In the prime of his solo career, the Michael Jackson of Thriller and “Beat It” retreated to a public place that he made into his private fantasy land: Walt Disney World.
Jackson, who died Thursday at age 50, made the Magic Kingdom his second home in the mid-1980s.
Working at Disney during that time was almost like being a member of Jackson’s extended family. He was like the rich, eccentric uncle who used to pull into town at the most unexpected moments.
I was one of those Disney employees then. In that job, and later as a journalist, I was lucky enough to ever-so-briefly encounter one of the planet’s iconic stars at two distinctive points in his arc.
He was already unaccountably weird, yes, but also unassailably cool. When I was piloting a boat between Disney hotels, Jackson sightings sparked a minor commotion.
Jackson would be spotted on Bay Lake in a float boat with TV actor Emmanuel Lewis. Or he’d be seen in one of those secret underground tunnels, checking out the intricacies of the Disney magic.
The ultimate sign of his devotion was the famous Michael Jackson suite in the Royal Plaza hotel at Lake Buena Vista. My boat-pilot pals and I used to hoist beers in the Giraffe Lounge downstairs. He never joined us.
Four years ago, I revisited memories of the Jackson suite in writing a story about Orlando’s bygone musical landmarks. Phil Wright, general manager of the Royal Plaza during the Jackson era, recalled the four-room suite in detail:
The twinkling lights in the ceiling. The trophy case insured for $1 million. The Marilyn Monroe collectibles and (then) state-of-the-art laser-disc player equipped with lights that sparkled to the beat.
Wright remembered that Jackson’s pet chimp, Bubbles, liked to flush the toilet. “He liked to hear it gurgle.”
He recalled the singer fondly, too.
“When I knew him at the hotel, he was kind, generous and unbelievably shy,” Wright said. “We wanted to offer a place where he could feel at home.”
My own Jackson memories could be characterized in one word: silence.
Picking up tickets for a cast holiday party once, I happened upon Jackson strolling Disney’s cast-services building. In a lime-green sweater and fedora, he was wordlessly looking at scale models of the park attractions as a small crowd of employees gathered silently around him.
It went on for about 20 minutes, no one saying anything, until Jackson walked back to his white limo, turned and silently waved.
It was odd.
Flash-forward to the early 1990s, and I’m again face to face. The Sentinel had sent me, as a cub reporter, to follow Jackson and pal Macaulay Culkin around what is now Disney’s Hollywood Studios for the day.
The TV crews and I hustled around the park in a vain attempt to engage the King of Pop in conversation. When he suddenly emerged from a backstage entrance, I asked the first thing that came to mind:
“How you doing?”
It was an idiotic question. I think he said “Fine,” but all I can really tell you is that his lips moved.
And so it went for the rest of the afternoon. Run, stop, stare. I must have written something, but it wasn’t laden with expressive quotes.
Yet I’m still talking about it.
Jackson had started to morph from cool quirkiness to disturbing strangeness, with his hyperbaric chamber and his troubling relationships with children. Yet, like the hotel manager, I focus on only the good stuff now. That’s because, for all his idiosyncrasies, Michael Jackson was perhaps the planet’s most gifted pop star.
Didn’t you love the Jackson 5? Wasn’t Thriller amazing? How about the moonwalk?
A legend is gone. I’ll mourn with a moment of silence.
Michael Jackson with his kids Prince and Paris at DisneyWorld (Orlando, December 1 2002)