By Kate Conger
By Brian Rinker
By Rachel Swan
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By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
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Development of the park lost a little momentum during the early 1990s, when an economic slowdown forced Bonfante to concentrate on the grocery business. But after the economy strengthened, Bonfante realized that building his dream park required full-time commitment, as well as an infusion of cash.
In August 1997, he first told his sister that he was thinking of selling the grocery business started by their father, which Michael had grown into a 26-store chain, to chase his dream. "It wasn't a hard leap for me," recalls Bonfante. "None of my kids had any desire to join the business, so it was an easy decision to make, really."
Trelut says the strange nature of the venture didn't bother her. "Oh, no. I've been around [the tree park idea] so long that it's sort of become ingrained in me," she says. "And I've always supported the idea because I think it's a cool idea."
Still, Trelut had a difficult time watching her brother sell their father's business to concentrate on a tree-themed park. "It was very emotional, a very difficult time for all of us," she says. "It took me a while to work through that, and there are still some people struggling to work through that."
On Jan. 16, 1998, Bonfante sold Nob Hill Foods to Raley's, a regional chain that owns 149 grocery stores. According to published reports, Bonfante then poured as much as $75 million of the money from the sale directly into the theme park, which he organized as an educational charity, in part to protect the profits from the grocery sale from taxation. He raised an additional $40 million for the park through a private debt issue.
With the grocery chain sold, Michael now had the time and money to make his park happen. He spared no expense.
It wasn't enough for Bonfante Gardens to have just any old carousel; only an ultra-rare, 1927 Illions Supreme carousel -- one of three in the world -- would do. (A park press release says the carousel took staff three years and 8,500 man-hours to restore.) The park's Ferris wheel was imported from Europe. Many of its rides for small children were painstakingly restored antiques. And then there's the landscaping, with Bonfante placing each of the park's 10,000 trees precisely in line with the 23-year-old blueprint in his head.
"We all looked at the land here for all those years and just saw dirt," says Gena Sakahara, a park employee and lifetime Gilroy resident. "Michael saw ... this."
Visitors to the park enter through a gate lined with the famous Circus Trees, cross a tree-trimmed bridge, and then find themselves in something of a vegetation-themed Wonderland. If they make a left turn coming across the bridge, they see the giant banana swinging up over the tree line every few seconds, and little children whirling around in garlic bulb, strawberry, and artichoke rides. If they go right, they pass more Circus Trees, a Ferris wheel, and a small mine coaster (a ride similar to, but built lower to the ground than, a roller coaster). As they circle the giant lagoon at the center of the park's 75 acres, visitors pass several gardens, including a tropical one in a large greenhouse that probably seems cramped when an aerial monorail, a ground-based railroad, and a stream of foot traffic are all passing through at once. There are also waterfalls and trickling streams and dinosaur-shaped topiary bushes and replica roadsters from the '20s and '50s that cruise rugrats through floral seas.
This is what Bonfante saw when everyone else saw dirt, and this is what the public saw when Bonfante Gardens opened on June 15, 2001 -- Michael Bonfante's 60th birthday. After more than two decades of staring at conceptual drawings and hearing her brother describe this dreamscape, there were finally people walking through it.
"Surreal is a good word," she says. "We had this sign up in the office all those years that said, "If you build it, they will come.' Well, we built it. And they did!"
The park's attention to detail drew rave reviews. The San Jose Mercury News dubbed the park "freshly conceived, carefully planned, considerate of feet, and generous to the eyes," adding that "this pleasure garden is a gift to the populace." But, for all the hokey, vegetation-themed rides, the five gardens filled with hundreds of plant varieties, and the giant man-made lagoon, there was no mistaking how personal the creation was.
There's a stage on a patio overlooking the lagoon where robot oranges serenade children about the benefits of vitamin C; the stage is a rendering of Bonfante's father's first grocery storefront. Every restaurant in the park is named after a South Valley culinary establishment from the '40s or '50s, Trelut says, "because that's when Michael and I were growing up."
That the park was a personal artifact made it a joy to open, and painful beyond belief to close, less than four months later.
Gilroy City Councilman Charles Morales says his constituents were worrying about the health of Bonfante Gardens long before the park showed any signs of trouble. "People would say to me that they went to the park for a second or third time, and all these things had been moved," Morales recalls. "Things like a railroad track or a small pond. The public knew very well that he'd been building things and tearing them down over and over again. ... The place was beginning to remind me of the Winchester Mystery House."