Gilroy Gardens is a small family-friendly theme park about a half-hour drive south of San Jose. It was originally called Bonfante Gardens (named for Michael Bonfante, who founded the park) and was famous for its “Circus Trees” – very cool whacky-looking trees that were sculpted with special grafting techniques many years ago. Since then, the park has grown to include more rides, a large playground, multiple water play areas, and special events. It’s a delightful way to spend the day with or without children of any age!
The park is generally open from late March through late September for the regular season. Then they have special hours in October for Halloween and in late November/December for holiday lights. See their calendar for specifics when you’re planning a visit.
If you’re interested in the backstory of the park, there are self-directed tours and sometimes guided tours of the gardens, circus trees, and sustainability innovations throughout the parks. You can find the self-directed tour pamphlets at the Welcome Center near the front of the park.
In a Nutshell
The atmosphere here is lively but in a peaceful way, if that makes any sense. We always find it refreshing because it’s engaging enough to pull us out of everyday thoughts and concerns, but not so big or overloading that we feel pressured to squeeze everything into one day and go home wiped. For perspective, it’s bigger than Happy Hollow but smaller than Great America and much smaller than Disneyland.
The rides are mostly low-key (think more Dumbo, less Matterhorn) with one moderate roller coaster near the back. There are also gardens to explore, water slides and water-play areas of various sizes, carnival-style games, a small amphitheater that sometimes has a special show, and little “learning sheds” with interesting information about bees, trees, and other nature-oriented topics. There are often seasonal extras, such as a petting zoo or holiday lights.
On certain weekends, the park has special add-on events such as a Memorial Day BBQ or a Mother’s Day brunch or a holiday feast. You can also rent that event space for a wedding or party.
This year they added a nighttime feature for Halloween that’s a separate admission fee unless you’re a premium member. We haven’t seen this one, but we have seen their December holiday nighttime displays and enjoyed them very much, so I’d imagine their Halloween one would also be well done.
Gilroy Gardens is in — you guessed it — Gilroy, off Highway 101 and 152. It’s about 30-40 minutes south of San Jose, or about 10 minutes from the Gilroy Outlets.
There’s a large parking lot just outside the entrance to the park. Parking is $15 or is included free with certain levels of season pass. Disabled parking is plentiful and is right up front near the entrance, not in the main columns of parking spots.
Because of its location, public transit is unfortunately not a great option for Gilroy Gardens. If you can’t drive here, I’d suggest carpooling with a friend or looking into a ride-sharing option such as Lyft or Uber.
Gilroy’s weather tends to be similar to San Jose, or sometimes a little warmer or windier. Most of the year, it’s very pleasant down here, especially if there’s a light breeze. In spring and fall, it’s often a little cooler in the shelter of the park than it is in the direct sun in the parking lot, so I’d recommend bringing your sweater in with you even if you think you won’t need it.
The satellite view on Google Maps shows all the trees:
There are lots of trees and peaceful garden spaces, but as with most theme parks, you will also definitely feel the prevalence of concrete and blacktop when the weather heats up. (There’s a reason the water park areas are so popular in the summer!) There isn’t a lot in the way of indoor/air-conditioned retreat options here. If you’re extra heat-sensitive, make sure to stay hydrated and go earlier in the day in the summer so you can be done before the heat of the day gets to be too much.
As of our visit (2018), general one-day admission at the gate is $58, but don’t worry, you don’t have to pay that if you plan ahead a little. Buy tickets online ahead of time (or even on your smartphone from the parking lot) and they’ll be $39 each or less, depending on how many you buy, plus taxes/fees. Note: there are often coupons in the newspaper or magazines for what look like significant discounts, but these usually only apply to the gate prices and bring them down to the same price you could get online without a coupon. If you subscribe to Goldstar deals, they sometimes have Gilroy Gardens discounts that save a couple dollars off the regular online price.
Daily tickets are somewhat pricey but there are good membership options if you plan to come more than a couple times a year. We’ve had memberships here many times before and certainly will again. We usually opt for the Premium level to get the free parking, in-park discounts, and holiday admission, but the Value level is a more affordable way to get free regular-season admission if that’s all you need. Both levels of membership are actually tax-deductible because Gilroy Gardens is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.
Note: A Gilroy Gardens membership doesn’t transfer to anywhere else, but if you have a Great America Gold or Platinum-level season pass, that will get you free admission into Gilroy Gardens as well. (They’re operated by the same parent company, Cedar Fair.)
Length of Time
This will take you a few hours to a full day. We usually spend about half a day riding our few favorite rides, sitting and reading in the gardens, taking lots of pictures, and just enjoying the ambiance. If your kids want to do the water park parts and/or ride all the rides, allow most of the day.
We sometimes go for a half-day or longer, or when we have a season pass (free admission + free parking), we sometimes go just for a little while. One of our favorite things to do is to sit in the shade in Claudia’s Garden near the waterfall area and just read a book for a while. It’s so peaceful!
All parks operated by Cedar Fair use a Boarding Pass Program that gives you a paper pass to show the ride operators to let you go in the exit on most rides. To get this pass, go to the Welcome Center when you first enter the park. (Look at the map they give you at the entrance. After the ticket booths and security, go down the boardwalk, under the railroad track bridge, and past the restaurant and gift shop. The Welcome Center is directly in front of you.) Tell the Welcome Center folks you need a boarding pass. To help you choose which rides are safe, they’ll ask you about your ability to transfer and how much trunk/core stability you have. They’ll also ask how many people are in your party. Then they’ll give you the paper Boarding Pass with your name and today’s date and the list of rides. They’ll tell you about entering through the exit on most rides to avoid stairs and switchbacks while waiting in line. Simply show this pass to the ride operators at the exit to board.
Most of the rides are accessible if you can transfer out of your wheelchair and take a few steps. The railroad can accommodate your chair in the last car without transferring, along with one companion. Almost all of the gardens and other attractions are accessible as well, although the water parks are obviously limited to ground-level access and depend on how wet your chair can safely get.
A few of the rides are usually accessed from an elevated platform, so you’ll need to ride a little elevator to reach the exit. These elevators aren’t especially elegant, but they work reliably and you get used to them quickly. They’re rather narrow but open on top. To use one, just open the door, roll in, let the door close solidly behind you, then use the up/down button to control the lift yourself.
Service animals are allowed in the park, of course, but cannot ride most rides with you. You’ll need someone in your party to stay with the service animal (park employees are not allowed to watch them for you) while you ride. You can use the Child Swap Policy to let that other person in your party ride immediately after you’re done without having to wait in line again.
Every bathroom has accessible stalls and sinks as well. If you’re on your own, sometimes the main door to get into the ladies’ room is difficult to open from a wheelchair, and going in through the exit and out the entrance works better. If you need a private restroom for companion assistance, there’s one at the First Aid station.
You can rent a wheelchair or electric scooter for the day on a first-come, first-served basis. The cost is $15 for a wheelchair or $55 for an electric scooter. They also have $12 strollers and $18 double strollers to rent for younger guests.
Vision & Hearing
I think this park would be fun for guests with any level of hearing or vision impairment. Visually, there are many beautiful gardens, colors, and details to soak in. There are also printed signs with safety information for each ride. Auditorally, there is cheerful (but not overwhelming) background music and verbal instructions when boarding each ride.
If you arrange it at least a week in advance, they offer American Sign Language interpreters. The Welcome Center also has guides printed in Braille and large print upon request.
For a park this size, the sensory factor is amazingly reasonable. Yes, there’s background music in some places, but it’s simple and upbeat and not too loud. Some of the rides make a high-pitched whine as they get moving, but it doesn’t last long. This is one of the few places that I don’t need my earplugs. Visually, the colors come mostly from the flowers in the gardens or from the rides, most of which are designed to look like fruits and vegetables. There were mild food smells inside the restaurants but nothing overpowering inside or out.
Officially you’re not supposed to bring food into the parks, but there are two exceptions:
- Food for infants & toddlers
- Special diets due to food allergies, religious restrictions, or personal choice
Anyone can bring a picnic lunch if you eat it at the picnic tables near the entrance. For all outside food, they request that you eat it in the picnic area near the front entrance, but in our experience this is not strictly enforced. Just be respectful about it.
They do sell gluten-free, vegetarian, and vegan food options in some of the restaurants in the park. In our experience, these are hit-or-miss, especially for the vegan options. Almost everywhere sells the fruit salad and the side salad, but if you want something vegan with protein, you’re more limited. This season it’s essentially only the tofu veggie option at The Wok, which was closed the day we visited. (There were also hummus and pretzel cups at the coffee shop near the front.) To be safe, I recommend bringing a vegan protein bar at least.
Would we go back?
Of course! We even plan to renew our season passes in the future. Even when we go for only a couple hours, it always feels like we really went somewhere special — a mini getaway — and we always come home refreshed. If you’re looking for a special spot to visit, Gilroy Gardens will make you smile!