Landing the jet set

Published July 22, 2002|Updated Sept. 3, 2005

Movie star John Travolta's new $2.5-million getaway in Central Florida will look like a small airport, hangars and all.

To get there, he won't fuss with the gated entrance enclosing pastures once home to African elephants, 3,500 crocodiles and a gorilla. He can swoop down in one of his jets and land on a private runway as big as those at some public airports. He can taxi to his back door.

Pretty cool.

Travolta is the latest fascination in a classic Florida story that's a dash Miami Vice, a hint Disney plus a bit Hollywood. Making appearances are a high society lady, an eccentric tycoon and, naturally, a drug dealer from Miami. Plus bundles of loot buried on the grounds.

The lore revolves around a place with the peculiar name "Jumbolair," a 550-acre estate in Marion County. Travolta's new home will be the first in Jumbolair's newest incarnation: an aviation community of 125 homes, each with its own taxiway.

An accomplished pilot, Travolta flies his Boeing 707 jetliner into St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport every few months. He comes here for religious services at the Church of Scientology's spiritual center in downtown Clearwater.

If he wants to jet in from Jumbolair, Clearwater would be only minutes away.

Mr. Coco and more

The owner and developer of Jumbolair is Terri Thayer, a one-time Clearwater resident raised in Seffner. She is 40, still model-thin with the auburn tresses of a glamour life (including time as a Revlon Charlie Girl) that makes her one of the property's fascinating personalities. She tells the story of Jumbolair in casual tidbits.

Yeah, there were crocodiles out back.

Uh-huh, Judd Nelson stayed here.

Oh, the pool house is said to be haunted. People keep saying they hear a strange knock-knock.

"It's like a cross between Dynasty, James Bond and the Crocodile Hunter," Thayer jokes.

Jumbolair is a secluded hamlet in a neighborhood where families live in mobile homes and clip-clop around on horseback. Green meadows roll into the horizon. Hours worth of riding trails loop through the back of the property for the nine horses who live there.

Through Jumbolair's arched gateway, an Old South-style mansion sits among the oaks. The home has been turned into a bed and breakfast, The Inn at Jumbolair. For $175 to $425 a night you can stay in one of the five rooms, each named for an animal that once lived on the property, including Shupa, the African elephant, and Mickey, the 400-pound gorilla.

Before animals and the inn, Thayer says, there was the society lady, Muriel Vanderbilt Adams.

The great-great-granddaughter of the founder of the Vanderbilt fortune, Adams wintered here and raised exotic birds, according to stories locals have shared with Thayer. Adams' horse and dog are said to be buried under the tombstones still standing on the property with the names "Miche" and "Mr. Coco."

For a brief spell, Thayer said, Jumbolair was owned by Jose Antonio Fernandez, the Miami ringleader of a large drug operation. He pleaded guilty in 1985 to racketeering, conspiracy, drug trafficking and fraud.

Later, workers discovered bundles of crumbling $100 bills buried on the property. No one bothered counting the cash before it was turned over to the FBI.

Thayer was 18 when she married 57-year-old Arthur Jones, the inventor of Nautilus exercise equipment. They bought the property in 1980 and before long, the wealthy couple had created a farm country curiosity: airport, private home, wild animal sanctuary and celebrity resort.

They called it Jumbolair.

Thayer says the name was Jones' creation. He had lived in Africa for 19 years and said "jumbo" was a word in Africa for elephant. "Lair" refers to an animal den. The Joneses amassed an exotic menagerie, including three white rhinos, a gorilla and thousands of crocodiles, including Gomek, a legendary 18-foot, 2,000-pounder.

In 1984, the couple flew their Boeing 707 to Zimbabwe and airlifted a herd of baby elephants slated for government slaughter. The rescue was featured on ABC's 20/20. In all, 98 elephants lived at Jumbolair.

Jones spent $6-million building a 1.4-mile runway so he could move his airplanes there and expand the fleet. He wanted to fly in doctors, physical therapists and chiropractors to sell Nautilus equipment in Jumbolair's one-of-a-kind setting.

The marketing plan proved wildly successful. Jones flew in as many as 130 potential Nautilus buyers a week.

Jumbolair became a large operation. More than two dozen employees cooked, cleaned and tended the animals and the aircraft.

The Joneses were headlinemakers for nearly a decade when they lived there. At 26, Thayer set a cross-country flying record, piloting a Piper Cheyenne 400 twin-engine turboprop from Burbank, Calif., to Jacksonville in 5 hours, 6 minutes.

She co-authored How to Look Terrific in a Bathing Suit and was a guest on The Tonight Show. Twice. One time she presented Johnny Carson with a rhino horn, supposedly an aphrodisiac.

Celebrities, drawn by the famed fitness guru and his homestead, also stayed in the home. Rob Lowe and Bo Derek visited. The Beach Boys hung out by the pool. Judd Nelson rode horses.

The jet set days ended when Jones and Thayer divorced in 1989. They donated their animals to parks and zoos, and put Jumbolair on the market with Sotheby's auction house for $11.2-million.

A two-plane garage

The staff at Jumbolair recently shooed away a woman with a telephoto lens spying on Travolta's new home. People ring the security gate asking to see it. A British tabloid reporter called up asking questions.

Sure, big names (among them, George Steinbrenner) have surfaced in Marion County. "But this is John Freakin' Travolta!!" journalist Dave Schlenker wrote in the Ocala Star-Banner.

Lifelong Ocala resident Sharon Emidy jokes that she would lose it if she bumped into the Saturday Night Fever disco icon remade as Pulp Fiction ultra-hip hitman. "The older he gets, the better he looks," she said. "He ages like fine wine."

Jumbolair's developer and staff won't indulge inquiries. Neither will his homebuilder, Ken Bollenback of Oldsmar, who said he signed an agreement not to discuss the project. Travolta's publicist wouldn't talk, either.

So it's not clear how much time Travolta, his wife Kelly Preston and their children, Jett and Ella, plan to spend at Jumbolair.

The new 6,400-square foot residence resembles a small airport with its long, rambling floor plan topped with what looks like a watchtower. It has eight bedrooms, including quarters for the flight crew, a pool, Jacuzzi and two airplane hangars.

Part of Jumbolair's allure for Travolta, no doubt, was its big airstrip. His love of flying is well known.

This summer he is piloting his ex-Qantas 707 on a global promotion for the Australian airline. Travolta wants to show the airline industry in a positive light after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

Travolta had looked at Jumbolair when it was for sale years ago, but he didn't want to live there alone, Thayer said. He posed the idea of an aviation community. That appealed to Thayer. She bought out her ex-husband's interest in the land and in 1995 began to plan the new community.

Travolta, the first buyer, paid $550,000 for 9 acres.

"You have an airplane that lets you visit any fast city any place you want to be," Thayer said. "But you have this home that's peaceful and real. Most celebrities have a hard time finding that."

In all, nine lots have been purchased. Travolta's neighbors will range from a wealthy elderly woman to a Jacksonville couple _ she's a stay-at-home mom, he's an air traffic controller who will pilot his plane to work every day.

"I think there will be other celebrities," said real estate agent Becky Bunn. "There's rumor of race track drivers. I've heard like three other movie stars and a baseball player."

Thayer, too, will build a home at Jumbolair. Also in the works is a Jumbolair "petting zoo."

Its featured attractions? Zebras and giraffes.

_ Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.