Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | April 25, 2003

Rooting for a successful Bonfante Gardens season

Exactly one week ago, Bonfante Gardens opened for its third season – and my kids and I were there. Like many, we’re thrilled that Bonfante Gardens is having a third season.

Now that Paramount Parks – the amusement park giant that runs Great America in Santa Clara and several other theme parks – is managing Bonfante Gardens, expectations, including mine, are high.

I noticed visible improvement as soon as we arrived – the parking lot was fuller last Friday than I remember it on any of our numerous visits last season. We waited in a 15-minute line at the Guest Services window to purchase VIP season passes.

Now, no one likes lines, but last year’s lack of queues did not bode well for the park’s long-term future. So, while lines aren’t our favorite part of any outing, the kids spent the wait deciding what to ride first, while I appreciated at the bigger picture.

I’m a huge Bonfante Gardens fan. Last summer I wrote a column extolling its many virtues and encouraging readers to visit often. So I’d like nothing better than to recount a visit that featured nothing but smooth sailing – but I can’t.

If we had experienced just one or two glitches, it would be easy to dismiss them. But taken together, they paint a worrisome picture.

Our problems started at the Guest Services window. The $19.99 season parking pass that I was told would be moveable between cars turned out to be a tiny numbered sticker. When I asked how I would move a permanently affixed sticker between our family’s two vehicles, someone in the booth suggested taping it to my windshield. Smooth.

At the same time, we were informed that that the VIP season passes we purchased to allow us entry to both Bonfante Gardens and Great America – and at just $10 more per season ticket, the family pack upgrade is a great deal – can only be processed at the Santa Clara theme park. Incompatible computer systems were cited.

It turns out the upgrade is a Great America season pass that Bonfante Gardens honors. We can’t use our passes to get back into Bonfante Gardens until the entire family trucks up to Santa Clara where Paramount’s computer system can process them. Until then, I’m trying really hard not to lose the receipts tucked in my wallet next to that miniscule parking sticker.

Three of the first four rides we tried to board weren’t running. At each ride, the attendant posted out front told us that they weren’t allowed to give us an estimate of when the rides would be open. Lunch at Uncle John’s BBQ featured a cashier who tried three times to overcharge me for our meals and another worker who told me they had no condiments.

I find it troubling that so many rides weren’t ready on opening day and that a restaurant lacks ketchup and mustard for its first lunch hour.

We were later able to board one of those three rides before we left the park mid-afternoon. Happily, every other ride we visited was operating.

I was disappointed that the vast majority of plants at the park still aren’t labeled – that was my lone criticism in last summer’s column. I don’t understand why a garden-themed park hasn’t labeled its plants after three years.

As we left, I was disheartened and mystified that The Gifted Gardener nursery – a shop once teeming with hundreds of plants and garden art – now has a few dozen potted plants. The cashier told me there are no plans to revive what was once my favorite place to spend money at Bonfante Gardens.

I love Bonfante Gardens and want it to succeed. Paramount reports that opening day attendance numbers exceeded its expectations. The community that has embraced Bonfante Gardens has no concrete way of judging how well the park is doing, because Paramount refuses to release attendance numbers.

Gilroy has bent over backwards to make sure Bonfante Gardens – a genuine treasure and potential boon to the South Valley region – succeeds. I’m hoping the opening day glitches my family experienced will be smoothed out as employees are trained and procedures are tweaked.

Once those VIP season passes are processed, my family will return often, spending lots of our disposable income at Bonfante Gardens.

The citizens of South Valley – and especially Gilroyans – who have so loyally supported Bonfante Gardens deserve a vibrantly successful and professionally run park.

Now it’s up to park managers and employees to give them exactly that.

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