‘Best year ever’ for Gilroy Gardens

Gilroy Gardens experienced its “best year ever in 2018,” thanks to a water park expansion that spiked attendance and profits, general manager Barb Granter told the city council April 1.

The park, which is operated by a non-profit corporation and sits on land owned by the city, experienced a bump of 50,000 in annual attendance, bringing 2018’s numbers to 457,000, far better than a low of 329,000 in slow years, according to Granter, who presented the annual report to the council.

Membership sales increased to 66,400, up from 40,900 in 2017, and the park netted a 12 percent profit margin. Gilroy Gardens’ profit margin has only exceeded 10 percent three times in its 19-year history, she noted.

“In the last five years, we’ve had a nice sustaining net profit margin,” Granter said. “It is, in fact, the best we’ve ever grown.”

If the park continues to net a 7 to 12 percent profit, it will remain sustainable, according to Granter.

“There will be ups and downs, but there is no reason to believe that this property isn’t sustaining,” she said.

In 2008, the City of Gilroy purchased the 536 acres of land that includes the park and hillside for $13 million, paying off the park’s remaining bond debt.

The city receives a percentage of the park’s earnings, and in 2017, that number was $164,086, according to the most recent Form 990 available, which lists revenues and expenditures.

In 2016, Gilroy Gardens embarked on a 10-year master plan, which, among other things, aims to grow annual attendance to 500,000 by 2022 and attract a larger percentage of children in the 11- to 12-year-old range.

As a result, the park opened the $4.5 million expansion of its Water Oasis area in 2018, featuring larger water slides for older children, as well as cabanas and “splash pads.” Such new water attractions have historically resulted in attendance and profit increases for Gilroy Gardens, according to Granter.

Park officials are also eyeing the 350 acres that sit behind Gilroy Gardens, possibly opening it to the public for hiking, mountain biking, zip lines and other attractions.

More than 93 percent of those who visited the park in 2018 are not Gilroy residents, according to Granter.

With growth planned on the horizon, and with non-Gilroy residents making up an overwhelming majority of the park’s visitors, Gilroy Gardens’ board of directors commissioned an economic impact study in March, which is expected to be completed within 90 days.

No new attractions are lined up for this season, which opened on March 17, Granter said. Instead, park officials are turning their attention to 2020, which will mark the 20th anniversary of Gilroy Gardens.

The celebration will officially kick off in August with a membership drive, and the 2020 season will be filled with what Granter describes as “everything a child would expect at their birthday party,” such as stilt walkers, giant birthday cakes and jugglers.

A “full park color palette refresher” is also in the works, she noted.

The park will also debut [email protected] in 2020, a light and sound show that will take place at night later in the year. The hope is to capture the same success Gilroy Gardens achieved in 2016 with Lumination, an event that celebrated Chinese culture through light displays and sculptures. While that year netted the highest attendance in park history, the profit margins were minimal, as Gilroy Gardens had to pay the producers $1.2 million, according to Granter.

“We’ve been working on this since Lumination, trying to come up with a product that will give us the same excitement in the community, but we own it and it’s ours,” she said.

Councilmember Cat Tucker pointed to the number of seasonal jobs Gilroy Gardens provides young people, which averages about 500 a year, calling the park a “great asset to the community.” She also said the park has the potential to drive more visitors into the city by adding attractions to the currently unused land.

“All the ideas you have are wonderful ideas,” she said. “I will continue to be supportive.”