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The Garden East of Eden 

Is it a dream -- or an obsession -- when someone pours a $75 million fortune into an amusement park, based on trees, located in Gilroy?

Wednesday, Mar 6 2002
On a truly spectacular February day in Gilroy, Calif. -- the sun gloriously unhindered by clouds, the temperature comfortably in the mid-70s -- the world's first tree-themed amusement park looks like death.

But Lynda Trelut is undeterred.

The park's self-described "queen" is convinced she can convey the majesty of Bonfante Gardens, even after its near-fatal experience this winter. Trelut is a harried-looking woman with long white hair and oversize, red-framed sunglasses; accepting her description of the potential of the 75-acre, 50-amusement theme park mostly involves a lot of imagination.

Looking out at a boarded-up row of huts that used to house games of chance, she says: "I know it looks like U-Save Storage right now, but it's very popular."

Her take on a giant, gravel-filled lake bed: "This is a beautiful lagoon."

An agricultural derivation on the old Pirate Ship ride: "This is the ride, when you're walking into the park, and you hear all these people screaming, "Aaaaaaaaaaah!' and then you look up and see this giant banana shooting out of the trees."

Today, though, the Banana is idle, the park silent.

In a normal year -- the kind 18-month-old Bonfante Gardens has yet to know -- the park would be bustling with staff, bracing for tomorrow's weekend crowds. If everything were going wonderfully, the immaculately landscaped pathways would not be lined with dried-up leaves and dead flower bulbs a skeleton landscaping crew hasn't attended to. Trelut looks at the mess and sighs. "This will all come back," she says. "But you don't take any of this stuff out until it's time, and it's not time yet."

Bonfante Gardens will not open until May 11, giving it at best an abbreviated season after it closed its inaugural season 13 weeks early last year. False starts, late starts, dead plants, and gravel surely are not what Trelut's brother, Michael Bonfante, envisioned when, after 23 years of planning, he sold a successful 26-store grocery chain and used some $75 million in proceeds -- nearly his entire fortune -- to build a dream.

An amusement park.

Based on trees.

In Gilroy, Calif.

In building his theme park, Bonfante spared no expense or effort, traveling to parks all over the country for decades, becoming a regular at industry conventions. He agonized over the placement -- and re-placement -- of every tree, rock, and pond on a picturesque, tree-nestled hillside of 75 acres. He bought the oldest, rarest, and priciest of rides and other amusements. And he did it all in the hope of creating a park that would make other people see trees with the wonder he does.

But, when attendance fell short of projections and costs exceeded them, the park ran out of money. Bonfante Gardens closed early, and the financial situation got so dire this winter that Bonfante -- the former grocery magnate -- had to use his Gilroy home as collateral for a bank loan to save the park. A less committed, more practical person might have given up, but when it comes to his tree-themed park, Bonfante doesn't seem all that interested in practicality.

After a frantic winter of finding, and then losing, new financing for Bonfante Gardens, he has succeeded -- for now, at least -- in saving the park that has absorbed much of his life, and most of his fortune. It will reopen in May, and he says he has no regrets or doubts about what he's done, or is doing. "This isn't a business venture. It's a labor of love," he says. "You do whatever you have to do."

Because individuals long ago ceded the theme-park-building industry to movie studios and multinational corporations, the people who watch the theme-park business closely find 60-year-old Michael Bonfante to be an enrapturing throwback to names like Walt Disney and Angus Wren (the founder of Six Flags).

Even when mavericks do build theme parks, they tend to pitch their ideas to large groups of deep-pocketed investors, who bankroll the projects. But not Bonfante, who -- unable to find institutional investors for the unprecedented theme of, simply, trees -- paid a reported $75 million out of his own pocket toward the project. "This never would have happened traditionally," he says in a deadpan tone. "There's probably a lot of distance between somebody like myself and a banker. What we were doing was totally unprecedented. ... No one was going to lend money to a nut like me."

"Most people within the industry thought what he was doing was kinda cool," says Tim O'Brien, an editor at Amusement Business magazine, which awarded Bonfante its "Difference Maker" award last year. "He probably spent more of his own money on this than anyone since the guys who started Six Flags back in Texas in '61.

"Building a park that size without corporate backing is unheard of."

But nothing was going to keep Bonfante from making his park. To understand why, you have to understand the depth of what can easily be seen as an obsession ... with trees.

As obvious as it sounds, Michael Bonfante got into trees for the shade. "I was looking for some big shade trees for our house," he says. "And I couldn't find any. So I decided to grow them myself." What followed, as he describes it, was a kind of seamless transition from shade-seeker to arbor freak. The nursery turned into a successful side business, and, in the process, Bonfante became obsessed.

"Michael truly believes that trees can open up a whole new world for people, and he really wanted to share that," says John Kent, a longtime business associate. "One of his favorite pastimes is pruning. You've got to watch him do it. He explains why he's clipping each branch in such a detailed way ... you can't help but admire his passion."

Alan Oteri, a friend of Bonfante since the two played Little League baseball together, says Bonfante's focus -- and tendency to be consumed by what he focused on -- was always apparent. "If it hadn't been trees, it would have been something else," Oteri says. "He was the same way with the grocery stores. He'd work until a normal person would drop."

About The Author

Jeremy Mullman


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