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Publication Date: Friday, August 03, 2001

A final summer family outing A final summer family outing (August 03, 2001)

Bonfante Gardens brings together learning and fun

By Joni Ratts

If you're looking for a place to take a family outing during these last few weeks before school starts, head for Bonfante Gardens Theme Park off Highway 152 in Gilroy.

The park, which has trees and gardens as its central theme, is the realization of a 20-year dream for Michael Bonfante, the former owner of Nob Hill Foods. He wanted to share his passion for trees with people, especially children, his hope being that if children learn to appreciate trees at an early age they will "have their whole life to enjoy them."

I had the privilege of visiting the park a few weeks ago, and I can tell you that after spending a day there it's almost impossible not to have his vision rub off on you.

Bonfante Gardens features a unique collection of 19 unusually shaped trees known as the Tree Circus. Axel Erlandson, a farmer from Hilmar, Calif., created the first tree in the early 1920s by fusing four Sycamore saplings into a cupola that he named the "Four-Legged Giant." Over the next 40 years Erlandson wove botanical wonders with threads of living wood into shapes like hearts, lightning bolts, basket weaves and rings, which were featured in Ripley's "Believe-It-Or-Not" and "Life" magazine during the 1940s and 1950s.

The collection was split up after 1946, when Erlandson moved to Scotts Valley, taking 12 of the trees with him. He continued to create unusual shapes and expand his collection, and by the time he died in 1964 there were 74 specimens.

Bonfante Gardens had its beginnings in a movement launched to save the trees after Erlandson's land came up for development in the 1970s. There was no one to care for the trees or to create new ones, as Erlandson never shared his techniques (when people asked him how he created them, he simply said "he talked to the trees"). A Santa Cruz architect, Mark Primack, took up the cause, and in 1985 tree lover Bonfante became involved. His passion and interest led to the rescue of 29 of the coiled, scalloped and spiral-shaped Sycamores, Box Elders, Ash and Spanish Cork. They were hand-dug, boxed, and moved 50 miles over the mountains to their new home in Gilroy. Today, there are 25 Circus Trees still living, and 19 are feature attractions in the park.

But in order to attract children, Bonfante knew he needed a "fun" element, so he developed the park with rides, games and entertainment. The result is a place where education and fun are woven together throughout, a kinder, gentler approach to family entertainment than that found in most theme parks.

To this end 40 rides and attractions geared to preteens are located among gardens containing about 10,000 trees and half a million plants. There is a 1927 Illions Supreme Carousel, a 39-foot tall "Mushroom Swing," and a "Quicksilver Express" mine coaster ride. "Coyote Lake" offers giant swan paddleboats, and "South County Backroads" lets you drive a 1920 roadster or a 1950 Corvette through lavish gardens. You can walk under "Bonfante Falls," get lost in the "Rock Maze" or spin through the "Rainbow Garden" in a circular boat. Four "learning sheds" around the park give a brief view of the history of the trees and Santa Clara County agriculture.

The park is immaculate, the flowers and trees are magnificent, and the staff is friendly and well informed. I would suggest arriving early to avoid heavy crowds--by mid afternoon most attractions have waiting lines. Bonfante Gardens offers a wide range of affordable, delicious food, and the child-friendly menus include things like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and macaroni and cheese.

Starting in September, Bonfante Gardens will host weekly field trips that will provide teachers and students in grades K-8 with a complete horticultural curriculum including hands-on activities. For more information on the educational programs contact the park's educational department at (408) 840-7180 or online at

This is not a "thrills and chills" amusement park. It is a place for young and old alike to share and enjoy together the wonder of trees and plants in a truly spectacular setting. Every inch of Bonfante Gardens is a treasure well worth the price of the ticket. Don't miss it. Bonfante Gardens Theme Park is open daily 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Admission: Adults $28.95, seniors (65+) $25.95, children (3-12) $19.95, free for kids under 2. Season pass: $69.95 adults, $49.95 children.


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