If you’re yearning for a kinder, gentler, theme park, something that works for both children and adults but doesn’t cost a fortune, a week’s vacation time, or leave you too exhausted, this may be the summer to visit Bonfante Gardens.
Bonfante Gardens is located an hour and a half south of Berkeley, near Gilroy. Opened four years ago by Michael Bonfante, who financed much of the project from the sale of the Nob Hill Foods grocery chain, it’s an enjoyable and intriguing place, interesting and varied, and small enough to be seen thoroughly in a day trip.
Gilroy, half an hour beyond San Jose, is still an agricultural town, although increasingly ringed by subdivisions and strip malls. Bonfante Gardens is a few miles west, on Hecker Pass Highway headed towards Santa Cruz. The vicinity remains very attractive with oak studded hills, old farms, and country roads, but is rapidly being defaced with trophy home ranchettes and standard stucco-box subdivisions.
Bonfante Gardens resembles, in the most positive sense, a well-run old-fashioned carnival set down in the midst of a botanical garden. It seems to find its precedents more in Victorian era promenades and traditional amusement parks than today’s hyper-excited and over-hyped theme parks. And it’s a nonprofit, dedicated to horticulture, education, and beautification.
There were hundreds of younger children having fun when we visited on a not too crowded day. But it may not be the most exciting experience for older children. Your 15-year-old will probably not thank you for driving him or her an hour and a half south to visit rides called “Bulgy the Goldfish” and the “Garlic Whirl.”
The park has about 20 rides. There’s a Ferris wheel and a roller coaster. Other rides modestly spin, fly, roll, and tilt. Swan paddleboats ply a lake and a midway offers games of chance and prizes (extra charge to play). Both adventurous and shy children should find enough to entertain them. There also seemed a good balance between rides for different ages, such as carousels of different sizes and speeds.
Most of the rides reflect agricultural or historical themes from the Gilroy area, including a “Mushroom Swing,” “Apple & Worm” (the latter circling around inside the former), “Artichoke Dip” and “Banana Split.” These names may sound seriously silly, but the designs and appearance are charming, and it’s actually quite a relief to be free of the relentlessly branded, promoted, and oversold cartoon and popular culture characters found in other theme parks.
A small open train, one-third scale and served by two stations, runs around the perimeter of the park. It takes only a few smoothly running but somewhat noisy minutes to complete its route. There’s also a small monorail on an elevated track. Both train and monorail, the latter high aloft, traverse the mammoth Monarch Garden greenhouse, which is filled with tropical trees and vines.
Most rides were closed during our discount-price “Garden Day” visit but those that were running were fun, including the train, monorail, and “Rainbow Boats,” which bounced along a swiftly flowing channel past polychromatic plantings.
The newest attraction is a thoroughly enchanting “Wild Bird Adventure,” a covered open-air pavilion in which scores of bright plumaged Australian Parakeets, Zebra Finches, Eastern Rosellas, and Cockatiels, free fly and perch on and around visitors. To hand feed them you can buy stalks of seeds for $1; you surely will, if you have children with you.
Nearby are five different waterfalls where one can run along a path and through a tunnel behind the water and get thoroughly splashed, and the “Pinnacle Rock Maze,” a quite cleverly arranged set of twisting, sunken, passages with child-sized tunnels between them.
An outdoor amphitheater accommodates a trained bird show through Labor Day. We did not see it, but judging from the cries of the crowd during performances, the program was a hit.
There are also the “circus trees,” grown by California farmer Axel Erlandson starting in the 1920s. If you’ve been in the Bay Area long enough, you may remember these trees as part of now-vanished roadside attraction (known for a time as “The Lost World”) in Scotts Valley along Highway 17 headed into Santa Cruz.
They are living trees, primarily ashes, sycamores, box elders, and cork oaks, grafted and grown together in striking shapes. They form arches, curves, hearts, figure eights, holes, swirls, zigzags, pieces of furniture and one truly incredible “basket tree” that combines six sycamores into an enormous, evenly perforated, hollow shaft like a hallucinatory baobab or something out of Dr. Seuss.
The circus trees are scattered throughout the park. They pop up here are there in all their startling oddity without competing with the other ornamental plantings. Adults uninterested in the rides can get a lot of enjoyment out of the trees and other features of the gardens and the grounds.
Some of the specialty gardens may not live up to their advance billing. I spotted just one water lily flower in the large lily pond when we were there in mid-June. But there are plenty of other attractive, interesting, well-kept plantings, some rarities that will excite garden enthusiasts, and scores of amusing and impressive topiaries that pop up throughout the park.
Each garden has its sequence of ponds and cascades and the park is centered on a large lake fed by an impressively wide shelf of falling water. The architecture of the park is also intriguing. One of the train stations, for example, is a handsome pitched-roof wooden pavilion with a row of living redwoods stalking down the center.
Both parents of small children and older visitors will be happy to know that plenty of picnic and seating areas are provided, some with quite clever child-sized seating. The park seems fairly wheelchair friendly and easy to get about, although the rides don’t really look accessible.
There are several restaurants (barbecue, pasta, grilled meat, a taqueria), food stands, and beverage stops. The food we had was decent and not too overpriced, except for the soft drinks (nearly $3 each). Beer is sold in some of the eating places. Numerous and clean restrooms are available. There are several gift shops, as well as plants for sale near the exit.
One of the few discordant elements, in my view, was the music that welled up here and there through the park from mushroom shaped outdoor speakers. The relentlessly bouncy yet ethereal beat had me peering behind the bushes searching for someone with a synthesizer. At one point a full-throated rendition of “Volare,” of all things, swelled out of the foliage.
Some of the recorded ride narration is also hard to follow. But those are minor things compared to the overall appeal of the park. If you have a free weekend or weekday this summer, I think it’s worth the trip.