A Pair of California Parks: Great America & Gilroy Gardens

by Victoria Beninga

Just about every child can tell you that if you go to Southern California you can find fun family theme parks, but do you know that Southern California doesn’t have the only ones? There are not one, but two fabulous family theme parks in Northern California’s Santa Clara County. You have probably heard of one of them, but you may not know about the other.

The more well-known park is California’s Great America. Located in Santa Clara, this park has been offering family fun for decades. It offers scream-inducing rides that will thrill the most daring teenage boys, sweet rides that please the most delicate of toddlers, and thrilling, but not too scary, rides for the school-aged children.

If you are unfamiliar with the park, I recommend getting a park guide at the gate, then boarding the Delta Flyer for a leisurely ride above the entire park. You’ll get a feel for the layout of the park so you can plan which area to visit first.

For those of you who are the most daring, try the Drop Zone Stunt Tower, where you can experience a 22-story free fall. Just watching this ride makes my stomach hurt. The Psycho Mouse looks harmless, but my daughter and I soon learned that this ride offers a thrilling coaster ride where you feel you’re going to fly off the track at every turn. Experience the Vortex, a stand-up roller coaster, or The Grizzly, an old-fashioned wooden roller coaster.

School-aged children will beg to stay longer at Nickelodeon Central. Here they will enjoy Sponge Bob’s Boatmobiles, The Wild Thornberry’s Rain Maze, Dora’s Dune Buggies (now this one is more my speed), and Rugrats Runaway Reptar Roller Coaster, and The Wild Thornberry’s Treetop Lookout. School-aged children love the stage show, Slime Time Live.

The tiniest children will love KidZville. Here your little ones can enjoy tame rides such as the KidZville Airport, an airplane that gently swings back and forth. Our favorite ride in KidZville is the Junior Jump Club, which is a bench seat that gently rises, then bounces all the way down. The best thing about KidZville is that although the rides are tame, they are big enough for adults to accompany their little ones comfortably.

Children can meet their favorite cartoon characters, including Blue, Sponge Bob Square Pants, Little Bill, Jimmy Neutron, Dora the Explorer, Cosmo and Wanda from the Fairly Odd Parents, and characters from Scooby Doo, The Flintstones, which floats down a river complete with rapids. For added laughs, spectators can put money into high-powered water machines located next to the ride and squirt the riders with water as they float by. A favorite ride for families is the Columbia Carousel. This elegant, colorful, double-decker carousel is the first ride you see as you enter the park.

In addition to rides for the whole family, Great America offers stage shows, a 3-D show, lots of food, and fair-type carnival games. The brand new Crocodile Dundee’s Boomerang Bay is an Australian-inspired water park that offers 11 water slides, a giant water-powered playhouse, and a children’s splash area.

Some words of advice for families: Because California’s Great America is so popular, it becomes very crowded during the summer, especially on weekends. If you can’t visit during the week, bring your patience and be prepared to wait in long lines. If you have children of different ages, I recommend bringing a spouse or friend so one of you can take the smaller children to one area while the other takes the bigger children to a different area. If the weather isn’t hot, I also recommend saving the rides where you get wet until you are ready to leave or bringing along extra dry clothing in a waterproof bag. The admission price includes almost all the rides and attractions; however, bring extra money for the pricey, but yummy food, carnival games, and a couple of rides which cost extra money.

Bonfante Gardens photo by UncleVinny

The newer California Park, nestled in the hills of Gilroy, is Gilroy Gardens. It is definitely worth visiting. If your children are preteens or younger, your family will love this park.

Michael Bonfante was the owner of the successful company, Nob Hill Foods. He sold the business to pursue his 25-year dream of opening a horticulturally-based theme park. He rescued a group of forgotten formerly world-famous trees from the Santa Cruz mountains and had them transplanted to Gilroy, where Gilroy Gardens is now located. These trees, known as the Circus Trees, were grafted by Axel Erlandson in the 1920s so their trunks took on unusual shapes such as baskets, hearts, lightning bolts, and rings – incredibly, 74 trees in all. After his death, the trees also began to die. Santa Cruz Architect Mark Primack led the fight to keep some of them alive, even risking arrest to go into the water and feed them. Fortunately, Michael Bonfante heard about the Circus Trees and purchased them. The surviving trees are now thriving throughout Gilroy Gardens.

Viewing these trees is reason enough to visit Gilroy Gardens, but there is much more to enjoy. Throughout the park, families can enjoy breathtakingly lush gardens, rides, attractions, and yummy food.

Many of the rides have been named after foods. Children enjoy riding on the Artichoke Dip, Strawberry Sundae, Banana Split, Apple and Worm, Garlic Twirl, and Mushroom Swing.

The preteen children will enjoy the Quicksilver Express, a thrilling mine-themed roller coaster. The whole family can enjoy a leisurely train ride around the park in Coyote & Redwood Railroad, or a trip on the Sky Trail Monorail, which even goes through the glass-enclosed monarch garden. One very popular ride is the South County Backroads. This ride consists of vintage cars that children can drive. They can’t steer off the track because the track has a cement strip that the car straddles. Riders can decide whether to get in line to ride cars from the 1950s or the 1920s. Also popular are the duck and swan paddle boats. My children’s favorite attraction at Gilroy Gardens is Splash and Squirt, where water shoots up from holes in the ground. On our next visit, we are going to be sure to have bathing suits for the children, and we are going to allow much more time to spend in this area.

New for 2004 is Wild Wings, a 30-minute family-friendly show featuring 20 different birds from around the world.

If you visit Gilroy Gardens in late July, you can also take in the world-famous, annual Gilroy Garlic Festival.

Our family was at Gilroy Gardens the entire day and encountered only one wild adolescent. When all the surrounding families ignored him, he simply left. One of my many favorite things about Gilroy Gardens is that the lines are shorter than at the larger parks. Even when there are lines, the surrounding gardens provide lots of shade. We found that the crowds thinned around four in the afternoon after the families with smaller children had gone home. 

If you want to experience beautiful scenery and thrilling rides while avoiding the wilder clientele of the larger theme parks, give Gilroy Gardens a try.

I highly recommend Great America and Gilroy Gardens, a fabulous pair of Paramount Parks.

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Victoria Beninga is a publisher, editor, and columnist for Gold Country Families, an Online Magazine and Newsletter of Sierra Nevada Gold Country family-friendly local activities and getaways, “Gold Country Families”. This article was originally published in Gold Country Families. Copyright 2004 Victoria Beninga

Paramount Great America photo by Jeremy Thompson