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Alameda County Fair opens to huge crowds at fairgrounds in Pleasanton

Balloon Samba Ride from Michael Jackson's Neverland is major attraction in fair's childrens' area

Crowds jammed the fairgrounds yesterday as the Alameda County Fair opened for a mid-summer run through July 19 in Pleasanton.

This year, the fair added the Balloon Samba, a ride purchased last year from Michael Jackson's Neverland.

Thousands of children and adults headed to the fairgrounds to watch the horse races and take a spin on carnival rides as the city's recent heat wave ebbed, with temperatures in the tolerable low 90s.

Horse racing, which is one of the key events, is free with the price of admission. Races begin at 12:45 every day except Mondays (when the fair is closed) and Tuesdays.

But one ride in particular, the Balloon Samba located in the children's area, garnered a lot of attention.

It's owned by Bay Area-based Butler Amusements, which has roughly 60 rides at the fair. Earl "Butch" Butler said he purchased five amusement rides from Michael Jackson last September.

Butler first met the pop icon, whose death Thursday shocked millions of fans around the world, years prior and has been to Jackson's sprawling Santa Barbara County estate half a dozen times. Neverland, built around the Peter Pan theme, is something Butler said you have to see to believe--a magical wonderland of sorts.

"He had a train and train station just like the one in Disneyland," Butler said. "It's the most gorgeous thing I've seen. It's even better than Disneyland."

Aside from the Balloon Samba, which mimics a hot air balloon ride, Butler also owns a ride from Neverland Ranch that's currently displayed at the Coney Island fair in New York and three rides that are being restored.

"I have a scooter bumper car of his that has his picture all over it and on the cars, they have the moon insignia with the little boy sitting on the moon, built especially for him," he said. "He had it enclosed and inside were mirrors, black lights and music. When you're in there, it's like you're in another world."

Butler said he's getting ready to put that ride up for sale on eBay.

Jackson was the consummate performer in every aspect of his life and always aimed to please, Butler said of his encounters with the singer. He remembers one time he was visiting when Jackson arranged for one of his worker's sons to meet an idol.

"He had a gate guard whose son told him Kobe Bryant was his favorite player," Butler said. "Well, Michael gets on the phone, calls up Kobe and the next day, he was there and he played basketball with the kid and gave him a shirt and everything.

"He would go out of his way to make people happy," he added.

Aside from taking children on his amusement rides, Jackson also encouraged them to watch movies in a custom-built 49-seat movie theater. Butler said there were two enclosed areas with hospital beds and oxygen tanks suited for children with illnesses.

"He had a candy counter there and he would let the kids have all the candy they wanted," Butler said.

Since Jackson's death, it's unclear what will become of Neverland Ranch, which was at one point in jeopardy of being sold and possibly torn down, but Butler said he hopes it will be preserved for the public to see.

"This really needs to stay like it is," he said. "It's an amusement park and it could be a shrine. I saw it as a place people would want to come and see because it's kind of a mystery spot. It's gorgeous what he had done and the money he spent."

"I just wish he could have lived up to his potential because I couldn't think of anyone who was more talented," Butler added.

Butler, who lives in San Jose, started Butler Amusements 38 years ago with his father and he said it is now the largest show in the West with more than 135 rides. His peak time of the year is coming up later this summer when he'll have rides featured at three state fairs--California, Washington and Idaho.

The Balloon Samba is operating in the children's section of the carnival rides and Butler said a sign has been put up to let visitors know it was an original to Neverland Ranch.

"I won't be surprised if people bring a lot of memorial stuff like little teddy bears or flowers," he said. "And I'll feel better that they do."

Ticket prices vary. For adults, tickets are $10 at the gate or $8 if you pre-purchase on line. For children 6-12, tickets are $6 ($4 pre-paid). Seniors are $8 ($6 pre-paid), and children under 6 are free! There are also "fun packs" and season passes available. See these recession-friendly prices!

For information about the fair, visit www.alamedacountyfair.com

Janet Pelletier, Jeb Bing

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