Gardens ... in Gilroy?

For a bit more than a decade, Gilroy Gardens has been nestled against the scenic hills south of San Jose and west of Interstate 101. It's part amusement park (refreshingly sans brink-of-death roller coasters, killer whale shows, nearby high-rise hotels and dancing cartoon characters -- though a garlic clove mascot would have been acceptable under the circumstances). It's also part gorgeous botanical gardens with some of the most spectacular trees in Northern California.

I realize that's a pretty high bar. Go Google "circus trees." I'll be here when you get back ... or you can just read on.

The rides at Gilroy Gardens range from non-death defying roller coasters to the Balloon Flight (pictured), Mushroom Swing, Artichoke Dip and other
The rides at Gilroy Gardens range from non-death defying roller coasters to the Balloon Flight (pictured), Mushroom Swing, Artichoke Dip and other kid-friendly amusements. ( Tony Hicks )

The best thing about Gilroy Gardens is how it sneaks up on you. Honestly, I was expecting a cross between something one might see on "Parks and Recreation" and a 1970s version of Fairyland. I wasn't prepared for an uber-charming, well-laid-out place where every inch is beautifully landscaped. There are no lines on a summer Saturday for roller coasters (modest ones -- don't expect Six Flags), a couple of water parks, a lake with paddle boats patterned after giant water fowl, a huge monarch butterfly enclosure that is traversed by a train and a tram, a giant banana boat ride (think of the pirate ship on the Santa Cruz boardwalk but bright yellow) and a tea cup-style ride where the cups look like huge gloves of garlic. I mean, it is Gilroy.


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And there's water everywhere -- big waterfalls, little waterfalls, babbling brooks and a lake. It's the billionaire's dream backyard. In fact, every time we stumbled onto something new, my 12-year-old exclaimed (at least 20 times) we have to have one of those in our backyard.

We're going to need a bigger backyard.

A giant mushroom swing and swan boat are just some of the amusements at Gilroy Gardens.
A giant mushroom swing and swan boat are just some of the amusements at Gilroy Gardens. ( Gilroy Gardens )

Don't get me wrong -- this isn't exactly a tree-hugger's NorCal Disneyland with a smaller carbon footprint. The price is fairly steep ($50 for adults, $40 for kids, although there are lots of online discounts available, including on the park's website). There are plenty of food choices, but the one we made -- San Juan Grill -- was a half-step behind mainstream fast-food burgers and fries. (In their defense, when they mistakenly forgot one of our items, they replaced it for free without argument. The service was great all the way around, and the chicken was much better than the burgers.)

And then there are the trees, which are almost worth the price of admission alone. Almost. ...

Gilroy Gardens was inspired by Nob Hill Foods owner Michael Bonfante's realization in the early 1970s that being around trees was a wonderful tonic to the stress of big business. He bought the land, began to shape it into a park and eventually bought 31 circus trees, created by farmer Axel Erlandson, whose hobby was growing fantastically shaped trees in Scotts Valley. Erlandson died in 1964 and his trees remained largely unattended until Bonfante bought them two decades later and moved them into his park. The fantastically shaped trees anchor various gardens in the park.

In a nod to Bonfante's love of nature, there are educational displays throughout the park. For example, while waiting in a small, well-shaded (most lines have lots of shade) line for the mushroom swings, one can read all about mushrooms. There are also "learning sheds" that shed light on the trees, water and some of the creatures that live in them.

Gilroy Gardens' newest attraction proved a big draw for the kids on a day when temperatures soared well into the 90s (and possibly the reason why the roller coaster lines were so short). The new Water Oasis is a huge hit, with mini-water slides, pools with water cannons and most of the features one would expect from a first-rate water park that doesn't involve four-story-high water slides. It's not the park's only water feature either -- a smaller scale version called Bonfante's Splash Garden kept my kids busy before they even knew there was a bigger water park a couple hundred yards away.

Gilroy Gardens’ new Water Oasis adds splashy fun with mini-water slides and pools with water cannons.
Gilroy Gardens' new Water Oasis adds splashy fun with mini-water slides and pools with water cannons. ( Tony Hicks )

One of Gilroy Gardens' real charms is that the surrounding area doesn't have the typical tourist-targeted collateral obnoxiousness. Instead, vineyards and farms dot the nearby landscape. The lack of giant hotels may hinder the park's draw as a tourist destination. Then again, the park is small enough to more than cover in a day -- perhaps on the way to Santa Cruz or Monterey.

You can talk about garlic festivals until you're blue in the face. But Gilroy Gardens is the jewel of Gilroy.

Contact Tony Hicks at Facebook.com/BayAreaNewsGroup.TonyHicks or Twitter.com/tonyhicks67.

IF YOU GO

Gilroy Gardens, 3050 Hecker Pass (Highway 152), Gilroy. 408-840-7100, www.gilroygardens.org. Open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. (Only open on weekends after Aug. 17.) General admission $49.99; $29.99 to 39.99 for children and seniors; $84.99 for premium membership. Discount tickets are available on its website. Parking is $12.

Parents need to know: Kids might want to wear swimsuits under their clothes, as there are interactive water areas throughout the park. No outside food or drink is allowed. Although there are some rides that will appeal to older kids, roller coaster freaks may be disappointed by how many of the rides are geared toward smaller kids. But there's still plenty of fun to be had by all ages.

Nearby eats: The park has a number of places to eat, including barbecue, Mexican food and pizza. There aren't a lot of restaurants in the nearby vicinity outside the park. The park's San Juan Grill offers burgers (not great) and chicken (pretty good) along with other standard American fare.

-- Tony Hicks, Staff