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 much of the rest 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 roaming crowds of surly teens to be found here.
What always surprises me is how many Bay Area parents have never heard of the place. It’s a bit of a well-kept secret outside of the South Bay/San Jose area. But I’ve been doing my part to spread the word about what a gem the park is for families with young kids.
We’ve taken our children to Gilroy Gardens over dozen times over the past several years and it has always been a huge hit. We recently took both kids, ages 9 and 4.5, for a return visit to update this post on all that’s new since I first published it in 2015.
What Age Is Best for Gilroy Gardens?
Without a doubt, Gilroy Gardens is the best fit for younger kids. When I first published this post, I said the sweet spot was probably from toddler age until about 7 years old. Having now just gone again with my daughter at age 9, I’d say the park still holds plenty of charm a few years beyond that stage. In particular, the new additions to the Water Oasis splash zone also have expanded the park’s appeal to older elementary aged kids (more on that below!).
The most thrilling roller coaster is Quicksilver Express Mine Coaster, and our fairly daring daughter found that just about the right speed starting at ages 5 and 6. My almost 5 year old more cautious son, however, wants no part of it just yet. Also a big hit around the time my daughter entered kindergarten was the Timber Twister, a mild roller coaster in the shape of a snake. 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 once they have a greater need for speed.
Tips for Gilroy Gardens with Kids
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:
1. Arrive early: With its earliest opening time at 10:00 am (and often at 11:00 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 when we had a child of napping age was always 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. Now that the kids are a bit older and more flexible, we have found we can really go from park opening until close without even hitting it all.
2. Don’t miss out on a discount: Gilroy Gardens has a lot of ways to get discounted admission, so never wait until you get to the turnstiles to buy your tickets. You’ll almost always save by buying tickets in advance online (look especially for weekday specials in summer), so check the park’s official website before you go. You can even order on your smartphone with digital ticketing now. Bonus: And, if you have the Gold or Platinum season passes to California’s Great America in Santa Clara, admission to Gilroy Gardens is included. The passes are a smart way to visit two Bay Area theme parks all year long for a very reasonable cost.
3. Check the calendar: Since Gilroy Gardens is a smaller amusement park, it doesn’t have the kind of hours that Disney or Universal does. And it isn’t open year-round, although its season does keep expanding. 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. The park is usually also open weekends in the fall and early winter through Christmas. Gilroy Gardens is closed in January/February/March and reopens in time for spring break on weekends.
4. Ride these rides first: If you are an ride-sequencing super planner for Disney and theme park 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 all the water features. An area called Water Oasis was added in 2014 and was such a major hit that the park further expanded it for the summer of 2018. As you can probably imagine, 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 bowl with veggies at The Wok.
8. Eat early or late: While ride lines are very reasonable at Gilroy Gardens, food lines can sometimes be pretty long. On my family’s last visit, we found a lot of the food counters quite understaffed (in all fairness, this may have been partially due to the fact that we visited on the last day of the summer season). If you want to avoid waiting a long time for food, eat on the earlier side or wait until after the lunch rush. Gilroy Gardens does not allow outside food, but taking in a few snacks and a water bottle for your kids is more than okay.
9. 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 once my daughter was 6 that she 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.
10. 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.
11. 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. In fact, the offerings have expanded greatly in the past few years. There are after dark “Gardens@Night” events that charge separate admission and include trick-or-treating during the Halloween season and holiday lights in December.
12. 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 $58 for adults/$48 for kids which is less than two park admissions, even at a discounted rate. If you plan to go 3+ times, I’d recommend the Premium card at $91 per person. It includes free parking, early access to Water Oasis, merchandise and food discounts, access to Gardens@Night and seasonal events, and more.
Want a sneak peek at Gilroy Gardens? Check out video highlights from one of my family’s visits when my son was a toddler. 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 for review purposes. My family has paid our own way on our many other visits. As always, all opinions are my own.