Garlic Fest: Wild fun at the Teen Zone

Jessica Walker, 35, and John Walker, 47, had their first date at the Gilroy Garlic Festival on July 28, 1997. They were married Nov. 22, 1997. Friday marks the first time they've returned to the festival in 15 years. They enjoyed watching their two daught

Initial reaction to the Gilroy’s Garlic Festival’s latest addition was like a teenager’s mood swings: Up, down and changing from one minute to the next.

On its inaugural day, some youth toured the brand-new teen zone with cool apathy. Others gave it a satisfied thumbs-up and said they would like to see it expand even more to include a bounce house, more games, music and a roller coaster.

Many were too frugal to shell out up to $7 per ride, and instead watched as others were bucked mercilessly from the mechanical bull. A handful were content to just roam the shaded areas in herd-like clusters, while others, still, had no idea the teen zone even existed.

“What teen zone?” said San Jose visitor Tatiana Venegas, 16, who found her way to the area but didn’t know it was actually called “the teen zone.”

Venegas and her group of friends echo the majority of the festival’s teenagers in the upper 15- to 18-year age bracket: The new area is “really fun,” “still really cool” and a “good idea,” but when you’re a poor high school student roaming around without your parents (or more specifically, their wallets), the teen zone is a little pricey.

“We just looked at stuff,” said Justin Jeske, 16, who perused the area with his friends before peacing out.

“One dollar a ticket? That’s very expensive,” said Isaac McCrimon, 14, who will be a freshman at Christopher High School next year.

All said, however, McCrimon and his crew were pleased with the new area.

Tucked a little bit out of the way like an island in the southeast nook of Christmas Hill Park just past the amphitheater – the teen zone seems to be the most popular with older children and junior high-aged students – or, as 15-year-old Hailee Singleton of Oakland phrased it, “it’s more for like, tweens.”

That, and parents who get a kick out of filming their son or daughter get catapulted into the air.

“Do a flip, Johnny! DO A FLIP!” one mother bellowed repeatedly as she watched her son – attached to a pair of bungee cords – bob up and down on the “Trampoline Thing.”

Save for the occasional grumble when purchasing tickets, parents appreciate the teen zone as a convenient spot to take a break from walking, placate their children and give the significant other some free time to enjoy the vendor booths at leisure. 

Relaxing with a beer as they watched their kids have a ball, Mark England, 45 and Richard Birrell, 53, said the teen zone is “absolutely a good addition.”

While England, a Gilroyan of 11 years, admitted the rides are “a little pricey,” Birrell pointed out that the Garlic Festival is largely “adult-themed.”

“You need attractions for the kids,” he said. “This is perfect… it’s also a good break for mom.”

Parent John Walker, 47, agrees.

“I think it’s a great idea,” said the Modesto resident who came with his wife and two younger daughters, ages 8 and 10. “It gives them something to do, plus the kiddie zone is hard if you’re not that little.”

For John, 47, and his wife, Jessica, 35, their visit to Gilroy’s 34th annual garlic extravaganza marks a “full circle” milestone. Now married with children, the couple hasn’t been to the festival since their first date 15 years ago, which, coincidentally, was at the July 28, 1997 festival.

“It was the worst day of our lives,” laughed Jessica, who claimed the temperature that year was a stifling 110 degrees.

This year, after noticing the weather would be in the comfortable low 80s, “I said, ‘OK,’ we can do this,” she chuckled.

John and Jessica met after working together at Safeway in San Jose. After asking Jessica if she wanted to go out, “I thought, what am I gonna do?” he laughed.

To John’s luck, the Gilroy Garlic Festival just happened to be that next weekend.

Despite their comically subpar first date, the Walkers “haven’t left each other’s side” since tying the knot just several months later Nov. 22, 1997. Attending the 34th annual Gilroy Garlic Festival is partly to commemorate their 15-year anniversary.

“It’s cool,” smiled John. “We got kids now.”

The big news on Friday was the unexpected arrival of the 250-foot-long zip line. What was supposed to be the teen zone’s premiere focal point was almost sidelined this year due to state licensing issues; a major “bummer” for organizers who were thrilled to learn the zip line would make its grand appearance after all. While the ride didn’t open up until 3 p.m., it was better late than never as the line quickly amassed with anticipated patrons.

“Hey Leo, the more you flirt, the less we get done,” teased Fun & Games ride operator Michael Diaz, 21, who jokingly gave his coworker flack about talking to a pair of girls as other employees labored to expeditiously assemble the attraction.

The Garlic Festival marks the debut appearance for the ride, which is brand-new to Fun & Games, according to Diaz.

“If we’re not in a hurry, it only takes three people,” he said, when asked how many workers it takes to set up the contraption, which allows two riders to scale a 30-foot tower and zip down a pair of wires that run parallel to each other. “But if we’re in a hurry, it takes a village.”

Festival President Hugh Davis and Queen Julia Brewka were given first dibs.

“If this thing is gonna fail miserably…Hugh is gonna take one for the team,” joked Brian Bowe, the festival’s executive director who cheered as the president came zinging down the wires.

“You’re my favorite president, Hugh!” hollered Bowe, cheering as Davis plunged off the platform.

Davis was trailed shortly by Brewka, who is slightly afraid of heights and let out several screeches as she dangled in the air.

“I have three bucks on a tiara loss on the way down,” said Bowe, beforehand.

“It’s pretty much stapled to her head,” assured Sheena Link, chairperson of the Garlic Queen Pageant.

Aimed at catering to the one demographic “we’ve always known that we’ve kind of missed,” as Bowe put it, the teen zone is outfitted with a zip line, an Orbitron (a human gyroscope ride), a quad jump (described as a “giant spring hinge”), a mechanical bull, a massive “Titanic” slide, a “Trampoline Thing,” a giant, blow-up rat race course and a airbrush tattoo booth where teens can get designs such as a palm tree, the Chinese symbol for happiness or a cat painted onto their skin (booth vendors say guys “like the lips” stencil).

Some of the older patrons appreciated the chillness of the area. The teen zone is surrounded by grassy knolls and shaded benches, away from the busier areas where human traffic flows like ocean currents around Gourmet Alley and the shopping booths.

“It’s actually a really good place to relax,” said Holly Reinsch, 16, a southern California visitor and festival first-timer.

Like Reinsch, reaction to the teen zone wasn’t just griping about prices and the infiltration of tweens. Nadine Filippi, Kristen Mank and Vanessa Uyu, all 16-year old CHS students, gave the newest attraction a sunny review.

“It gives the older kids a place to go,” said Filippi.

Their one suggestion?

“A lot of people like the wax hands and Frisbees,” said Mank, referencing two of the popular craft activities that attract toddlers and teenagers alike to the children’s area. “They should add that to the teen zone.”

On Friday, at least, the biggest hits appeared to be the zip line, the “Trampoline Thing” and the mechanical bull.

“That left a mark!” exclaimed Santa Clara visitor Anthony Meneses, 7, after being flung face-first into the padded arena of the bullpen.

The bull is controlled remotely at the whim of the ride operator, who – if you’re a pro – can have you thrown off in a heartbeat.

“When they’re doing good, you just hit that button and it makes the bull go crazy,” said ride operator Sal Pena, 17.

He pointed to a blinking orange button on the control panel. It’s labeled “cowboy.”

Parent Sharon Ransom, 47, of Gilroy, said it’s nice to give young festival-goers more options as they age out of the children’s area. One suggestion she offered was possibly incorporating pop music into the teen zone.

As for the ticket prices, only one of Ransom’s two children – 14-year-old daughter Allison – was with her.

“So for a one-day thing, I’m not usually too stressed about that,” she said.

But on top of the costs for admission and food, “I could see how it would get pricey with multiple kids,” she added.

While festival organizers maintain they don’t want the teen zone to develop “a carnival feel,” it’s also important to “give (teens) a place of their own,” said Denise Buessing, who oversees the children’s area and teen zone.

Not only that, but if the youth are satisfied and entertained, “then maybe the parents will want to stay an extra day,” she added.

At any rate, tacking on some new attractions can only bolster the festival’s platform, which is making sure “there is something to do for everyone,” Bowe said.

That includes Nick Dorn, a CHS senior who fulfilled a childhood dream by squeezing in a ride on the Orbitron before it was too late.

At 17, Dorn is approaching the ride’s height and weight limit. It was now or never.

“That’s one heck of a workout,” he said, after it was over. “But I’ve wanted to be in one of those things since I was a little kid.”

The brand-new teen zone’s premiere attraction is a 250-foot-long zip line. Here’s what some riders had to say after giving it try:
-“Pretty fast”
-“Slow…but fun”
-“It hurts the groin.”
-“I was scared.”
-“It was fun, but could be faster.”

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