Marc Ricketts has been traveling around the Bay Area and again shares one of his awesome photo essays. Join us as we visit Gilroy Gardens (formerly Bonfante Gardens). We have part one for you today and check back with us again tomorrow for part 2. ~~Rick

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Gilroy Gardens: One Man Dreamed of Trees (Part 1)
by Marc Ricketts

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Two well known theme parks in California came into being due to the vision of men with the same name; you’ve heard of them, both men were named Walter. But tucked against the hills south of San Jose is another manifestation of a singular vision, Gilroy Gardens.

Michael Bonfante was the son of the founder of Nob Hill Foods, a regional supermarket chain that grew to include 27 stores. However, it was another business venture, growing and selling trees, that would ultimately alter the course of his life. As it turned out, his interest in trees would soon grow from strictly commercial to deeply personal. As many of us like to do, he wanted to share his passion with others, especially children. And during the time that he was amassing his own collection, he acquired the Circus Trees in 1985.

I sense that we’ve reached a point in the tale where we need to back up again for a moment. Out in the Central Valley of California (it’s all that flat you pass on the way to Anaheim from San Francisco) a man named Axel Erlandson began experimenting with grafting and shaping trees in 1928. His assortment of horticultural oddities expanded until 1945 when a decision was made to pack up the trees and move to Santa Cruz; or more accurately, the hills above Santa Cruz.

The Circus Trees gained a bit of repute in the following years, and were featured in national publications like Life Magazine, one of those roadside diversions found throughout the country as the country embraced the age of the automobile. And like many other similar attractions, the luster eventually wore off. There were a series of owners with the trees receiving varying levels of care. An internationally famous rodent even expressed an interest, but was quoted too high of a price from the owners at that time. Enter Michael Bonfante.

The trees made their second move and became part of Bonfante’s creation. A lot of time passed before Bonfante Gardens opened in 2001. For part of that time there were company events on the property, although few outside of the company or immediate area were even aware of its existence. But in 1997, Bonfante decided to go all in. He sold the supermarkets to focus exclusively on the park. He ponied up the dough good people; he put his money where his mouth was; regardless of the cliché, he personally contributed $70,000,000 of the $100,000,000 required to open the park. He insisted on approving the placement of any rock or tree that couldn’t be lifted by a single worker. And “He has excellent taste and has done an outstanding job of landscaping” according to botanical genius and Disney Legend Bill Evans.

Plants brought into the home of your humble narrator tend to have short life spans, so I well undersatnd how much effort is required simply to maintain what may be the world’s most ambitious arboretum. Installing rides wasn’t really something in the picture, but was seen as essential if the park was to be commercially viable. For two years, it looked like it may not have been enough.

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The park struggled financially, and was forced to close 5 weeks before scheduled those first two seasons. Bonfante had to concede that the business acumen he possessed in the retail world didn’t necessarily translate to theme parks. Eventually, he sold his interests to Paramount, the same company managing Great America farther up Highway 101 (whose theme park holdings were later absorbed by Cedar Fair), and Bonfante Gardens became Gilroy Gardens. All but the cheapest of Great America season passes now include Gilroy Gardens admission. And although parking is stated to not be included here on my Cedar Fair Platinum Pass, it scanned through without issue on Father’s Day, your mileage may vary. The park’s focus from the start was tress, and that hasn’t changed. Crossing the Sycamore Bridge leading into the park is like entering a forest.

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Fundamentally, little is different. Pathways wind through the trees and various gardens, there are many places tucked away for quiet reflection (we saw more than one person sitting quietly with a book), while others choose the swan and duck paddle boats for a more active approach.

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What is perhaps most apparent in current operations is a genuine attempt to connect with the community. This is neither a destination park nor Great America Jr. It is, in fact, located in a small, off the beaten path community. But it is a young community, and young families mean young children, perhaps with the grandparents coming by for a visit. They are the ideal family for an Elite membership, which not only has annual passes for four people, but also includes two additional, transferable, guest passes.

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There are several opportunities during the year for family camping in the park with meals and activities included. Artists have opportunities to enter and create on the grounds, and the park is managed as a registered non-profit (the land and facilities have been purchased by the city, which leases back to the non-profit). So the mission to foster understanding among the youngest guests is proceeding unabated. Learning Sheds are scattered about with short films and exhibits on a variety of topics.

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Here’s one about the Earth’s movements, which are sometimes a bit too obvious in this state. The display includes a live seismograph.

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. Without a film studio or television network to supply intellectual property, the park features The Octonauts: “Explore. Rescue. Protect.” at the Lakeside Amphitheater. I tracked down the Octonauts on the Disney Jr Channel at 6AM one Wednesday (ironically, the show at Gilroy Gardens is dark Wednesdays) and found what seems to be an undersea version of the obscure 1960s Hanna Barbara characters called the Space Kidettes. If you know the Octonauts, you are far too young to know the Space Kidetts. If you know the latter, you are far too old to know the former. The Octonauts originated in England, although not every accent made it to American TV. Some of the characters got new voices. The character voices were clearly recorded for this production, but the host was talking and singing live. The TV and stage show are both aimed squarely at the preschool culture.

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Captain Barnacles, a polar bear, and his Lieutenant cat named Kwazii were on hand to train the youngsters (many encouraged to dance in front of the stage prior to showtime) to be Octonauts, mostly by jumping, gesturing, and otherwise burning off energy so Mom and Dad can finally have some peace on the ride home. And you’re quite correct, they aren’t the Duonauts, but the other six explorers were present in card form only.

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My research unveiled the fact that the Octonauts have adventures involving other creatures, and as the kids get sucked into the story, Wham! They throw in a piece of trivia and make them learn something. So it was actually a natural fit for this park. After the training, there was a problem to solve; an unknown creature was in the engine room. A series of creature reports narrowed down the possibilities while educating the unsuspecting children that had gathered.

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But by far the greatest moment came when the pre-arranged audience volunteer was asked to come on stage……..aaaaaaaaaaand………a rush of dozens of tiny tots started climbing aboard in waves of eager delight!!

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They seemed to come from every direction; it was awesome! The host had to start calling for parents to retrieve their offspring as they swarmed the stage. Captain Barnacles started crowd surfing.

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OK, I made up that last one. But once a bunch of pre-schoolers have stormed the stage like teenage girls at a Beatles’ concert, you know that whatever follows simply won’t measure up.

And maybe that’s true for us here, too, so we’ll leave it there for now. Next time let’s take a closer look at some of the rides and attractions at Giroy Gardens in Part Two which can be found HERE.