At Gilroy Gardens in Gilroy, Calif., the gardens that make up a large part of this lush theme park are also the park’s historic heart. They are the reason that the park was founded, and a unique aspect of it – the landscaping is to a large extent just as important to the attraction as the rides, fun foods, and special events. Once known as Bonfante Gardens Theme Park, the park was founded by former Nob Hill Foods supermarket owners Michael and Claudia Bonfante, and it was designed to educate guests about and create a greater appreciation for -- horticulture. There aren’t too many theme parks that can make that statement, and make it fun, too, but Gilroy Gardens does both.
Now a non-profit venue with a mission to educate and inspire families to appreciate nature, and most specifically, trees, the park is the culmination of Bonfante’s dream. He had long wanted to establish a public, tree-themed garden, but could not get the finances behind such a project to work. In the end, he decided on a compromise with his original vision: the only way to create a naturally beautiful garden and make that garden financially viable and attract the necessary number of visitors would be to add rides. And so, he did.
The 536-acre park began in 2001, and from the start housed trees from as far away as Holland and Italy; and it remains California's only horticulture theme park. The landscaping is pristine, with the goal of nature first, manmade creations second. There are five waterfalls as well as a vast collection of trees and plants.
Today, the park has over 40 rides, numerous attractions, and its beautiful gardens.
Top among the rides, says marketing manager Stephanie Anderson, are the rollicking Quicksilver Express Mine Coaster, with a theme based on a local abandoned mine, and the Gilroy Gardens railroad, which runs around the entire park. But the world-renowned collection of Bonfante’s rare Circus Trees, six different garden exhibits, lake paddle boats shaped like swans, and a rock maze are also popular.
For many children and families, the park’s draw is first and foremost its whimsical rides. Small children love cute, plant-themed rides such as the spinning Artichoke Dip and the Apple and Worm carousel-like ride. Older kids and adults get a thrill on rides such as the giant swing called Banana Split, or the Timber Twister Coaster. A monorail ride takes visitors through the top of the park’s green house and west end. Food is a strong draw, too. Restaurants such as the park’s Castroville Corners, which sits lakefront, offer local favorites such as fried artichokes and Gilroy garlic fries, and like many of the park’s dining spots, can provide vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free choices, too.
According to Anderson, this year marks a new expansion for the park. “The big thing is that starting in mid to late May, we’re opening our expanded Water Oasis attraction. We’re adding a whole new play structure and large slides that are even big enough for parents to go down. Basically, we are doubling our Water Oasis footprint and we’ve aged up in terms of the park guests who’ll enjoy the attraction.”
She adds that this year, the park will also be expanding their popular Camp Night program to five weekend events including a new addition for the 4th of July. The family event brings guests in on a Saturday night for dinner and camping on a field in the park’s large picnic grove area; participants receive breakfast and a BBQ lunch the next day as well admission to the park.
Over the last 17 years, the park has added rides and the original Water Oasis space, while remaining what Anderson terms “a great place for families with young kids, gentler than some of the bigger theme parks in the area. It’s perfect for younger kids to come and play and it offers a much calmer experience.”
The gardens themselves make the attraction quite special. “The Claudius garden is one of our largest, and has waterfalls throughout it,” she notes. “It’s probably our most beloved garden.”
To bring more guests into the park, Anderson relies on both traditional marketing and social media. “We also have special events throughout the year that help draw people into the park. Our audience is fairly local, from San Jose and the Bay Area, and of course from Gilroy. We also use email blasts, and we have a newsletter that you can sign up for on our website so that people can learn about our events and promotions.”
Among the promotions are strong incentives to become a member at Gilroy Gardens. Premium Members receive unlimited day time admission all year, free daily parking, “bring a friend free” Friday days and nights, and early access to Water Oasis from May through September on the weekends. They also receive a 20% food and merchandise discount and unlimited admission to Gardens@Night. A Value Membership card can be purchased at a child’s price currently and offers unlimited daytime visits for 6 payments of $8 or a total of $48. Such bargains are attractive to visitors, especially locals who visit frequently.
Anderson notes that the park is “looking at expanded attendance with the water park additions, and in the past year, before our expansion, attendance has been up over the previous year.”
2017 was the inaugural year for a well-received event – Gardens@Night. Running from October 1st to December 30, this included a Halloween@Night event with trick or treating for children, themed food, and special “spooky” events and activities, a theme which ran October 1st through 29th. During the month of November, the festivities were focused on Harvest@Night with local beer and wine tastings, live bands and specialty foods each weekend. And in December, a repeat performance for Holiday@Night with seasonal treats and feasts drew enthusiastic visits.
Along with all the fun, educational programs still play a prominent part at Gilroy Gardens. “As a non-profit we host many educational offerings,” Anderson states. “We have self-guided Discovery Days and Natural Science Days in which a docent leads school groups through the park teaching at six different stations and exploring topics such as the food chain or recycling.”
The park may be filled with fun attractions, but ultimately, the beauty of nature is the bottom line.