Visitors enjoy returning, albeit at limited capacity

Photo courtesy Gilroy Gardens
A family enjoys a ride on opening day at Gilroy Gardens May 22. The park reopened after being shut down for more than a year.

By Kaylee Arca

Stacy and Matthew Eoff were excited to explore Gilroy Gardens Family Theme Park with their two young daughters when it reopened to guests Saturday, May 22.

Gilroy Gardens Family Theme Park garlic bulb mascots “Gil” and “Roy” welcome visitors to the park. Photo courtesy Gilroy Gardens.

Their baby daughter was born during the COVID-19 crisis and did not have much experience being among crowds. While waiting in line for a carousel ride, the girls watched the jubilant activities around them with wide eyes.

“We’re just happy to get out of the house,” Matthew said of the family’s outing, their first visit to the 536-acre park on Hecker Pass.

As the breeze cooled the spring afternoon, the Eoff’s and about 3,000 other visitors jovially strolled through the park’s grounds and enjoyed the relaxing ambiance accented with cheerful music playing in the background.

The park originally opened in July 2001 as Bonfante Gardens. For many guests during the past two decades the grounds have served as a family fun spot to create happy memories. Unfortunately, Gilroy Gardens was forced to close for its entire 2020 season due to the state’s mandatory quarantine during the pandemic. The theme park’s opening day for the 2021 season operated at a limited capacity, following Santa Clara County Public Health Department’s guidelines.

Families enjoy the balloon ride at Gilroy Gardens on the May 22 opening day after one year of closure from COVID-19 restrictions. Photo courtesy Gilroy Gardens.

That weekend, parents and children wandered the park, giddily exploring the 19 rides, six gardens and various other attractions. Employees warmly welcomed visitors back. At the ornate M.C. Illions Carousel built in 1927,  guests sat on the 48 elaborately carved horses. The socially distant lines around the park filled with energy as the duck paddle boats jaunted on Coyote Lake. People admired the  “Circus Trees,” the branches sculptured through shaping techniques in elaborate designs. Families laughed in the fun of taking a tour of the South County Backroads on 1920 roadsters and 1950s Chevy retro cars sputtering along a meandering track.

With a warm smile, Gilroy Gardens’ General Manager Hoa Le welcomed guests at the entrance gate. He shared his long-awaited excitement of safely reopening to the public and celebratory plans for later this year.

This is a special year for Gilroy Gardens as it will have a summer-long birthday party to celebrate the 20th anniversary, he said. The whole park will be decked out for the celebration with tea parties, pirates and cupcakes for kids starting June 26. Led by music instructor Dr. Kate Booth, students from Christopher High School will perform musical and dance shows for guests at the park’s amphitheater.

Le and his team worked tirelessly to make Gilroy Gardens’ reopening day perfect for their young guests.

“We see ourselves as a smaller theme park, but what we offer is the first experience (of a theme park) for the kids. We’re like their first memories,” he said.

Safety is Gilroy Gardens’ top priority as they welcome 300 new and returning employees, many whom the company was forced to furlough last year. The park required all employees to undergo COVID safety training in addition to the normal training such as ride and food safety. Face coverings, COVID symptom screening and social distancing regulations are in place for the safety of employees and guests.

“The most important thing is how to keep themselves and guests safe,” Le said.

Ryan Verrette is one of the new hires. He was enjoying his first day on the job  worked one of the kiosk gift shops.

“It’s really cool to see everyone socialize for the first time in a while,” he said watching guests navigate social situations for the first time in a while.

In addition to the new health measures, the water fun attractions of Bonfante Splash Gardens and Water Oasis remain closed until the park determines they are safe for public use.

“We were cautious because the state didn’t have specific guidelines for water parks,” Le said. “We wanted to give them some time to study it, so we pushed that (opening) to late June.”

Guests who desire a quick cool-off can make a dash to enjoy the mists beneath the three-story Bonfante Falls.

Morgan Hill resident Elisa Johnson brought her two children and parents to enjoy opening day. She was relieved to find the park was not too crowded while operating at limited capacity.

Her son Teddy spent a few minutes enjoying the Bonfante Falls before heading across the park to drive on the South County Backroads, his favorite ride. His grandparents excitedly explained Teddy now stands 3.5 feet tall so is tall enough to go on more rides. Teddy said he couldn’t wait to return later this summer to play in the water areas when they reopened.

Gilroy Gardens is now operating at 25 percent of the park’s designed capacity of 12,000 guests. Park administrators decided to keep to the orange tier requirements but they plan  to move into the yellow tier soon after they reevaluate its operation in mid-June based on restrictions. They hope to soon increase to 35 percent of capacity.

Park restaurants are open for guests to enjoy, but no indoor seating is available because of the restrictions.

“All of us have gone through so much change, it’s like a roller-coaster,” Le said. “I think our park offers the opportunity for normalcy, for people to get out of the house and interact with other people.”

Tickets and memberships are for sale and reservations must be made online at

Kaylee Arca is a 2017 graduate of Ann Sobrato High School and a 2021 graduate of  San Diego State University majoring in journalism.

Freelance Author