Happy Hollow

Happy Hollow Park & Zoo (HHPZ) is a local gem that has been treasured by San Jose families for generations. My mom grew up going there, as did I, and now my preschool students sparkle when they talk about going to Happy Hollow on the weekend. Thanks to a major renovation completed in 2010, you’ll find the perfect blend of simple nostalgia and engaging modern attractions to appeal to all ages.

In a Nutshell

Happy Hollow is a combination of a small but high-quality zoo, interactive animal experiences and zookeeper talks, children’s amusement park rides, a large playground, a puppet theater, and open space. See the map for more details. They’re open almost every day and have special events on certain days.

They’re aimed at children of all ages, but we also enjoy visiting as adults without children in tow. There’s even a free Senior Safari Walkabout one Thursday morning a month for seniors age 50+.

The zoo is divided into two parts: the smaller “Zoo on the Hill,” which includes several animals and a petting zoo, and “Zoo in the Hollow,” which houses most of the animals. We’re particularly fond of the capybaras and meerkats, and of course the star attraction, Sophia the Jaguar.

The zoo has a total of 150+ animals and is an accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. We like to refer to them as a “small but mighty” zoo because, while they’re nowhere near the scale of the San Francisco Zoo, many of Happy Hollow’s animals are part of the AZA’s Species Survival Plan, meaning that they’re part of a wide network of captive breeding programs in zoos working together to help save threatened and endangered species.

 

We usually spend most of our time in the zoo, but we still walk around the park area just to enjoy the ambiance. It’s simultaneously peaceful and lively, filled with happy children and families enjoying their day together. There are some rides aimed at younger children, some for school-age children and adults, and some for the whole family. Our favorite ride is always Danny the Dragon, a gentle train ride through storybook dioramas. (Danny is also the mascot of HHPZ.)

In addition to the rides, the park area has a large redwood-themed playground, a walk-through maze, several smaller play areas, and a puppet theater with multiple shows on most days. 

Between the park and the zoo, you’ll find a large open field where families often eat, relax,  or let the kids run off steam. Special events are often held on the outdoor stage in this area too.

Before you go, check the Plan Your Visit page to see today’s hours and check which attractions may be closed for maintenance.

Location

Happy Hollow is located at 1300 Senter Road in San Jose. It’s part of the city’s Kelley Park, where you’ll also find History San Jose, the Japanese Friendship Gardens, the Leininger Community Center, and plenty of open space with picnic areas.

Their website has good driving directions from various freeways as well as how to take public transit to the park. There are also bicycle racks available near the entrance if you prefer.

Parking

If you drive to Happy Hollow, there are two main parking lots. One is off Senter Road and the other is on the opposite side of the park, off Story Road at Remillard. Either parking lot involves a little bit of a walk to the front gates. Scroll down to the map on the Plan Your Visit page for details.

In either lot, general parking is $10 per vehicle or $80 for an annual parking pass that works at all City of San Jose Regional Parks. The parking attendant booths are usually not staffed, so pay for parking at the automated kiosk in the parking lot and then put the printed receipt/pass on your dashboard before going into the park. (The machines take credit/debit cards or cash if you have exact change only.)

Important: If you have a disabled parking placard or plates on your vehicle, the price and procedure are different from general parking and different from what it was a few years ago. As of May 2018, this was the procedure if you don’t have a Discount Card from the city yet:

  1. Park in a disabled spot if possible. If those are full, make a note of where you parked.
  2. Bring your proof of disabled parking paper from the DMV. (This is the little paper that came with your placard or plates.) Also make sure you know your car’s make, model, year, color, and license plate number.
  3. Do not buy a parking pass at the kiosk. Instead, go directly to the Happy Hollow ticket booth.
  4. In addition to your admission tickets, tell the person in the booth that you need to pay for disabled parking. They’ll ask to see your DMV paper and ask for the identifying information about your car.
  5. You’ll pay the $2 parking fee (discounted from the general $10 rate) in addition to your admission tickets.
  6. Just go into the park! They write down your car’s information so they know you paid. That way you don’t have to walk all the way back to the car to put anything on your dashboard.

If you have the disabled parking placard or plates and plan to park at Happy Hollow or any other San Jose parks more than a couple times a year, it’s worth your while to jump through the paperwork hoops to get the Discount Card. This basically lets you prove that you’re eligible once for the year instead of every time you go. They’ll mail you a card which you then swipe at the kiosk and pay the discounted rate right there at the kiosk the same way everyone else pays their $10. Here’s the application for the Discount Card. Alternatively, you can also choose to get the discounted annual parking pass ($30 vs generally $80) if you plan to visit San Jose Regional Parks a lot.

Weather

As an outdoor place, Happy Hollow experiences the same weather as the surrounding neighborhood. There is a fair amount of shade in some parts, but you’ll still feel the heat, wind, or rain like you would at any other park. I definitely recommend sunscreen regardless of when you go.

Cost

As of our most recent visit (2019), the tickets were $14.25 for ages 2-59. Infants and toddlers under 2 years old are free, and there are discounts for seniors 60+ or for groups of 14 or more people. Your AAA card may give you a discount.  See their website for current pricing.

We usually choose the annual membership. This makes it worth our while to drop in for a short visit when we have time and want a “happiness recharge,” or to spend the whole morning wandering the zoo if we choose. The membership also supports HHPZ, of course, so we consider it a good investment even if we don’t go as often as we’d like. You can purchase a membership in person when you arrive or by mail ahead of time. If you’d like to upgrade a daily admission to a membership, you can do that while you’re there the same day and they’ll credit your daily admission price toward the membership purchase.

Happy Hollow has reciprocal agreements with CuriOdyssey, the San Francisco Zoo, and other local attractions, so if you have a membership somewhere else, you may get a discount on your Happy Hollow admission. See the zoo & aquarium reciprocal agreement list for details.

Note: HHPZ is no longer part of the nationwide reciprocal agreement list for science centers, but if you ask at the local science centers (Chabot, Children’s Creativity Museum, Lawrence Hall of Science, The Tech, and Lindsay Wildlife Museum), they may honor your HHPZ membership for a 50% discount on admission. Ask the individual museums about their policies.

Length of Time

This will take you a couple hours to half a day or more, depending on how many rides your family wants to ride or how much time you spend at the playgrounds. We usually finish in about 2 hours and then browse the gift shop before going home, but you could easily spend much longer if you choose to. It’s a very flexible place with plenty to do.

Wheelchair Access

Their website has information for guests with disabilities. Since the 2010 renovation, every part of Happy Hollow meets or exceeds ADA standards for accessibility. We’ve certainly found this to be true – the zoo and park are easily navigable by wheelchair, as are the restrooms, cafe, and gift shop. The ground is fairly level or gently sloping and the paths are nicely paved.

Due to safety concerns, the height/age/size requirements for the rides are enforced regardless of abilities. Guests will need to transfer out of their wheelchair or scooter in order to ride most of the rides. (The carousel and Danny the Dragon are wheelchair accessible and even accommodate service animals.) The ride attendants are not allowed to help with the transfer, but they are very kind about giving you time to do it and making sure the chair is safe until you get back.

If your family’s special needs prevent you from waiting in line, visit Guest Services at the front gate to ask for the “exit entry” wrist band. This will let your family enter through the exit instead of waiting in the standard line. We haven’t done this because we are able to wait, but it’s a marvelous service they offer to families who need it. You can call Guest and Member Services at (408) 794-6400 for more details.

Vision & Hearing

Unfortunately there is no braille on the zoo plaques and the animals are mostly quiet (no lions or elephants here), so a guest with limited vision would need someone to describe what’s there. With guidance, they could easily interact with the petting zoo, listen to the zookeepers’ talks and special presentations, and play on the playgrounds. The lively narration and sound effects would make the puppet shows accessible. The feelings of the rides and the cheerful surrounding sounds would also be thoroughly enjoyable.

A guest with a hearing impairment would be able to interact easily with all parts of the zoo, rides, and playgrounds. The puppet shows, however, are not closed captioned and I have never seen a sign language interpreter there. Many of the shows are classic stories (The Three Little Pigs, etc.), so if you’re already familiar with the plot, it may still be easy to follow along and enjoy the colorful puppets even if you can’t fully hear the narration.

Sensory Processing

The zoo is calm and open, with lots of shade and natural colors. There’s no background music. The Zoo in the Hollow (the larger part with more animals) doesn’t smell like much of anything. The Zoo on the Hill has a petting zoo and usually smells exactly the way you’d expect it to.

There’s a bit more hustle-and-bustle with more people in the park area around the rides and playground, but it’s still always been comfortably open. The paths are wide here and there are plenty of benches to take a break if needed. The only time we ever felt somewhat crowded was on a holiday weekend when the Kristy Yamaguchi Reading Adventures special event had drawn many extra people to HHPZ.

Everything is colorful enough to be interesting, but never in-your-face bright, and always balanced with lots of large trees and grass areas. Sensorially speaking, it’s among the most relaxing family parks I’ve visited.

Food

You can bring your own food or buy food there. They have a cafe called the Picnic Basket fairly close to the entrance. The menu includes chicken strips, burgers, fries, pizza, and hot pretzels. There are also some grab-and-go selections that usually include salads, sandwiches, hummus-and-veggie cups, yogurt, Smuckers Uncrustables, juice boxes, and milk. There’s indoor or outdoor seating available with flexible tables that you can move to accommodate your party size. It’s easy to fit a wheelchair at the tables.  If you choose to bring your own food, you can bring “homemade individual brown bag lunches” but no coolers or commercially prepared food. If you want to bring a more elaborate meal, such as party platters or coolers for a larger group, you can use the picnic areas located outside of Happy Hollow in the grassy areas of Kelley Park.

There are larger picnic areas inside Happy Hollow which can be reserved for two-hour windows as part of a birthday party package. These parties are usually catered by Happy Hollow, or you can cater your own for an additional fee. If you want to bring your own homemade or store-bought party food for a group event, it’s best to just use the picnic tables located in Kelley Park outside of Happy Hollow.

Would we go back?

We’ve been coming here for two generations and absolutely plan to keep coming, usually multiple times a year. We love the cheerful, family-friendly atmosphere, the sweet animals in the zoo, and of course the nostalgia. It’s a very special place for us. If you haven’t been here, or at least not since 2010, I highly recommend it. You’ll absolutely leave with a smile!