Gilroy Gardens Family Theme Park, located near San Jose, California, is at an important point in its evolution as a registered non-profit: building upon the success of its docent-led educational programs to create new ways to integrate formal and informal education into all aspects of the guest experience. The park’s success over the past 10 years with about 400,000 annual visits has given the Gilroy Gardens management team the opportunity to revitalize existing attractions and add new products that will keep the experience fresh for their strong member base while attracting new visitors. The approach is imbued with the spirit one would expect in a place “where fun grows on trees.”
Successfully expanding the guest experience means developing carefully chosen projects that the park’s leadership knows will resonate with their family audience. Gilroy Gardens’ stated mission is to “educate and inspire families, especially children, to appreciate horticulture and the importance of trees in our lives by providing fun and memories in a beautiful garden setting.” New attractions must strike a balance of providing fun and authentic experiences that also provide opportunities for learning.
BaAM Productions began a collaborative process with Gilroy Gardens in fall 2013 to assist with art direction and signage and graphics for their new Water Oasis water play area. This $2.5 million investment was the largest capital project for the park since it first opened in 2001 (the original name was Bonfante Gardens, which was changed in 2007). The creative approach for this play area was to reinforce the integration of the new experience with the natural environment, using a color palette and activities that are tied to nature. A layer of interpretive graphics reinforced a message of pollution prevention and water conservation that provided a call to action for kids and families to consider while they were having fun. The graphics were sponsored by the Santa Clara Valley Water District, using the water play opportunity to tell the story of how the water used in Water Oasis is re-circulated and treated and then making connections to the use of water in the guests’ own lives.
Before the 2014 season came to a close, it was evident that the success of Water Oasis would pave the way for a follow-up experience that was even more tied to the park’s educational mandate. The opportunity came in the form of a renovation of an existing indoor space. The Red Barn was an under-performing gift shop and ad hoc art gallery run by the park’s docents. It was rebranded as the Green Barn, which opened in March 2015 completely renovated and readied to welcome young guests and their parents to a place “where art and science ignite creativity, exploration and discovery” – to explore and be inspired by the world they live in through engaging arts- and science-focused activities. The final result is a completely transformed, open and airy space, that’s now home to a number of activity areas, including the Nature Exchange, Reading Nook and Art Studio.
The name “Green Barn” is a simple and colorful way to signal environmental awareness and boost potential for expanding other “Green” experiences at the park; ultimately, the Green Barn, which appealed immediately to the park’s regular guests, will become the hub of learning at Gilroy Gardens, hosting formal educational programs for school groups in the longer term.
The Nature Exchange within the Green Barn is a natural “swap shop” where pine cones, fossils, shells, rocks, and other naturally found items can be turned in for points, and points can then be traded for other items from the inventory. Participants (“traders”) are encouraged to share the story of where they found their object, use the resource library to research more about their discovery and interact with the staff to ultimately collect points or make a trade. Microscopes and other equipment to help with identification are available. Already the park has signed up more than 1,600 traders who have made some 5,000 trades. It is said to be very popular among members who compete with friends and family to see who can find items that will bring them the most points. Ethical collecting is a part of the promotion and education process for the Nature Exchange, promoting the understanding that everyone can think green and be a steward of the environment. The Nature Exchange system and inventory were provided by Science North.
Adjacent to the Nature Exchange inside the Green Barn is the Art Studio, encouraging visitors to exercise their imagination and create works of art inspired by the natural world. Natural materials collected at the park are the raw materials of creativity. Examples in evidence include collages of leaves, pine needles, cones and seeds, and rubbings from leaves. Large pivoting panels become gallery walls where budding artists can showcase their work. This area is popular with adult guests and younger ones alike.
The walls of the Reading Nook in the Green Barn feature inspiration for young minds. One displays a thought bubble full of hundreds of book titles, answering the question: “Read a good book lately?” The other wall introduces the idea of left brain and right brain thinking, providing an evocative backdrop for photos and the starter for thought-provoking conversations. The Reading Nook collection features scientific reference material and story books on the themes of nature and creativity.
The exciting launch of Green Barn is just the beginning of planning for future activities that weave learning into the fabric of the overall experience at Gilroy Gardens. It aligns with the long term goal of project team members to incorporate art with science to appeal to a broader group and meet cross-curricular standards to promote STEAM learning (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math). This program will help encourage repeat visits, build loyalty for the park, and offer something different from the other activities at Gilroy Gardens.
Informal learning experiences that surprise guests and flexible spaces that will allow for formal programming for schools can have a strong impact when delivered in the natural beauty of the park’s garden setting. The simplicity of the word “Green” provides endless possibilities for future branding of these projects. Already, “Learning Sheds” spread around the park have been re-named “Green Spots” – just one example of how the word green will continue to serve as a connector as additional learning experiences are developed throughout the park.
As park Vice President and General Manager Barb Granter observed, “The positive response from our members to both of these new attractions has let us know clearly that the quality and nature of these experiences is in line with their expectations for this park. They have a strong sense of ownership of this special place, and they expect that we will continue to keep the bar this high – or higher – for future projects!”
The overwhelmingly positive response to both of these new attractions has laid the groundwork for additional new and exciting adventures for Gilroy Gardens’ guests in the coming years. • • •
Christine Kerr is Vice President of BaAM Productions (www.baamproductions.com), and a Past President of the Themed Entertainment Association.
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