A little over an hour away from San Francisco and about 20 miles south of San Jose is the town of Gilroy, California. It is probably best known for its agriculture – in particular, its garlic. Gilroy plays host to an annual summer garlic festival that draws serious crowds.
But Gilroy has another attraction that is open over half of the year that is an amazing fit for family travelers: Gilroy Gardens. Gilroy Gardens is an amusement park themed around agriculture. With beautifully manicured grounds, ample shade, and a family-friendly vibe, Gilroy Gardens is the anti-Six Flags. No surly teens to be found here.
We’ve taken our now 6 year old approaching a dozen times over the past several years and it has always been a huge hit. We recently took both kids to introduce our son to Gilroy Gardens for the first time too.
Gilroy Gardens is the best fit for younger kids. The sweet spot is probably from toddler age until about 7 years old. The most thrilling roller coaster is Quicksilver Express Mine Coaster, and our fairly daring daughter found that just about the right speed at ages 5 and 6. Also a big hit at this age was the Timber Twister, a mild roller coaster in the shape of a snake. I would say that neither ride rises to the level of the relatively modest thrills of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad at Disneyland, so your little daredevil will definitely outgrow the park at some point.
All the more reason not to wait! If you are headed to Gilroy Gardens, there are lots of ways to make the most out of your visit. Here are my best tips and tricks for a trip to Gilroy Gardens:
Tips for Gilroy Gardens
1. Arrive early: With its earliest opening time at 10:00 am, it really isn’t hard to get to Gilroy Gardens at rope drop. No one else does, so you can really beat the crowds if you come early. You’ll find yourself parking just steps from the front gate with minimal crowds and cooler weather. My family’s strategy has always been to arrive at park opening and push on until 2:00 or 3:00 pm. We then let the kids nap on the car ride home during the hottest part of the day.
2. Don’t miss out on a discount: Gilroy Gardens has a ton of ways to get discounted admission, so never wait until you get to the turnstiles to buy your tickets. This summer, Gilroy Gardens has a weekday discount good for $20 off each ticket that they have graciously allowed me to share with readers. Use this link to get the discount!
3. Check the calendar: Since Gilroy Gardens is a little amusement park, it doesn’t have the kind of hours that Disney or Universal does. And it isn’t open year-round. Always check the calendar before you go to make sure the park will be open. An easy general rule of thumb to follow in mid-summer is that the park is open 10am-6pm on weekends and 11am-5pm on weekdays.
4. Ride these rides first: If you are an OCD ride-sequencing planner for your Disney trips, you can relax at Gilroy Gardens. The park almost always has very short lines everywhere. You simply don’t need an elaborate itinerary. The only rides that can build up a wait of any significance are the Paddle Boats, South County Backroads, and Rainbow Garden Round Boat Ride. My advice? If you want to ride them, ride them earlier in the day, especially the paddle boats which should be your first stop. Then do other rides at your leisure.
5. Prepare for splash pad crowds: Gilroy gets pretty darn hot in the summer time and a lot of locals have season passes to take advantage of the newest addition of a second splash pad (Water Oasis) to the park. The crowds build as soon as the heat does. We noticed a huge difference between 11:00 am and 1:00 pm, so consider a visit to Water Oasis before lunch. Also, the original water play area (Bonfante’s Splash Garden) now has more reasonable crowd levels so hop over there if the crowds at Water Oasis are too much.
6. Explore the trees: When is the last time you spent any time looking at a tree in an amusement park? Probably never! But if you don’t stop to look up, you’ll miss some of the most amazing attractions at Gilroy Gardens: the famous Circus Trees! Made using elaborate tree grafting processes, these trees are amazing works of art as well as natural wonders. Make it a family scavenger hunt of sorts finding each new tree (pick up a brochure at the entrance that shows you location and information about each one).
7. Healthy food options abound: One thing I love about Gilroy Gardens is that it is actually possible to eat healthily during a visit. While there is certainly plenty of awesome theme park food to satisfy your kids’ sweet tooth, the park’s focus on agriculture means you can also find a vegetable or two as well. My favorite? The teriyaki chicken with veggies at Uncle John’s Side Room.
8. Check the height limits: Gilroy Gardens might be the only amusement park you will ever encounter where your kids may be too TALL for some of the rides. Many of the rides are made for toddlers and preschoolers and this means that older kids may not be able to ride everything (Bulgy the Goldfish is one such example). Of course, there are plenty of rides with height limits that go the other way. It was only on our most recent visit that my daughter was finally tall enough for the Mushroom Swings and Banana Split Ride. And there is one ride that has a height limit you may not expect: Sky Trail Monorail. It is basically a people mover and would seem to be perfect for babies in arms, but I think the restraint system was designed in such a way that younger kids under 36 inches can’t ride.
9. Make time for the playground: Amusement park thrills are great, but Gilroy Gardens understands that kiddos love having some unstructured play time too. The well-shaded giant playground. Oak Park Playground, in the middle of the park is always a hit with my kids.
10. Don’t forget about the holidays: Since Gilroy Gardens has its longest hours in the summer, my family sometimes forgets to go other times of year. But the holiday celebrations for Halloween and the Christmas season are magnificent too.
11. Consider a season pass: All the Gilroy locals have already taken me up on this advice, but I’d also tell parents all over the Bay Area to at least consider a season pass if you might go more than once a year. My family had passes for two years straight when our daughter was a toddler (before our son was born). We got a ton of value out of them. The cheapest option (the value card) is only $52 which is less than two park admissions, even at a discounted rate. Consider having one member of your family upgrade to the Premium card ($81), which includes free parking and merchandise and food discounts. You’ll break even on that upgrade in about two visits.
Want a sneak peek at Gilroy Gardens? Check out video highlights from my family’s latest visit. My son had a blast but there was one ride that made him a little uneasy, which resulted in a pretty funny moment caught on video!
Disclosure: Gilroy Gardens provided my family complimentary admission on my most recent visit. My family has paid our own way on our many other visits. As always, all opinions are my own.