We haven’t forgotten about you all, honestly! Due to intermittent technical difficulties with the wheelchair and the van, we haven’t been visiting as many places this season. We took the chair in for service again, so cross your fingers, and check back soon for our next review. Until then, I hope your weekends bring you many reasons to smile!
We’ve always loved shopping, especially at big malls. I know not everyone agrees, and that’s okay, but for us, malls are a relaxing way to spend an afternoon. We don’t have to have a specific shopping list or destination in mind; it’s fun just strolling through, “window shopping” and “people watching” and sometimes finding unexpected treasures. When I need creative inspiration, I often find the fabrics, home decor items, jewelry, and other items at the mall to be a great source of new ideas.
Growing up in the Bay Area in the ’90s, I took it for granted that the question was only ever “Which mall?” and not whether or not to make the trek out to “the mall.” (When I got to college and met people from other parts of California, I realized how blessed we are here.) It’s true that online shopping has shifted the nature of most malls to include more restaurants, movie theaters, and interactive experiences than in the past, but anyone who tells you that malls are a “dying breed” has clearly not tried to park at one on a Saturday afternoon recently. Trust me, there are plenty of people still going to malls, and we will always be among them.
Silicon Valley is still home to many malls (although sightly fewer than twenty years ago, it’s true), most of which are listed on our Ideas page. We’ve sorted them by indoor/enclosed malls vs. outdoor/open-air centers so you can choose based on the weather or your personal preferences. We’ve been to almost every mall on that list, many multiple times. We have a few favorites but enjoy almost all of them for different reasons. Each has different stores, of course, but also different types of restaurants, different sensory levels, and different overall vibes.
Today we chose the Great Mall in Milpitas because we hadn’t been there in a while and because it had a couple stores we wanted to browse for specific items. As always, we enjoyed this mall’s variety and lively atmosphere.
In a Nutshell
This is a relatively large mall laid out in a big oval shape. It’s divided into what they call “neighborhoods,” which are just segments of the loop like slices of a pie. It’s a way to help you navigate and know where you are.
The mall has a combination of bigger anchor stores and smaller stores. Many are high-end outlets or big-name stores and some are unique local spots. It’s a Simon mall (meaning the parent company who runs it is Simon) so it has a wider variety of stores than most Westfield malls do. The exact mix of stores changes on a regular basis, so check the mall’s website for a current list if there’s something specific you want to see.
In addition to stores, the mall has a Century movie theater, a Dave & Buster’s entertainment space, changing activities inside (such as jumpers, 3D simulator seats, or a small train for little kids to ride), and of course multiple restaurants and a food court.
One of the things I enjoy most about this mall is its diversity. It really feels like a miniature version of the entire Bay Area inside. We see families and individuals of all ages and cultures there, but have never once felt a problem in it. (Having grown up in San Jose, then gone to college in a town that was over 80% white and 50% twenty-somethings, this diversity is one of the things I missed most about home and still consciously enjoy now that I’m back.) I love listening to the plethora of languages being spoken all in one place. Call me philosophical, but I find it beautiful to see such diverse people just enjoying their afternoon and sharing this space so peacefully. The world could take a lesson here.
The Great Mall is in Milpitas, just pass the San Jose border, about halfway between I-880 and I-680, near Montague Expressway. See their website for driving directions if you don’t have GPS.
The mall’s address is 447 Great Mall Dr, Milpitas, CA 95035-8041.
The mall is surrounded by a large parking lot on all sides. There’s also a small parking garage on one side near the Bed Bath & Beyond (Neighborhood 5) entrance. For some reason, we’ve found the most disabled parking spaces to be available in this area, but of course there are blue slots all around the mall if you need them.
There’s also a big public transit hub at the edge of the parking lot. The Light Rail, ten VTA bus lines, and one AC Transit bus all meet here, so it’s possible to get to the mall via public transit from most of the Bay Area.
This is an indoor mall, so it’s great in any weather. In case it’s pouring cats-and-dogs in the winter, do be aware that the parking garage is close to the entrance but does not have a covered walkway, so you may have to walk (or roll) in the rain for a short stretch. In the summer, we have sometimes found it to get pretty crowded by mid/late afternoon on exceptionally hot days when many people (including us) come in search of air conditioning. Other than those two extremes, the weather really doesn’t factor in here.
Length of Time
This is a medium-large mall, so you can choose whether to spend a couple hours or most of the day here. It depends on whether you’re just wandering and browsing in a few stores or whether you want to go in more stores, try on more clothes, eat in a sit-down restaurant, see a movie, etc.
Unless it’s one of those exceptionally crowded afternoons, this mall is usually nicely wheelchair-friendly. They’ve recently completed a renovation that included new flooring, which makes for even less friction/drag on the wheelchair tires and therefore less draw on the battery. Some stores are laid out with wider or narrower aisles than others, of course, but that’s true everywhere. We’ve had no trouble navigating most of the stores here.
Note: a few big stores and most restaurants have restrooms inside, but the majority of the mall’s public restrooms are located down hallways between stores. They’re clearly marked on the map and with signs. There is at least one wheelchair-accessible stall in each one, but do keep in mind that some of the hallways are fairly long and sometimes you find a long line for the women’s room at the end. Don’t wait until it’s super urgent…
Vision & Hearing
Overall, the Great Mall is similar to other malls in terms of visual or auditory access. The background noise level is usually not super loud (i.e. it’s easy to follow a conversation while wearing hearing aids). One thing to note for someone with low vision: for some reason, this mall has never established a consistent traffic flow pattern. In most malls, I’ve seen that people tend to walk on the right, so most of the people around you are flowing the same direction you are. In this mall, people tend to walk both ways on both sides, so you do have to be a little more alert than usual to cross-traffic or to people walking toward you. If you have very limited vision, it may help to have a companion in this setting.
I’d rate this mall as a “medium” on the sensory scale. It’s not as mellow as Hillsdale or Stoneridge, but it’s also not as in-your-face as some I’ve encountered. I don’t usually wear my earplugs here. There is some background music, mostly from the stores, but it’s not overwhelming. In this mall, you will find ample skylights, high ceilings, and mostly neutral-colored flooring and walls in the main walkways, especially since the renovation. (The flooring does have some print to it, but it’s a neutral tone-on-tone pattern, nothing like the bright geometric carpet patterns I see elsewhere.) The signs are color-coded by Neighborhood to help you orient yourself. The food smells are mostly contained to food areas and the strongly-scented stores don’t leak into the common spaces much at all. As long as it’s not too crowded, I usually find this mall to be busy/alive-feeling but quite nice.
The Great Mall has a food court with an ever-changing assortment of choices, plus multiple sit-down restaurants. Some of these, such as Red Robin, are in the mall and some, such as Olive Garden, are freestanding buildings in the parking lot. Check out the “food” tab on their website for a current list of offerings.
On this trip, we were delighted to find that they now have Loving Hut in the food court! This is one of our favorite vegan restaurants. At this location, it’s a self-serve hot bar with lots of choices and you simply pay based on the weight at the end.
We also noticed a new Jamba Juice on this trip, which opens up even more vegan and allergy-friendly choices. Of course you can also always bring your own food to eat in the food court or on any bench/seating area around the mall.
Would we go back?
Of course! We’ve been here countless times before and will continue to visit in the future. We sometimes go for something specific (such as luggage, purses, Pyrex, shoes, fancy dresses, or other things for which they have an uncommonly large number of choices) and sometimes just for the fun of walking around the mall. Whether you’re doing some holiday shopping or just enjoying a day out, the Great Mall in Milpitas will make you smile!
In the last several years, we’ve seen a wave of all-inclusive playgrounds springing up in the Bay Area. I love it! The next one is planned for John D. Morgan Park in Campbell. Santa Clara County Supervisor Ken Yeager’s latest newsletter announced the project:
The County’s commitment to increasing the health and wellness of our residents is stronger than ever, including providing them with opportunities to go outdoors and get active. For instance, we recently opened new trails in our parks. We also installed an outdoor par course on the Civic Center campus in San Jose. Unfortunately, many of our residents, especially our kids with physical limitations or special needs, are not able to enjoy these offerings. That’s why I’m so excited to announce that an all-inclusive playground is coming to Campbell’s John D. Morgan Park.
On August 14, the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved my proposal to provide funding for the approximately one-acre playground. It will provide play areas for residents of all abilities, including those with mobility challenges, autism spectrum disorders, sensory challenges, visual and auditory impairments, cognitive disabilities, developmental disabilities, and medically fragile conditions.
The County is contributing $1 million to the project which the City of Campbell will match. Design work is scheduled to begin this fall, and public workshops will be held so local residents can provide their input. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2020 with the playground’s opening anticipated in 2021.
I deeply appreciate all the work that will go into this project for the children in our community. I’m also really grateful that this trend is considering children with so many different abilities. In an era where politicians seem to be out of touch with real life so much of the time, seeing leaders take the time to pursue projects like this really makes me smile!
The San Jose Museum of Art is perhaps my favorite art museum anywhere. It’s just the right size and has an ever-changing variety of exhibits. Of all the art museums I’ve visited, this is my favorite for the peacefully excited creative vibe it gives me. I just like how I feel inside myself when I’m there and when I walk away.
In a Nutshell
The museum has two main gallery floors plus a mini gallery downstairs. There’s also the obligatory cafe and gift shop on the ground floor, of course.
True, it’s not the biggest, nor is it filled with classic paintings by the Old Masters. It does have a wide variety, though, and doesn’t have the stuffy, boring, or elitist vibe many art museums carry. To me, it’s the “Goldilocks size” for a museum — big enough to be interesting, but not so big as to be overwhelming. I walk out excited to sketch or paint something of my own.
The works tend to be contemporary-ish, in that they’re usually from the early 1900s until today. I’ve never seen a Renaissance or Van Gogh exhibit there, for example. That said, they’re not just what you’d think of as “modern art” (the highly abstract random-looking art that many people find unappealing). They tend to include a variety of photography, painting, sketching, sculpture, and installation art in many different styles. They often create a collection or exhibit on a particular topic, such as social justice or people’s varying concepts of “home” or American landscapes from the mid-20th century. They also include background information on many of the pieces to help guests understand the context of the work. I find it quite interesting and inspiring. It’s different every time I go.
The museum allows photography and very few of the works are under glass. As long as you don’t touch, you can get very close to the work to see the details and feel more connected to it. The galleries are wide open and airy with just the right balance of having enough to look while also having plenty of breathing room between each exhibit.
There are friendly volunteer docents available if you need them, but I never feel pressured or watched. It’s very much an enjoy-at-your-own-pace kind of place. It’s also laid out in a very nonlinear way (think more Macy’s, less IKEA) with no scripted path, so you’re free to flow with your interests.
The museum has clipboards with paper available if you’re feeling inspired to sketch while you’re there. They also have Art Pack tote bags with games and art supplies to borrow. These are designed to help children feel more connected to the art, but they’re freely available to anyone.
The museum is open to all ages, of course, but I’d say elementary school on up would be ideal. Most preschoolers and younger children will struggle with the look-don’t-touch aspect of the museum. If you do bring younger children, I’d suggest borrowing an Art Pack or bringing crayons and a drawing pad they can use in their lap in the stroller. This will give them something they can touch and do (in a room full of “no”) that connects to what they’re seeing.
The museum is in downtown San Jose at the corner of S. Market Street and E. San Fernando Street. (It’s at one end of Plaza de Cesar Chavez, where Christmas in the Park happens every year.) The address is 110 South Market Street.
It’s very close to The Tech Museum of Innovation, St. Joseph’s Cathedral Basilica, and loads of different restaurants. It’s a comfortable walking distance (under half a mile) from San Jose State University, the San Jose McEnery Convention Center, and the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts.
I always recommend taking public transit downtown if you can, just to save on parking costs and traffic stress. At least fifteen different VTA transit routes (including the free DASH Shuttle) run close to the museum, or if you’re coming from farther away, it’s about a 20-minute walk from the CalTrain station to the museum.
If you do drive, their website has driving directions from all parts of the Bay Area. There are several nearby parking lots or, if you’re very lucky and good at parallel parking, some on-street parking. There is one accessible (blue curb) parking spot on Market Street if it’s available and if you have a placard or DP plates. Otherwise, ParkSJ.org lists the Second and San Carlos Garage or the Third and Santa Clara Garage as the best options.
This is an indoor museum, so you’ll enjoy it any time of year. Their strong air conditioning makes it an especially wonderful choice during a heat wave! (That air conditioning also means you should actually bring a light sweater even if it’s warm outside.)
When I visited (2018), the tickets were $10 for adults and less for children, students, and seniors. Children under 6 are free. See their website for current pricing. There are also annual membership options at multiple levels and prices.
If you’re a San Jose Public Library cardholder, you can use their Discover’n’Go pass program to get free one-day admission for a family of 4. There are many different special offers and discounts listed on the museum’s website, so it’s worth checking to see if any of those apply to you.
Length of Time
This museum usually takes us about two hours. If you’re the read-every-single-plaque type, it will be longer, but I find two hours is usually enough to meander through the galleries at a comfortably calm pace.
There are public tours available for free at 1:00 and 2:30 every day except Mondays. (The museum is closed on Mondays.)
I have to give this museum kudos for their fantastic accessibility on many fronts.
The whole front of the building appears to be stairs, but there is a sign directing you to the wheelchair ramp at one end. It leads directly to the front door.
The entire museum is wheelchair-friendly. You can roll right up to the artwork, it’s hung at a variety of heights, and there’s a lot of room to move around each exhibit. The floors are all hardwood (or something that looks like it) so it’s easy to maneuver. There’s an elevator connecting all three floors.
There are benches scattered throughout the museum. If you need to borrow a wheelchair, seat cane, or stroller, just ask at the information desk. They even have “gallery stools” to borrow, which are lightweight little seats that look like wooden step stools but have a small hole in the middle so they’re easy to carry around with you.
The restroom is a little small but does have an accessible stall.
Vision & Hearing
For guests with limited but functional vision, the museum has magnifying glasses (which they call “visual aid tools”) to borrow from the information desk. They also have a binder with all of the exhibits’ information plaques in large print if you have trouble reading the smaller print on the wall plaques.
Of course as an art museum, nearly everything is “look, don’t touch,” so someone who’s totally blind would miss out on most of it. There are a few galleries which include videos or mini documentaries related to the exhibit subject, so they could listen to these, but that would be about it.
Some of those videos are closed-captioned to be accessible to guests with hearing impairments. You can also request ahead of time to have a free ASL (American Sign Language) interpreter for the public tour or a special lecture event at the museum. Outside of that, the experience is almost entirely visual, so a visitor who’s deaf would be able to fully enjoy the museum.
The sensory level is another way in which this museum hits the “Goldilocks” spot for me. It’s naturally quiet enough that I didn’t need my ear plugs (for once!) and wasn’t distracted by ambient noise, but it also doesn’t have that stuffy dead-quiet formal atmosphere of some art museums. People talk quietly to each other. The documentaries/videos are faintly audible in some areas, but the designers did a good job of containing them in a nearly closed-off area so the sound isn’t too distracting outside of the theater space. It’s comfortable.
The lighting is also comfortable. There’s a lot of natural light in the central area. The gallery lighting is high enough to be effective and cheerful but not glaringly bright, even with the white walls and wood floors. Again, my kudos to the people in charge. It’s well done.
My only sensory note is if you’re sensitive to smells, beware: The soap in the bathrooms is heavily fragranced. Next time, I’ll just wash with water and take my chances with the germs…
There’s no food or drink allowed in the galleries (as usual with museums) but there is a cafe on the main floor. It has indoor and outdoor seating available, so you could bring your own food if you prefer. The cafe is also open to the public without a museum ticket. Depending on where you park, a purchase at the cafe may get you up to 40 minutes of validated parking.
They have moderate to high-end food by museum cafe standards, on par with the restaurants nearby in downtown San Jose. They offer snacks or whole meals. I saw gourmet sandwiches, salads, soups, bakery treats, and breakfast foods. There were also grab-and-go bottled beverages, chips, and fresh fruit. There were lots of vegetarian choices but limited vegan options (mainly the chips and fruit). The menu didn’t talk about food allergies, so call ahead at 408.277.0557 to ask what’s available if you or someone in your party has a specific need.
Would we go back?
Absolutely! This is my second visit to the San Jose Museum of Art in two years and will certainly not be my last. There’s something new to see every time. I love the creative energy, calm open space, and friendly people I always find there. If you’re looking for creative inspiration or just a new destination for your weekend, this museum is sure to make you smile!
The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose is a highly interactive exploration of science, technology, and its effect on human society. There is also an IMAX theater showing various movies and documentaries.
In a Nutshell
The Tech is a nonprofit science museum that I’ve visited several times on school field trips and more recently as an adult. In the past, beyond their regular museum displays, they’ve hosted traveling exhibits such as Body Worlds, the Leonardo da Vinci collection, or Star Trek: The Exhibition. Currently, Body Worlds Decoded is set for a 10-year run here and is now included in the regular admission price to the museum.
Body Worlds Decoded is a smaller total collection of bodies than the original Body Worlds traveling exhibit was, but they’ve added more interactive elements using Augmented Reality (AR) tablets (which you borrow for free when you enter the gallery) and other virtual elements.
There are lots of other permanent exhibits to explore inside the main museum as well. These cover topics such as robotics, genetics, medicine, physics, earth science, cyber security, outer space, video games and virtual reality. Each one is explored through interactive, hands-on and/or multimedia displays.
One of my favorite parts was theTech for Global Good display which shows short documentaries (just a couple minutes long) about the ways in which people and organizations are using technology in creative ways to improve lives by solving medical and social problems around the world.
The adjacent Innovations in Health Care gallery follows a similar theme. Some of the solutions they described were quite high-tech, but others were more about using out-of-the-box thinking to use resources we already have in new and creative ways. I really loved learning about all these amazing innovations!
The Tech is on South Market Street in downtown San Jose next to Plaza de Cesar Chavez.
There are nearby parking lots in the downtown area and limited on-street parking directly in front of The Tech. Several of the closest slots are reserved for disabled parking, but others are open to anyone who’s not afraid of parallel parking on a sometimes-busy street.
Note: If you have a side-access wheelchair lift van, then the blue parking spots on the curb directly in front of the museum will work for you. Your lift ramp will let you directly onto the sidewalk without a problem. (Just watch out for the palm trees.)
If you have a rear-access wheelchair lift, however, be aware that there are no cut curbs between those disabled parking spots closest to the museum. Instead, the blue curb closer to the Montgomery Theater, just after The Tech, backs up to a large driveway that can double as your cut curb. It’s only slightly further from the door and will let you get onto the sidewalk much more safely. This is where we parked, as seen from standing in front of The Tech:
Of course you can also walk or bike to The Tech, or take public transit from anywhere in the Bay Area. On VTA, you can take Light Rail to the San Antonio station or the Route 68 bus to the 1st & Paseo de San Antonio stop, and then walk across Plaza de Cesar Chavez to the museum. From the Fremont BART station, take the VTA Express Bus 181 to W San Fernando / Almaden and walk about five minutes back up W San Fernando to Market St. If you’re coming from farther away, Caltrain and Amtrak’s Capitol Corridor will take you to the Diridon Station, from which you can walk (about 20 minutes) or take the Route 68 bus three stops up to The Tech. Use 511.org to plan your specific route.
This is an entirely indoor museum, so it would be enjoyable year-round. (It’s actually a great air-conditioned destination on a hot day if you don’t have AC at home.) If you’re parking in a nearby garage, you may have to walk a couple blocks to the museum, so plan accordingly if it’s raining.
This is honestly one of the pricier places we’ve visited for Saturday Smiles. As of June 2018, the tickets were $25 for adults and $20 for children, students, and seniors. If you want to see an IMAX movie while you’re there, the standalone IMAX ticket is $12 (or $10 for children, students, and seniors) or the combo museum+IMAX ticket is $31 and $24 respectively. See their website for current pricing.
You may be able to get a $3-4 discount per ticket with your AAA card or using the San Jose Library’s Discover & Go pass. If you have a Bank of America ATM card, you can get one free basic admission on the first full weekend of the month. There are also annual membership options with discounts for teachers.
The Tech has reciprocal agreements with Chabot Space and Science Center, Children’s Creativity Museum, CuriOdyssey, Lindsay Wildlife Experience, and other attractions, so if you have a membership somewhere else, you may get a discount on your Tech admission. See the reciprocal agreement list for details. (Note: Happy Hollow is not on that list, but The Tech might honor a Happy Hollow membership if you have one. It’s worth asking.)
Length of Time
This will take you half to two-thirds of a day, depending on how involved you get with some of the interactive exhibits and whether or not you choose to see an IMAX movie.
We found the museum’s galleries and restrooms to be easily accessible. You can even check out a manual wheelchair from the Information Desk if needed, of course on a first-come first-served basis and ID is required. The only only areas without wheelchair access are the jetpack simulator and the Birdly flight simulator. Additionally, the earthquake shake platform is technically accessible, but you’ll need to secure your wheelchair’s brakes and be aware that the platform’s jerky movements may be too strong for some guests’ core strength or comfort.
The IMAX theater has wheelchair seating and adjacent companion seats near the top row. The theater attendants will guide you to the elevator and the proper entrance to reach these seats. Note: the theater’s seats are steeply banked (as in many IMAX theaters) and there is no railing, so the accessible seating area at the top can be a bit daunting at first for anyone who’s afraid of heights. Once you’re seated, it’s fine.
In the Body Worlds Decoded exhibit, part of the experience happens through Augmented Reality (AR) tablets they loan out at the front desk. We were thrilled to see that they offer a special little flexible arm that clamps onto a wheelchair’s armrest or frame and holds the tablet for you if needed. We didn’t need to use it, but it was wonderful that The Tech has thought of this and offered it to us in case it would help.
Vision & Hearing
Some of the displays include videos with audio narratives and closed captioning, so these would be accessible to everyone. As with many museums, the explanatory plaques are mostly visually-oriented, as are many of the exhibits (especially Body Worlds Decoded), but there are more tactile/hands-on opportunities than many museums I’ve seen. While a hearing impairment would not prevent you from interacting with the museum galleries, please note that the museum’s background noise may be challenging for someone with hearing aids to filter out. If this applies to anyone in your family, be patient and make sure you have their attention before talking to them.
Overall, I’d rate The Tech as a “moderate” to “moderately high” sensory destination. Some parts (especially the “Exploration” zone on the lower level) were much more intense than others due to a combination of visual busyness, background noise, and strange lighting. Other areas (especially the medical innovation areas upstairs) were reasonably calm, open, and well-lit. I found it fairly easy to regulate here by spending less time in the darker, busier areas and more time in the parts I liked. I did wear earplugs the entire time to help lower the volume.
To their credit, The Tech recognizes this need and actually offers sensory-friendly hours! It’s usually been one Sunday morning a month, but always check the calendar for current scheduling. During these hours, the volume on everything is turned down, the lighting is more normal, there are fewer total guests in the museum, and there are even calm-down/quiet rooms available if needed. Sensory-friendly field trips have recently been added as well. Kudos to The Tech for these accommodations!
We got the combo ticket so we could see the IMAX documentary about pandas while we were there. It was a sweet movie (no sad endings, don’t worry) but sensorially speaking, the IMAX experience was quite overwhelming. The giant curved screen is meant to fill most of your peripheral vision to make the experience more immersive, but we found it unpleasantly intrusive and at times disorienting. We had to simply close our eyes in some scenes, especially during the swooping/flying camera angles. I think part of the problem was that the wheelchair-accessible seating is toward one side (it might have been less distorted-looking had we sat closer to the center of that giant curved screen), but mainly we just hadn’t accounted for how different an IMAX experience is from a regular movie. It was also extremely loud. If anyone in your family is sensory-sensitive, think carefully about the IMAX choice before you upgrade your ticket. We’ll both be skipping the IMAX show next time around.
They have a little cafe downstairs next to the gift shop. (This cafe is also open to the public without museum admission.) It’s fairly gourmet, especially by museum cafe standards, and includes some vegetarian-friendly choices (not much for vegans) and a kids’ menu. Their full menu is available online.
In addition, there is a grab-and-go case with sandwiches, juice, etc., and baskets of candy, protein bars, instant oatmeal, and fresh fruit available. Some of these choices are vegan. The coffee bar offers coffee, lattes, etc., and has almond and soy milk alternatives if you ask.
There is indoor and outdoor seating available. It’s also easy to bring your own food to eat at the tables. No food is allowed in the museum galleries.
As you might expect, the IMAX theater also sells popcorn, candy, etc. to enjoy during the movie.
Would we go back?
Yes, especially if there’s a new or special traveling exhibit. Although it’s more expensive than some other attractions in the area, the museum offers a lot of variety and great hands-on learning opportunities for both kids and adults. If science is your thing, The Tech will definitely make you smile!
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.
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.
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:
Park in a disabled spot if possible. If those are full, make a note of where you parked.
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.
Do not buy a parking pass at the kiosk. Instead, go directly to the Happy Hollow ticket booth.
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.
You’ll pay the $2 parking fee (discounted from the general $10 rate) in addition to your admission tickets.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Located in the Presidio in San Francisco, The Walt Disney Family Museum is a thoughtfully crafted journey through Walt’s life, career, family, and creative impact on the world. It is Disney, but don’t expect any rides or costumed characters here – this is a cultural/historical museum, not a park. It’s run by the Disney family rather than by the corporation.
That said, it is still Disney, so the storytelling is excellent. Walt has become this larger-than-life figure over the past century, but he was also a real human being who had a family and lived through two world wars and took major business risks that sometimes changed the world but sometimes fell totally flat. There were also a number of key people around him whose expertise made his dreams possible. This museum does an excellent job of showing the struggles as well as the triumphs while weaving a cohesive story of his life and legacy. I found hearing parts of the story in Walt’s own voice was especially powerful.
I also particularly enjoyed the perspective the museum offered. For example, we take for granted that movies and sound effects can always be edited or fine-tuned after the fact, but in the early era of Disney movies, the sound effects and orchestra recordings and everything had to be recorded simultaneously because “dubbing” had not been invented yet. Likewise, the simple idea of animating the candle and having that glow reflected in the Blue Fairy’s face in Pinocchio counted as “special effects” back then because no one had figured out how to animate that level of realism before. Imagine that! As an artist and a millennial, I found that kind of reality-check utterly fascinating. So much has happened in less than a century!
In a Nutshell
The museum showcases various artifacts, photos, video clips, audio clips, drawings, and other elements of Walt Disney’s life and career. It’s set up as a series of interactive galleries in chronological order, from his early interest in art to his journey to Hollywood to the founding and growth of his company. It talks about the movies he made, the technologies he pioneered, the challenges his company faced along the way, the inspiration and process behind Disneyland’s creation, and more. Even hardcore Disney addicts will find new details and stories here. Although you’re free to explore the galleries in any order, they’re designed to be seen in chronological order and I definitely recommend it.
We saw all ages here, from infants to grandparents. The younger visitors seemed engaged by the wide variety of visuals and interactive displays, while the older children/teens and adults were engaged by the storytelling in the museum plaques and displays. There is a LOT of information to absorb along the way, so if you’re someone who likes to read all the plaques and milk all the detail you can out of a museum, your younger (elementary school-age) children will likely lose interest before you do.
In addition to the main galleries about Walt’s life, there is often a special exhibit going as well. This may be focused on a particularly famous Disney animator, a landmark Disney movie with an anniversary coming up, or another topic of interest. During our visit, it was about Glen Keane, the Disney animator/artist who drew Beast, Tarzan, Ariel, Pocahontas, and others. Check the museum’s website for current exhibitions.
The Walt Disney Family Museum is located in the Presidio in San Francisco, very close to the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s about an hour north of San Jose.
The address is 104 Montgomery Street. As the museum’s website notes, “there are two Montgomery Streets in San Francisco—the museum is located in the Presidio of San Francisco, not in the Financial District. If you are using a GPS, please remember to enter the zip code 94129 when planning your route.”
There’s metered parallel parking available in front of the museum and throughout the Presidio. (This is where we parked. These slots are free with a disabled parking placard and are closer than the parking lot.) There’s also a main parking lot available nearby. See the museum website’s transportation page for details.
The transportation page also tells you about the public transit options (including the free PresidiGo shuttle and the regular MUNI or Golden Gate Transit busses) and where to lock your bike if you choose to ride to the museum instead of driving. This is San Francisco, after all!
This is a fully indoor museum, so weather isn’t really a factor here. It will be enjoyable year-round.
Although it’s not a Disney theme park, this museum still has that premium Disney experience in the ticket prices. When we visited (2018), tickets were $25 each for adults and slightly discounted for children, students, and seniors. Children 5 and under are free with adult admission. Some special film screenings or other events cost extra. See their website for current pricing and membership options. (The museum is part of the Time Travelers and NARM and ROAM reciprocal membership programs with other historical societies and museums throughout the country.)
In the past, we’ve found coupons for the museum on those little tourist brochures you pick up at local hotels or airports. It’s also included in the San Francisco Go Card if you’re planning to spend several days seeing multiple locations in the city. If you only want tickets to this one museum, you can sometimes find $1-3 discounts for buying tickets online ahead of time through various sources, but please make sure you’re using a reputable website before purchasing.
If you’re active or retired military, you and your family can get in for free with valid ID year-round and can bring guests for free over the summer.
Unless you have a disabled placard/license plate, you’ll also need to pay for hourly parking.
Length of Time
I’m told the average visit here is about 2 hours, but you could easily spend all day. It depends on your level of interest and how quickly your brain gets saturated by either the richly detailed information or the high level of sensory input. If you have children with you, a couple hours is probably the limit. If you’re coming only with interested teens or adults, you could easily spend at least half a day or more.
The building fits the Presidio’s historical look on the outside, but is fully modern and accessible on the inside. There’s a ramp to the left of the main entrance and an elevator between floors. The galleries are laid out in an open enough way that there were no issues navigating.
The only minor wheelchair accessibility challenge came in reading some of the displays. Some of the artifacts are arranged in tall glass display cases with tiny number labels next to each item, and then the numbers correspond to the explanation plaque down at hip height. While it was easy to read the plaques, it was not always easy to make out the numbers on the tiny labels next to the artifacts. This wasn’t an issue everywhere and didn’t interfere much with the overall experience, but was an annoyance in places.
Hearing & Vision
This is a very interactive multimedia museum. (See below for sensory notes.) Nearly everything can be read on plaques and/or accessed through the on-demand closed captioning system available through the ticket desk when you arrive. (We didn’t make use of this, but it’s a great service.) Therefore someone with significant hearing loss would still be able to enjoy most of the museum without issue.
Guests with partial hearing loss who use hearing aids may find the museum’s constant background noise from overlapping movie clips and audio recordings playing everywhere, as well as other visitors’ voices, makes it harder to focus on what you’re trying to hear. If you’re visiting the museum with someone who uses hearing aids, realize that the background noise may make it harder than usual for them to hear you, so make sure you’re close and/or have their attention before speaking.
Like many museums, the displays are mainly visually oriented, but I think a guest with a visual impairment could still enjoy a visit here. Many of the galleries incorporate movie clips and audio recordings that are on continuous loop through TV sets or speakers. Other displays include telephone handsets that you pick up to listen to an interview segment or other recording. In many places, the lighting feels low and the font feels small, so some visitors have trouble reading the plaques comfortably, but again it’s more of an annoyance than an actual hindrance to enjoying the museum.
Although we didn’t use it because we don’t have smartphones, there is also an “Enhanced Content” experience available through the STQRY app. This offers additional audio, video, and photo content as you walk through the museum. This is good for all guests but could be especially useful to visitors who need closer access to visual or auditory content.
To be honest, the intensity of the sensory experience in this museum caught me entirely off guard and nearly spoiled the whole experience for me. After we took a break about 45 minutes into the visit and I adjusted my expectations, the rest of the day was much more enjoyable. If you’re a sensory-sensitive type, or if your children are, be prepared. This museum throws every modern interactive multimedia museum technology at you all at once and it can be overwhelming for some of us. (For others, that’s a huge selling feature and is what helps visitors stay engaged. To each their own.)
Specifically, some of the galleries have oddly low ambient/overhead lighting while multiple screens run videos on continuous loop. At any given point, I could hear overlapping audio from at least 2-4 speakers, which made focus a challenge even with my earplugs in. This is a picture of the first gallery:
The layout is such that the galleries flow in chronological order but there’s no linear order to the displays within a given gallery. This makes it easy to casually wander the space and explore at your own pace, which I appreciate, but it also added to my feeling of there being simply too much to see and do at every turn.
Personally, the sensory combination of video, voices, music, unusual lighting, visually busy displays, and nonlinear flow was intense and unsettling. After taking a break and putting in my earplugs, I was able to handle it enough to avoid sensory panic and focus on enjoying the content instead, but I was still wiped by the end of the day. (I’m an adult. Two of my godchildren (ages 5 and 9) have significant sensory processing challenges, and I honestly don’t think I’d bring them here. I think they’d be overloaded.)
This video that I found on YouTube shows some of what I’m talking about, although the intensity is lower in the video than in real life because the camera zooms in on displays one at a time. As I said, for most people, this rapid and varied input is not a problem or can even be a feature, but for some of us, it’s almost a show-stopper. I would have liked to have known what to expect going in, so I want to help you feel prepared. If you bring your earplugs and go in with your internal “shields” up, the museum can be a very positive experience.
There is a little cafe and adjacent seating area within the museum building. They have a nice array of soups, salads, sandwiches, baked treats, coffee and tea. The prices were surprisingly reasonable, especially by San Francisco and/or Disney standards, and the quality was very good. (No greasy theme park pizza here.) Their menu notes the vegetarian and gluten-free options. There was even a vegan-friendly quinoa salad that was quite good! The half-plate size was plenty for one person. You can also bring your own food to enjoy at the tables. (We did this and I saw plenty of other families doing the same thing. The museum is only picky about not eating/drinking within the galleries, which is understandable.)
In nice weather, you could enjoy a picnic on the grass outside the museum. There are also several restaurants outside of the museum in other parts of the Presidio. Of course, if you go a bit further outside the Presidio gates, the whole city of San Francisco is at your culinary disposal!
Would we go back?
Perhaps. The sensory overwhelm was strong enough that I would not want a membership here, to be honest, but I can see why some of my friends and family who’ve visited in the past were so impressed. The quality of the displays and the level of thought that went into this museum really are Disney-worthy. It’s an impressive place. After all, where else can you sit on the bench where Walt Disney himself sat when he first thought of creating Disneyland?
We’re both lifelong Disney buffs so we deeply enjoyed the stories we learned in the museum. There’s so much detail there, I’m sure we didn’t get it all on the first pass. I thought the museum did a fantastic job of tying everything together, so even the stories that I already knew as trivia or standalone stories were put into context as we walked through the timeline of the galleries. In that way, the day was very satisfying, and I know there would be more to absorb in a future visit.
Whether you’re a lifelong Disney buff, an artist or aspiring movie pro, or just someone who enjoys a good rags-to-riches story, The Walt Disney Family Museum has a lot to offer that will make you smile!