Half horticulture, half high jinks

07/13/2008 7:21 AM

07/13/2008 7:26 AM

GILROY -- Ever take a ride on a banana split?

How about a twirl on a garlic bulb?

No? Well, if banana thrill rides and garlic twists appeal to you, head to Gilroy Gardens Family Theme Park and indulge yourself.

Gilroy Gardens, located in the self-proclaimed "Garlic Capital of the World," is California's only horticultural theme park, with more than 40 rides, six unique gardens and a number of exhibits that highlight the world of nature.

The park opened in 2001 under its founder's name: Bonfante Gardens. The name was changed to Gilroy Gardens last year. In 2005, to offset summer heat, the park added Splash Garden, a water play feature where water-spewing "branches," super squirters and spray from a "circus tree" delight and refresh guests.

True to the founder's notion of a family park, Gilroy Gardens offers amusement park rides for the smallest to the oldest and biggest. Youngsters can ride inside a bright "strawberry," ride a "worm" as it navigates an "apple core" and join in a family ride inside a hot-air balloon. More venturesome visitors can climb aboard the Quicksilver Express Mine Coaster, ride the Banana Split (where a giant "banana" without strawberry or fudge sauce swings back and forth) or dangle from below a giant fungus on the Mushroom Swings.

If slow and easy is your preference, climb aboard the Sky Trail Monorail for a bird's-eye view of the 60-foot-high greenhouse or take a paddle boat shaped like a mallard or majestic swan out onto Coyote Lake. Other attractions include four learning sheds (where guests can view videos that detail areas of the park), the Pinnacles Rock Maze (where visitors find it easier to get in than out) and Bonfante Falls (five types of waterfalls, some offering a closer look from behind the wall of water).

The grounds of Gilroy Gardens are full of flora -- six distinct gardens where trees, flowers and plants take center stage, displaying a spectrum ranging from conifers to camellias.

Edible treats include pizza, burgers, ribs, artichoke hearts and strawberry shortcake. At a picnic area just outside the entrance, guests can eat their brought-from-home picnic lunches.

Gilroy Gardens is thrill rides and visual delights, all wrapped in a big Mother Nature bow.

WHERE: 3050 Hecker Pass Highway (Highway 152), Gilroy

WHEN: Through Aug. 31; Sundays-Fridays, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Saturdays, 10 a.m.-8 p.m.

COST: $41; children (3-6) and seniors (65 and older) $31.99; children 2 and younger free. NOTE: The price is $29.99 for all ages when tickets are purchased online.

GETTING THERE: Take Highway 99 or Interstate 5 to Highway 152 west of Los Banos (Pacheco Pass). Continue west past Casa de Fruta and go through Gilroy's business district (where 152 becomes known as Hecker Pass Highway). Turn left on First Street and continue toward the hills. The entrance to Gilroy Gardens Family Theme Park is on the left, just past Burchell Road.

DRIVE TIME: 1 hour, 53 minutes from Modesto (MapQuest)

MORE INFO: 408-840-7100, www.gilroygardens.org

Bee assistant librarian Karen Aiello can be reached at kaiello@modbee.com or 578-2392.

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