The Early Years - 1950’s

In the1950’s, people from all over the USA fell in love with Disneyland, and wanted some place like Disneyland in their home town.  Jaycees, Alden Campen and Ernie Renzel (former Mayor of San Jose) took this dream to heart, and following Oakland’s lead (the creation of Oakland’s Fairyland), approached City “fathers” in 1956 with the idea of developing a children’s park on property owned and for sale by the Kelley Family (the property was on the market before Mrs. Kelley died and the family wanted to subdivide property).

The City of San Jose didn’t have funds so told the Jaycees the City couldn’t help financially, but supported the concept. Campen and Renzel were not deterred by this set back, and they approached the Kelley family to buy 7.5 acres at the north end of today’s Kelley Park, on the City’s behalf for $300,000 (the City paid the Jaycees back in increments over several years).

Now that there was a location, the Jaycee’s moved quickly to involve the community by advertising a Park Naming contest in the newspaper in March 1957. As we now know, it was Gary Shippam’s submittal of “Happy Hollow” that won the contest.

For the next few years the Jaycees worked tirelessly to make Happy Hollow a reality by soliciting sponsorships, donations and commitments from community groups to fund and build “Project X”. They formed a non-profit organization, Happy Hollow Corporation, to insure its success, and named Daryle O. Chapman of San Francisco the display designer. In 1957, voters showed their support for Happy Hollow and parks in general by passing a $2.5 M Bond to purchase an additional 50 acres for Kelley Park as well as the purchase of 12 park sites.

Construction began in 1958 with the creation of a pond system and pathways, a parking lot, restrooms, and the purchase of the Viking Ship Life boat (for $1!!) from Navy shipyard in Benicia. Over the next 2 years, “Recreation Leader”, Ralph Rosendin built many pond features (“Tiki Heads”), Tree House and Monkey Island. Campfire Girls planted 700 trees, Danny the Dragon was purchased ($15,500 included ½ mile of track), and a paddle wheel/stern wheel boat (USS Happy Hollow) was built. Donations received from service groups purchased twin slides, built the Puppet Theatre, the Maze, the “children’s size firehouse”, amphitheatre and birthday areas. 

1957 - 1960
Llama Pen 1960's Penguins 1960's
Park 1970's Sun Bears 1960's
Zoo 1960's Zoo Van 1960's
Johnnie Ferea being crowned Letter announcing Johnnie Ferea's selection as King of Happy Hollow
Johnnie Ferea being crowned "King of Happy Hollow" on April 4, 1962! See accompanying letter from Mr. Lickwar, Happy Hollow Director. Letter announcing Johnnie Ferea's selection as King of Happy Hollow.

Open for 4 Decades

It was a very exciting time seeing the 40 foot lifeboat transported down Highway 101, and Danny the Dragon arriving by truck down the Alameda. Shortly before opening, Monkey Island (later remote controlled boats) was constructed and plans were made for a seal tank and fish concession. In March 1961 Happy Hollow Park opened its’ gates charging 10 cents per child and 15 cents for adults admission.

Delightful attractions continued to be added. In the summer of 1964 the “Happy-Go-Round” that featured 24 horses and chariots (later is would be re-themed as King Neptune’s Carousel) was added along with the Octopus designed by Ronald Skolmen. Shortly after that, the Mini Putt-Putt Car ride and the little Merry-Go-Round were moved from Alum Rock Park to Happy Hollow.

Three years later, in 1967, a separate area was created for Zoo animals to the east of Happy Hollow, and in 1972 the two areas were connected through an expansion of the meadow. The separate entries were made into one new entrance in 1976, a snack bar, new animals and the Crooked House were also added. Many will remember that the annual Snowman Building Contest (a fund raising event) was held in this same meadow beginning in September 1978.

Improvements and additions continued into the 1980’s. In 1979, the Kelley Park Express Train, linking Happy Hollow to the History Park opened in Kelley Park, and the Mine Ride Coaster was installed. Then, in the mid 1980’s the Granny Bug ride and a new play area in the Crooked House meadow were installed, the roller coaster was replaced with another, and remote controlled boats were installed where Monkey Island had been. 

Also during this time, many improvements were made in the zoo in conjunction with Mayor, Janet Gray Hayes proclaiming June 1982 “Zoo Month”. Throughout the late 1980’s and mid 90’s, the animal cages were being transformed into animal friendly exhibits, animals were being exhibited in family groups, and a Zoo education program began using a portable building that was donated by Happy Hollow Corporation. All of these improvements enabled Happy Hollow Zoo to be accredited for the first time in 1993 with the American Zoo and Aquarium Association.

Flooding of the Coyote Creek and the need for future planning lead to Happy Hollow’s first Master Plan in 1994. While funding was being identified for this $50M plan, renovations of many of the 1960 attractions and infrastructure were completed including the installation of the Kids’ Cafe. Improved exhibits – more like habitats were being created by Zoo Director, Lutz Ruhe, and in 1998 the Zoo was reaccredited by American Zoos and Aquariums.

The Current Evolution

San Jose residents, again, supported Parks by passing the 2000 Parks Bond Act which allocated $52 million to HHPZ for the master plan build out (and additional funds for neighborhood parks and community centers). With this promise of funds, the 1994 master plan was reviewed and updated. While plans were drawn, specifications written, details specified and contractors identified for the construction that would begin in 2008, many smaller improvements occurred including the demolition and replacement of the 1967 Jaguar cage with a naturalistic day exhibit and night house (using additional funds donated on site from visitors), the demolition of a 1967 aviary which was replaced with a black and white lemur habitat, the removal of the old hippopotamus pool and addition of a faux tree trunk (night house) for the muntjac deer, and the addition of new exhibit for the Ring-tailed lemurs. 

The Park closed its gates after 46 years on July 9, 2008, for a $72 million green renovation. The scope of the project included the renovation of the 12 acres of existing ride areas and Zoo, as well as adding 4 additional acres to the facility which include several new animal exhibits, Veterinary and commissary buildings, Education Center, Guest Services and Gift Shop, Restaurant, new parking lot and pedestrian bridge, and updated the facility to meet all ADA requirements.  The New Happy Hollow combines innovative green architecture with whimsical fun and will be applying to become Silver Certified under the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED® (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) program. 

The gates to the new Happy Hollow Park & Zoo opened on March 20, 2010, 49 years after the original gates opened in March 1961. 

In 2011 Happy Hollow Park & Zoo celebrated its 50th anniversary!


 Association of Zoos and Aquariums Happy Hollow FoundationSpecies Survival Plan