helicopter at the other side of the sprawling Los Olivos estate, leaving the children and parents to an afternoon of unlimited carnival rides, candy and screenings of “The Polar Express.” The holiday visit came as Mr. Jackson’s defense lawyers prepare for hearings next week in advance of a child molestation trial against him; the trial is scheduled to begin Jan. 31. Mr. Jackson has pleaded not guilty to all charges. The allegations didn’t seem to be on the minds of the visiting children or parents, who could barely contain their excitement about the encounter with the entertainer or their wonder at his estate, complete with a zoo, video arcade, teepee village and train. “I was so excited I was almost gonna cry,” said Ahyana Jackson, 10, who came with a group from St. Timothy’s Day School in Compton. “I thought it wasn’t really him, but then he got closer and I couldn’t believe it.” Asked by dozens of media crews whether the timing of the event had anything to do with the hearings or trial, Mr. Jackson’s publicist Raymone Baine said there was no connection. “There are thousands of organizations who write to his event staff all year around to schedule in a date for when Neverland is available,” Ms. Baine said. “There’s been typically two to three events per month here for the last 10 years. Since this was the last scheduled visit prior to the holidays, (Mr. Jackson) decided he would come out to see everyone. . . . Today meant a lot to him.” However, inviting the media, including Geraldo Rivera, to such visits is rare. The prosecutors who filed the criminal charges against Mr. Jackson have argued he built Neverland as a way to entice children. But his lawyers have called the accusations ridiculous and counter their client created the fairy-tale setting to offer fun times to disadvantaged and sick children. They point to the millennium issue of the “Guinness Book of Records,” which names Mr. Jackson as the pop star who supports the most charity organizations, and they rattle off a list of children’s groups to which he’s contributed millions. The day began about noon Friday with the black-and-gold gates of Neverland opening to dozens of media crews, who were given a train ride past a pasture with a camel, elephants and llamas to the bridge that leads to the entertainer’s home and guesthouse. “Peter Pan” music wafted through the air, amplified from speakers hidden in trees, as the pond fountains roared in the background and gold and amber leaves, blown about by the valley wind, swirled around bronze statues of playing children. A loud “choo-choo” announced the arrival of the train that chugged down the tracks, bringing in three busloads of children who were greeted by Santa Claus, candy canes and bags of buttered popcorn. The guests mostly came from church groups from East Los Angeles, Compton and other inner-city areas of Los Angeles. “I think this is just wonderful,” said Lillian Tolbert, a staff member of the Santa Barbara County Special Education group. “It’s inspiring for the children who would never even imagine being able to come to a place like this,” she said. “They have the freedom here to be who they are and to express themselves.” Paris Mathis, Ms. Tolbert’s teenage daughter, expanded on her mother’s thoughts. “This is an inspiration to learn more, to strive for more. By seeing this, it shows them their dreams can be never-ending and that they can achieve their goals.” After lunch, the children and parents jumped on a variety of carnival rides, ranging from the gentle motion of the Ferris wheel and merry-go-round to the whiplash of the Octopus and upside down jolts of the Zig-Zag. “This is so fun — Michael’s got all these rides out here and he let’s us go on them for free,” said Jason Bullaid, 9. “My favorite is the Octopus!” Reaching into a cart of shaved ice to create his own snow cone, Brett Sparks, 13, said: “I’m so excited. This is so great. I’m just so happy to be here. I never would have thought this could happen.” RAFAEL MALDONADO / NEWS-PRESS PHOTOS Source: http://news.newspress.com/topsports/121804jackson.htm

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