Pros: * Wide range of age-appropriate rides for 0-5 year olds
* Awesome playground/climbing structure
Cons: * Animal habitats are a bit depressing
* Rides aren't always fully-staffed in the off-season
Happy Hollow Park and Zoo is an institution in San Jose, though I sadly never visited when I was a child. Perhaps it's fortunate I didn't, as the park and zoo underwent a nearly two-year $72 million renovation in 2008 to refurbish rides and add new features to a park that originally opened in 1961. When it re-opened in 2010, the buzz finally caught my attention. I believe the renovated 16 acre park is truly outstanding and I imagine some sentimental visitors won't really recognize the park they grew up with.
We are now season ticket holders, despite the 30+ minute one-way commute there from our house. My 3 and 6 year old daughters have been here maybe 15-20 times over the past year and we also came here on a field trip with my older daughter's kindergarten class. It's a very popular destination for Silicon Valley families and those of us willing to travel from farther away. We actually didn't discover Happy Hollow until several visits to Children's Fairyland in Oakland, another classic children's amusement park from the 1950s that could learn a lot from Happy Hollow's successful renovation.
About the Park
Located inside San Jose's Kelley Park, Happy Hollow Park and Zoo is an amusement park tailored for toddlers and the elementary school set with a mini-zoo and petting area as well.
The zoo is smaller than the typical zoo (about 140 animals) with several exhibits featuring smaller animals like lemurs, parrots, wallabies, and tortoises. The largest and most exotic animals are the jaguar and the dwarf zebu (sized like a cow), in my opinion. You aren't going to see lions, zebras, or giraffes here. There is also a petting zoo area with miniature horses, goats, sheep, etc.
Near the petting zoo are the animal hospital and educational center. We've never seen anyone inside the animal hospital and we've skipped the educational center, so I'm not sure if they have lectures or other planned services for guests.
There are also 3 separate playgrounds/climbing structures: one is near the front of the park by the petting zoo and two are clustered at the back of the park near the "showpiece" Danny the Dragon ride. Unlike the typical playground, this isn't just a slide or two off a platform. Two of them have ropes features (which enable kids to climb up rope nets or walk across a rope bridge), including the large two story high Redwood Lookout structure in the back of the park! There is also a toddler-friendly structure for toddlers and preschoolers (though my 6 year old sometimes follows her younger sister onto it).
My kids love the "telephone" pipe system where green metal funnels connected to one another by pipes. So kids can yell into one and the message supposedly travels to the other end of the pipe.
They also love to run through the Maze, which is slightly sunken in so parents can watch from above as children scramble through it, screaming with laughter. It's amazing how much kids like this, which is basically just a series of half-wall "fences."
The best part in my opinion is that this is an amusement park geared toward younger children. At the entrance is a carousel with a fantastic array of beautifully painted animals to choose from, including unusual ones like a dragon, a hummingbird, a zebra, a manatee, and a bald eage. This is the nicest carousel I've seen and rivals Disneyland's carousels! I think the price of admission is worth it just to ride the carousel.
There are also several other family-friendly rides, most with specific minimum (best for kids 3 and up), including a basic "kiddie" roller coaster with just one dip and a few side loops (Pacific Fruit Express), a ride with police cars and firetrucks with bells your child can ring (Mini Putts) that rotate in a circle like a carousel (best for those 3 and under, and I've even seen 1 year old toddlers who can barely sit up ride this one), Kiddie Swings that also rotate around a central point, the Granny Bugs ladybug ride (which is similar to Dumbo at Disneyland but they don't rise very high), the Frog Hopper (a vertical ride that hops up and down gently), and the classic Danny the Dragon "train" ride.
Only two rides have no minimum height limits (Granny Bugs and Mini Putts), whereas the rest range from 36" - 42" to ride alone. Three of the rides are for children only (as adults won't fit!): the latter two plus Kiddie Swings.
There's also a track near the Granny Bugs for "free play" where kids can wiggle themselves on those bikes that don't have pedals. I have no idea what they're called but you sit on them like a skateboard, hold on to the handles, and then wiggle to make the bike move forward.
There is also a lovely outdoor puppet theater where we've seen productions of Three Little Pigs and Old King Cole. We missed Happy Hollow's production of Ma Lien and the Magic Paintbrush earlier this year because it was playing mid-afternoon during its run and we always leave before 1 pm so we get home in time for our youngest daughter to nap.
There are numerous picnic areas that can be reserved for parties. There are almost always at least 2-3 empty sections, even during the busiest days in the summer. We have never been told to leave when we sit down for lunch one's picnic table. I don't know if they have rules against outside food as they do sell hot food at the Picnic Basket cafe. However, they never search our bags and I often carry in snacks and lunch since my 3 year old has a peanut allergy.
Finally, there is also a face painting station near the cafe andcarousel, though it has limited hours 12-5?). It's about $8 for a full face, $5 for 1/2 face, and $3 for just a cheek.
Tickets currently cost $12.95/person for those ages 2-69. Seniors 70 and older pay $9.95 and kids under 2 are free. Season passes are $35 each and you can apply that day's ticket price to your season pass cost if you buy it before you leave. You also get a $5 discount if you buy 4 or more season prices.
About our Experience
At one point, we were going to Happy Hollow once/month or more, as my kids love Happy Hollow. It is an incredible deal compared to other local parks, since the rides are free once you've paid admission (unlike the Oakland Zoo, where I spent nearly $30 for the rides on top of the admission and parking fees).
Speaking of parking, I bought the parking pass for $80 because otherwise parking is $10 each visit. I do often see folks park across the street at one of the strip malls but that likely adds another 10 minutes to your walk in since Happy Hollow is located inside the 156 acre Kelley Park.
I should mention that we've only walked around the zoo exhibits once, as it's a bit depressing since the exhibits are small and the animals seem sleepy/bored. We spend most of our time on the rides and on the play structures.
My now 3 year old was too scared to ride on the carousel alone until shortly after her 3rd birthday. Yet she would happily sit on the bench on the carousel with me. With our repeated visits, she has now even tried the Pacific Fruit Express, though she was screaming, "Too fast! Too fast!" during the 1 minute ride. Her older sister LOVES this coaster and will ride 5-6 times if crowds allow it. We sometimes find she can ride it 3-4 consecutive times when we get there early enough.
Speaking of timing, we have gone throughout the year and find that arriving right at opening and leaving by 1 pm at the latest affords minimal crowds. The challenge is that during the off-season, not every ride is open. Sometimes they switch staff between rides, so Frog Hopper might be open for 30 minutes before the staff member moves on to run the Granny Bugs ride. This can be frustrating when your favorite ride isn't available for another 30 minutes.
I also should note that despite the massive renovation, some parts of the park still look shabby--like the Danny the Dragon ride. I think the Rapunzel figurine in the Sleeping Beauty castle looks spooky--it's a cheap-looking, old mannequin with ratted dirty hair. Other aspects of this ride also seem decades-old (like the animatronics that help the Big Bad Wolf pop up out of the tree trunk in front of the 3rd little pig's brick house) so we've only ridden it 3 or so times total.
I'm not sure if I'm going to renew my season passes next year, since my 6 year old is starting to grow tired of the rides other than Pacific Fruit Express and Frog Hopper. I think the age range for this page is ideally 3-5. Still, my 3 year seems to enjoy the park immensely and the 6 year old always spends a good 30+ minutes on the Redwood Lookout play structure.
Parents of younger children will find this park a great way to spend the day. Combining a petting zoo, zoo exhibits, and amusement park rides suitable for young kids was a brilliant idea. Happy Hollow's renovation is also an example of how a classic much loved amusement park from the 1960s can be restored to a modern amusement park without losing its charm. It's a lesson Children's Fairyland in Oakland could learn from if they can raise the funds to properly restore that city's classic children's amusement park.