Monday, August 25, 2014

Toddler Favorites: Gilroy Gardens

No hands on the Apple and Worm!
I started this review of Gilroy Gardens on May 24th, right after our first visit to the park, and am just now finishing it on August 24th, three months later. Yes, it has taken me the whole summer to write one review, but that's a good thing, as I was able to explore and learn more about this unexpected delight in South County, as well as check out the Water Oasis that opened in mid-July. Hope this is helpful to those of you who, like me a few months ago, had heard of Gilroy Gardens for years but never visited. Happy toddling!

Review Summary: Alright, it's official. We love Gilroy Gardens. After visiting three times in the past three weeks and once earlier in the summer, I can confidently say that it is the perfect amusement park for toddler and preschool-aged kids. Gilroy Gardens offers something for every child's interest and thrill-tolerance level, including about a dozen rides at a toddler's scale (some require 36" height and/or a chaperone, but many do not), as well as three distinct water play areas, a lake with boat rides, a train, a playground, and plenty of fun sights to see. Because the majority of the rides are scaled for young children and their parents, some of the less pleasant teen "element" that you see at other amusement parks is lacking -- it genuinely feels like wholesome family fun. More ride options than Happy Hollow, smaller and more toddler friendly than Great America. Overall a great experience.

The biggest negatives for us: the distance from San Jose, the Gilroy summer heat, the limited hours/season and the parking cost (you can avoid that by buying a premium pass -- I'll explain later).

But overall, two toddler thumbs up (and two mama ones, too!) for this wonderful place.

The Spray Garden at Water Oasis
The Details:

Location: Gilroy Gardens is located in -- surprise! -- Gilroy, right off Hecker Pass Road (Highway 152). Coming from central San Jose, it takes me about 40 minutes to get there in light traffic.

Admission: By all means, buy your tickets online!!! The front gate admission cost for a single day ticket is $49.99; online, it's $34.99 for the exact same ticket. I have no idea who pays $15 extra to buy their tickets at the gate, but I'm certainly not going to let it be any of my readers! Kids two and under are free, making this toddler-friendly place even friendlier. Admission includes all rides and the water play areas. (Note that admission does not include the petting zoo offered from late August through September -- that is $5 per child, but adults are free.)

But rather than paying daily admission for adults and older kids -- even at the discounted online rates -- it probably makes sense to think about the...

Membership Options: In May, I took a big leap of faith, buying GG annual passes for both me and Mr. X, despite the fact that neither of us had actually been to the park before. But it wasn't as reckless as it sounds -- they were offering a pre-Memorial Day deal where adult season passes were just $39.99. If you recall that the price of a single day, discounted ticket is $34.99, then you'll see what an incredible deal that is. If you think you'll visit GG any more than once in a given year, keep an eye out for late spring membership sales -- they're a steal. (The clerk I spoke to during our last visit expected that the same sale would be offered in 2015.)

Even if you miss the sale, the normal membership price -- $44.99 -- is worth it even if you just visit twice. If you're uncertain about buying a membership before you've ever visited the park, go ahead and just buy a normal ticket -- at the end of the day, if you've enjoyed your visit and would like to return, stop by the membership desk and they'll upgrade you, with you just paying the difference.

There are also Premium and Elite memberships, which come with a variety of benefits -- free parking, early admission to Water Oasis in 2015, Bring-a-Friend days, discounts on food and other items (including cabanas at Water Oasis -- more on that later), admission to their Holiday Lights show, etc. If you buy 4 or more, the price is reduced, so consider going in with a friend to meet the necessary minimum. If you buy a Premium or Elite membership right now (late summer 2014), the remainder of 2014, 2014 Holiday Lights, and all of 2015 are included. (I just bought a Premium membership two weeks ago to get free parking for the remainder of this year, as well as all the other benefits.)

Finally, it's worth noting that Gilroy Gardens is a non-profit, so all memberships are fully tax-deductible. Nice little treat come April.

Parking: The only parking option at GG is the main parking lot, and it's pricey -- $12 per car. I think they make the cost so high to encourage people to buy the Premium/Elite memberships, which include parking -- and really, if you're going to visit 3 or more times in a season (and won't be carpooling/splitting the cost), then it is a good investment.

If you don't plan to buy a premium membership (or go with someone who has one), then try your best to carpool and split the cost, though that's easier said than done when toddlers and carseats are involved.

Hours: To me, this is one of the biggest bummers about Gilroy Gardens. The park's hours just don't meet my needs very well (nor probably the needs of many toddlers and stay-at-home parents), and the season is unfortunately very short. From late May to mid-August, GG is open weekdays (11 a.m. - 5 p.m. -- wish it opened earlier!) and weekends (10 a.m. - 6 p.m.), but from August through November, GG is closed on weekdays and open only on weekends (10 a.m.-6 p.m. through October, then 11 a.m. - 5 p.m. in November). From December through April, it's closed altogether.

I would love year 'round weekday hours, or at least year 'round weekends, as well as earlier opening on summer weekdays. But for now, we'll take the fun when we can get it, and hope that one day they decide to extend their weekday hours and/or their operating season so that we can enjoy the park more.

To see GG's hours and operating calendar, click here.

Bulgy the Goldfish -- great ride!

The Rides:

Gilroy Gardens' wide array of toddler-friendly rides is the primary reason this is such an awesome spot for young kids. The park features over a dozen toddler-appropriate rides across a variety of genres, most of which welcome (and some that require) mom and dad as well. Whether your toddler likes fast(ish) or slow, straightforward or spinny, on land, sea (well, lake) or sky, there is something to meet his or her needs.

Here are some of the great rides for toddlers at Gilroy Gardens:

  • The train (aka Coyote and Redwood Railroad). I'm listing this first because you may want to make it your first ride of the day -- the lines for the train get longer than for the other rides, so if it's a priority for you, get it done early. Plus, the train takes you on a nice loop around the whole park, so if it's your first visit, it's a great way to get your bearings. It's a fun little ride, at a good speed, with safely-enclosed carriages. We sat in the front car and, wow -- is that horn loud! If your toddler is sensitive to noises, I'd recommend sitting further back. The train also offers a bit of shade on hot days (there are canopies over the cars). No restrictions on age when accompanied by an adult.
  • Apple and Worm. We love this ride! It is a perfect introduction to roller coasters for a toddler. The connected cars (designed as a fun little caterpillar) just go around in a circle (styled to look like an apple core), but the track has fun dips and a good speed, and Toddler X has a blast. Kids under 48" must be accompanied by an adult, but there's no minimum height with a chaperone -- the child just needs to be able to sit up on his/her own.
The Apple and Worm
  • South County Backroads. A fun ride for both parents and kids. You cruise in cool old cars (on a track -- your toddler's bad steering may lead to some jolts, but they can't drive off the road entirely) over the "backroads" of Santa Clara County, passing a little gas station, store, etc. It's similar to the car ride at Disneyland, but honestly, more fun. There are two different car types to choose from -- the two row, 1920's-esque cars seat four people; the one row 1960's-esque convertibles seat two. To get to the 1920's cars, take the line that veers to the left; for the 1960's cars, veer to the right.
  • Strawberry Sundae. Another favorite of Toddler X and his little pals, Strawberry Sundae features little suspended strawberry cars (one adult and one or two kids per car) that revolve around the center. Kids of any age can ride with an adult as long as they can sit up, and kids over 36" can ride alone (though they're not actually held down by any belt or rail in the little car, so unless your toddler will listen to instructions and stay seated, I would probably ride alongside.) While the toddlers loved it, and I'm a big fan, my friends who are sensitive to spinning rides didn't do so well on this one.
Tubs O Fun -- for those with strong stomachs!
  • Tubs O Fun. This is similar to the Disney teacup ride -- the individual tubs spin on their axes while they all revolve around the center. Toddler X loves this, but if your toddler gets motion sickness, this is definitely one to skip. The kids control the degree of spin by turning the center wheel in their cars -- if you suspect that your child might not do so well with a fast spin, be sure he or she is seated with kids who won't turn the wheel aggressively (I saw two almost-pukes today from just this situation).  A kid-only ride (no adults) that seats 4 small kids with seatbelts; kids need to be able to sit independently to ride, and can't be over 48".
  • Bulgy the Goldfish. Located right next to Tubs O Fun, this is a great, simple toddler ride, similar to the ladybugs at Happy Hollow but more fun. The kids (no adults) each occupy a goldfish, which revolves around the center pole, going up and down. Fun, easy, a good starter ride. Kids need to be able to sit independently to ride, and can't be over 48".
  • Balloon Flight. I love this ride -- it's pleasant, relaxing, breezy and cool. You sit in a (plastic) hot air balloon (2 kids, 2 adults is a good fit), lift off, and circle the center pole. Not all that exciting, but a nice break while you're sitting there. Kids have to be able to sit independently, or can ride alone at 36".
Hot air balloons -- a great family ride!
  • Rainbow Garden Boats. This is a very basic water ride -- you float along in a little boat on a path around the park, surrounded by cool topiaries shaped like animals -- and while it's pleasant because you're on the water, it's not worth a long wait. The line moves VERY slowly because of their boarding practices (they don't combine parties to fill the boats -- they'll send a boat out with just one or two people in it). It's a fun enough ride if there's not a line; if there is, skip it. Kids must be able to sit up by themselves in the boat seat.
  • Artichoke Dip: Such a funny ride! You sit in little artichokes (one adult/one child per car is a good size) and go around the center in a circle, but it's hilariously jerky. If you're up for trying a bunch of rides, throw this one in, but if you're pressed for time before a toddler meltdown, head to the Apple and Worm nearby instead.
  • Big Red Fire Engine and Pit Stop Racer: These two rides, located right next to each other, are true starter rides. Drive two-person fire trucks or race cars in a small circle around the center pole. Get off, and get in line to do it again. Kids must be able to sit independently to ride.
Pit Stop Racer
  • The carousels. Toddler X is not a big carousel fan, but it seems like all his buddies are, so we end up going on them a lot. There are two carousels at Gilroy Gardens -- a little one down to your right as you enter the park (small children only, and tiny little horses), and the larger one straight through the middle of the park (fine for kids and adults). We haven't tried the former, but the latter is quite nice.

    Another attraction we love: The Paddle Boats. Not a "ride", per se, but a really nice change of pace (certainly something you can't do at most amusement parks) and lots of fun. You can choose from a swan, a yellow duckling or a mallard boat and cruise around the park's central lake for 5-7 minutes, pedaling out to visit a nice waterfall at the end and greeting the lake's real ducks up close.

    Things to note: Only two people are allowed per boat, so if you're traveling alone with two little ones, this isn't the ride for you. There are no seatbelts and the seats are not at all deep, so if you have a wiggly toddler who won't sit still independently while you pedal and steer, do NOT go on this ride -- the last thing you want to do is test whether the mandated life jackets (provided at the dock) actually work. The foot areas of the boats do get damp, so think twice before putting a purse or something down there (there's not a ton of room with the pedals anyway), and the pedals' foot openings are extremely narrow -- men with large feet may have a tough time fitting with shoes on.

    A duck's eye view of the lake
    There are several other rides at the park, but these are the ones we've enjoyed with Toddler X.

    Two rides that I wasn't all that impressed with? The monorail and the ferris wheel. We found the monorail to be ho-hum, and the ferris wheel took forever and a half to load -- we must've sat in our car, at various points on the circle, for 10 minutes before the actual revolutions started. The view was fantastic from the top, but with a wiggly toddler (and a potty training one, at that!), the loading time is just not worth it.

    The Water Features:

    In addition to its central lake and its pretty waterfalls, Gilroy Gardens features three actual water play areas for kids. One, Water Oasis, just opened last month, while the other two have been around for a while. Here's what's available:
    • A very basic splash pad area (similar to what you'd see at many playgrounds) next to the midway games. Toddlers run about while water spouts into the air from holes on the ground. This was a much more popular spot before Water Oasis opened.
    The Splash Pad
    • Bonfante's Splash Garden. We haven't spent much time in this water play area because it seems geared toward older kids, with water canons for shooting and a tall treehouse-esque structure with a waterslide coming down. Visually appealing and with a bbq place (and lots of tables) conveniently located on the perimeter, this will probably be a favorite of ours in the future, but for right now we're sticking to the two other options.
    Bonfante's Splash Garden
    • Water Oasis. Saving the best for last here! Water Oasis, which just opened in July, is AMAZING! Seriously, it's an amusement park unto itself -- I would happily pay for admission to just this part of the park -- so the fact that it's only one entertainment option among the panoply offered by GG is fantastic. [Note: I wrote this part of the review after my first experience at Water Oasis, which was on a Friday and moderately crowded. When I returned a week later on a mid-August Sunday, it was PACKED and far less enjoyable because of the crowds -- though still very cool. As we get further into fall, I imagine it will quiet down a bit again and return to the busy, but not overwhelming, fun that we experienced at our first visit.]
    What's so great? Well, the water features of course! Everyone from a newly-sitting baby to an adventurous kindergartener could have a blast here. Here's what you'll find:

        • There is a splash/spray garden similar to something you might see at a nice playground -- say Ortega or Seven Seas -- but bumped up several notches. With water coming down from tall flower structures and spraying up from the ground, toddlers have a blast.
        • The little plastic slide next to the spray garden, which itself has water spraying up to make it more slippery, is a Toddler X favorite -- he must have gone on that thing 30 times at our last visit. Be careful at the bottom - our little buddy hit the ground and tipped backwards, bumping her head on the hard plastic.
      Cool inclined water maze
        • There is an amazing feature that even the youngest visitors will enjoy -- a slightly inclined ground level water maze-type thing, with water flowing from a pump at the top and descending through a series of wheels and gates, all of which the kids can move around to direct the flow. Babies happily sit here splashing, while toddlers and older kids really get into controlling the water flow patterns and pumping the water from the top. Lots of fun to watch!
        • There are the two actual waterslides in Water Oasis, which are appropriate for older toddlers (must be 36"), with the blue one being a bit more exciting (the older kids were lining up for that one). They are well-enclosed slides (so nobody is falling off), and are very, very short -- about the length of your average playground slide. Parents aren't allowed on the top platform with the kids, but the lifeguards are very good about gently guiding kids onto the slides. Lifeguards are waiting at the bottom to guide children out, but unless your child is a proficient swimmer, you should plan to be in/near the knee-deep water at the foot of the slide to help your little one from the pool. 
      The pool on a bustling Friday.
      The pool on a packed Sunday.
        • The pool itself is also. Heavily lifeguarded, but also heavily crowded, I probably wouldn't let Toddler X wade into it very far without also planning to wade in myself. It's 1 1/2 feet at its deepest, with a gently inclined entryway at one end (similar to walking into a lake), so no need to help your toddler navigate stairs. [Note: When we were there on a recent crowded Sunday, they had initiated a new crowd control procedure that blocked off the side of the pool and created one entry point near the water table features -- while I'm sure this had its benefits, it effectively prevents toddler parents from just standing on the side of the pool while their tots play in the water, as the barrier would prevent you from getting in easily if you needed to.]
        • The pool's water table features are also great for exploration and experimentation. Like the inclined ground-level feature described above, the water tables give toddlers plenty of chances to explore the physics of water flow. Kids only need to be ankle-deep to play with these.
      Other Water Oasis tips:
      • The entire area is fenced and gated, with solidly closed gates that toddlers shouldn't be able to open.
      • The enclosed Water Oasis area does not have bathrooms, though bathrooms are available just at the foot of the stairs leading to the Oasis. Water Oasis DOES have changing rooms with curtains, as well as lockers.
      • The deck around the Water Oasis reminds me of the deck at a Vegas hotel pool -- umbrellas, lots of lounge chairs, lots of people...but just a slightly younger clientele and a lot less skin. The chairs are comfortable, and there are a lot of them, though the shade from the umbrellas can be hard to come by. Try to gauge what your toddler's favorite area will be and grab a seat by that -- you will NOT be able to see the whole Water Oasis (and particularly a three foot tall person) from any given seat, so expect to move as your toddler moves.
      • Drink service is offered by wandering waiters, and there is a bar selling beer and wine (and maybe margaritas?) set up by the gate to the Oasis. There is also little shop inside the Water Oasis area that sells everything from snacks to sunblock to rash guards and bathing suits.
      • About 25% of the adults seemed to be wearing bathing suits on a recent visit, while most of the kids were. As a parent, you can go with a suit or just comfortable, water-friendly street clothes (you probably -- hopefully! -- won't be diving in to the knee deep pool, so shorts should be fine), but I would definitely recommend a suit (and a change of clothes!) for your toddler. If your toddler plans to get pretty wet, a towel would be a good idea as well (the aforementioned shop also sells them).
      The cabanas -- bringing a little Vegas glitz to Gilroy.
      And finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the cabanas -- perhaps the most Vegas-ish element of the whole Water Oasis. Yep, there are four brightly colored cabanas that you can rent for the day (all day rentals only -- no hourly or half day) to offer shade, convenience, relaxation and a modicum of privacy for your party (the front panel doesn't close for safety reasons, but you are pretty comfortably tucked in there).

      Each cabana comes with an L-shaped couch (I saw Pottery Barn tags on the pillows -- pretty swanky!), a table, four towels, four bottles of water, four lounge chairs (no need to wait for one to open up by the pool) and food and drink service to your "door". The cabanas rent for $100/day on the weekdays (summer only) and $150/day on weekends, and they can be reserved in advance or at the park, subject to availability. There is a 20% discount for Premium or Elite pass holders.

        For the sake of thoroughness in my SV Toddler review, I decided that we needed to rent a cabana with our friends when we visited a few weeks ago -- see the sacrifices I make for this blog? :) Obviously it's not something that you'd do on your own (and if you would, hey, wanna be friends?), but the cabanas are large enough to accommodate several people, so it's worth considering if you're going with a group and can split the cost. The whole experience was very "high roller" and altogether hilarious.

        The best thing about the cabana was having a "home base" of sorts for our day at GG. We checked in as soon as it opened, parked our strollers in there, and didn't take them out again until we headed home. We were able to spread out all the "stuff" that toddlers require -- food, drinks, changes of clothes, etc. -- on the couches, and lay out wet stuff to dry while we went to play on rides. It was nice to have a spot of guaranteed shade and bit of a respite from the chaos of an amusement park (indeed, a child could even take an almost-nap on the comfortable couch), and the to-your-door food/drink service was really nice too (FYI: the waiters don't accept tips). It would be a great investment if the group you're going with includes infants or grandparents, who would benefit from the shade and relative calm of a cabana.

        The utility of the cabanas is somewhat limited by the fact that you're not going to be doing too much relaxing on that nice couch if you're visiting Water Oasis with a toddler, at least not if you don't have a partner with you. There's no way you can sit in your cabana and see all of the water features, so unless your toddler is content to play in one spot directly in your field of vision, you'll be following him or her around, only occasionally staring longingly at the cushioned, shady space that cost you $150 for the day.

        Cabana verdict: A fun experience, worthwhile if you're going with a couple of other families and both partners will be there (read: dads can take the kids to the water features while moms sit sipping wine in the cabanas), if you're going with 5 or 6 other parent/kid combos (reducing the cost per family), or if you have infants or elderly people in your party. Otherwise, probably not.

            Other Attractions:

            Amazingly, the rides and water features aren't the only fun elements of Gilroy Gardens. There are a couple of other parts of the park that Toddler X (and the rest of the family) really enjoy:

            • The Pinnacles Maze. Toddler X loves this walk-through (or, for him, run through) maze, with paths twisting and turning among high rock walls and tunnels to get to the exit. A big, huge caution here: it is EASY to lose a quick-moving toddler in the maze -- Mr. X is pretty fast, but even he had a tough time staying right behind our darting little guy. Fortunately there are only two entrances, and there's actually a bridge where you can look down from above if it comes to that, but just be aware that when your toddler heads into this maze at full speed, it won't always be easy for you to follow.
            • Bonfante Falls. This is a pretty cool spot, right next to the rock maze, where you can walk behind the big waterfall and look out through its spray. Be aware that the ground is wet as you near the waterfall, and you will get sprayed too.
            • Paths through the gardens. Toddler X loves paths --  anything with ups and downs, twist and turns, tunnels and bridges makes him happy, and the garden areas at Gilroy Gardens offer all of that. We discovered the neat little garden just to the right as you enter (near the small carousel) during our last visit, and it was a great place for mom and dad to get some shade and peace while Toddler X explored. There are several nice little tables down there for a quiet meal.
            • The Playground. Yep, with all its amazing attractions, Gilroy Gardens still decided to throw in a playground. And you know what's funny? Even amidst all those amazing attractions, Toddler X still loves to play on it! It's definitely designed for kids preschool age and up, and if you have a young or wobbly toddler, it won't be appropriate. For kids 2.5+ who are sure on their feet and spend a lot of time at playgrounds (hello, Toddler X!), it's a fun spot to burn off some energy.

            Seasonal Attractions

            • Fall Petting Zoo. From late August through September, GG hosts a fantastic petting zoo inside the park. Seriously, it's the best I've ever seen -- probably 20 baby goats (six months old, the lady told us), young cows, a llama, a horse, baby pot-bellied pigs (seven weeks old!), a sheep, chickens, ducks, geese, bunnies,'s all there. Admission is separate from park admission -- $5 per child, no charge for adults -- and you can buy animal feed for $.25. Totally worth the cost.
            • Halloween Scary Boo & Spooky Zoo. During October, GG gets ready for Halloween with their Scary Boo & Spooky Zoo event (as I understand from speaking with one of the petting zoo ladies today, they bring "scary" animals, like snakes, in to replace some of the "cuddly" animals currently visiting). I'll be sure to post an update as soon as we visit!

            • Holiday Lights. On select nights in December, GG hosts its annual Holiday Lights event. I haven't visited yet for this, but I certainly will this year (it's included with my 2015 Premium Pass -- otherwise the tickets are pretty pricey.) I'll report back after my visit.
              So there you have it -- our take on the wonderful toddler oasis that is Gilroy Gardens. Let me know if you have any other insights to add, and if you go, remember to buy your tickets in advance -- no reader of mine will pay the extra $15 at the gate!

              Happy toddling!

              1 comment:

              1. Thank you so much svt for this amazing review. We happened to visit on saturday, and one thing I would note is that you're not allowed to take food into the park - except baby food and toddler snacks. I am a firm believer that rules are made to be broken and we brought in our own food which we ate queuing up for one of the rides. I'm not sure what would have happened to us if anyone had seen us snaking on sarnies out of aluminium foil ... I think it's a terrible rule - especially as there is a whole area called 'Picnic Grove'! There is a space outside the ticket entrance where you can eat your own food, but coming in and out is not really an option with an excitable child!
                Re: The Rainbow Garden Boat Ride - our one year old can sit independently but only for around 5 minutes ... As soon as we rounded a corner we put him on our lap. The sign saying that babies aren't permitted to sit on laps was just before the entrance to the ride - we'd been queuing for 30 minutes already so weren't willing to turn back. See point earlier re: rules ... One thing I loved was that we hardly noticed the heat (except in the splash pad) as there was such a lot of shade. I did find all the height restriction stuff a bit frustrating though - you can be too short, or too tall (strangely anyone could ride on the train, but not the monorail!). Nobody's perfect right, yet it seemed that each ride was designed for a toddler of just the right height for his/her age. Not every child follows the curve!


              Hmm...what to do today?