Sarasota, Florida: The Greatest Circus Town On Earth

I have always been enchanted by circus history. Part of me has always wished that the circus used to be what it was to my grandparents — a grand spectacle that rolled into town on elaborate train cars, and an event that was anticipated for weeks and marveled at from beginning to end. While the circus is still an event, it comes to town in semis, is presented in stadiums, stays for one night, and is then off to the next city. What I wouldn’t give to be able to walk into a true big top tent!

The circus is still very much cherished and alive in the gulf coast town of Sarasota, Florida. The hostess at our hotel brought out a book of old black and white photos of her with six foot tall feather headdresses, performing balancing acts with elegance and grace. Most people who have been in Sarasota for a while have some sort of circus tale to tell. In fact, many generations of circus families still call Sarasota home. The influence of John and Mabel Ringling can be felt all over town, from casual bars downtown to higher end restaurants near the beach. The city and its residents know they have the Ringlings to thank for so many of the great art and culture programs within Sarasota, leaving the city feeling far more cultured and sophisticated than other Florida Gulf Coast towns.

We had the opportunity to tour the Ringling Circus Museum and Ringling estate when we were in town at the end of July, and it is truly a place for every generation. The Ringlings were avid art collectors, and before Mr. Ringling passed he left his entire estate to the state of Florida, allowing his legacy to live on, as well as the legacy of the circus he so dearly loved and that came to define a generation.

  • Sarasota, Florida: The Greatest Circus Town on Earth 1 of 16
    sarasota, Florida

    Learn how one little town means so much to circus fans and historians around the world.

  • Asolo Theater 2 of 16
    asolo theater

    The above theater was built in 1798 in Asolo, Italy. Mable Ringling fell in love with the theater and had it dismantled and sent across the ocean in the 1940's to the Ringling estate in Sarasota, Florida. Having undergone a massive restoration it now houses a range of performances in the visitor's pavilion.

    One thing I noticed about the theater is just how small it is compared to what we are used to today. The setting is far more intimate than any modern or 19th century American theater I've been in. We were treated to a special showcase of Circus Sarasota, worth seeing if it's running while you're in town.

    Image Credit: The Ringling

  • Banyan Trees 3 of 16

    A gift to the Ringlings from Thomas Edison, several enormous Banyan trees decorate the property and expansive gardens on the Ringling Estate. Banyans are the fastest spreading trees in the world, able to cover ground the size of a football field in about 100 years with its roots that grow from the top down. The trees are amazing to see in person.

  • Ca’ d’Zan 4 of 16
    ca d zan

    Ca' d'Zan, or "House of John" lies at the back of the property, a huge mansion comprised of 56 rooms modeled after mansions found in Venice, Italy. When completed in 1925 the total cost came in at around $1.5 million. Ten years ago the mansion underwent an extensive restoration, for $15 million dollars.

    Houses like this simply don't exist anymore, being able to visit one is a treasure. I'd suggest the docent led tour of both the up and downstairs, the self led tour of the main level just wasn't enough.

    Image Credit: The Ringling

  • Ca’ d’Zan Interior 5 of 16
    ca dzan interior

    I find it hard to believe that this entire house was constructed in under two years, the level of detail is amazing and the house is filled with many of John and Mabel Ringling's personal belongings, like Mabel's elaborately beaded dress.

  • Human Cannon 6 of 16

    As part of the circus museum is a large hall filled with old circus vehicles, some original and some replicas. This is 'Bruno Zacchinis Super Repeating Cannon' and just taking a look at the side door/entrance was enough to convince me I would have never made it as a human cannonball.

  • Wagon no. 71 7 of 16
    circus wagon-3

    This cage wagon was built in 1900, was damaged in a menagerie fire in the 1940's and returned to Sarasota to be repaired and restored. I can only imagine what kind of animal it carried in it.

  • Masks 8 of 16

    These masks that went along with old circus costumes could easily fit into a modern day horror movie, but before lavish special effects and expensive modern technology, these masks did the job of creating fantasy in reality.

  • Trying out our circus tricks 9 of 16
    clown car-7

    Addie and I tried out a high wire, a clown car and even riding bareback. It's certainly much harder than I would have thought to stand on a perfectly still horse. (Due to the fragile nature of so many of the artifacts in the circus museum, flash was not allowed.)

  • The Ringlings Rail Car 10 of 16
    Train Car-5

    Among the historic circus vehicles and wagons is John and Mables train car they used to travel the country in. The beautiful interior makes me think I could have easily traveled as a Ringling.

  • Elephant Costumes 11 of 16

    On top is one of the vintage performer costumes in front of a matching elephant costume. On the bottom is the same costume, but in miniature, which brings me to the next amazing thing at the museum: the world's largest miniature circus.

  • Howard Bros. Circus 12 of 16
    howard tibbals

    Howard Tibbals began playing circus at the age of 7 and has never stopped. He's the one man behind the Howard Bros. Circus, the world's largest miniature circus. No detail goes unnoticed by Mr. Tibbals as shown in these photos of his 3/4" to 1' scale model of a classic 1940's circus.

  • The Big Top Entrance 13 of 16
    entrance mini-3

    In addition to modeling everything leading up to the big top, Howard has made mess tents, wagons, train cars and dressing rooms. This was my favorite part of the model, it had to be the most exciting part of going to the circus, stepping into the tent.

  • From above 14 of 16
    circus from above-3

    To give you an idea as to how huge this mini circus is, this is Addie standing above it from more than a story up. The lights even change from morning, dusk to night and back again as you walk through the exhibit.

  • Mess Tent Detail 15 of 16
    mess tent mini-3

    This is probably the best detail shot I was able to get. He has made everything by hand, from tiny corn cobs to little teapots. Much of the detail is hidden under tents or behind other displays. Most people would probably just let that stuff slide, not Howard Tibbals, every inch of his miniature circus is as detailed as the ones at the front and center of the display case.

  • The Circus Museum 16 of 16
    audience mini-3

    The Ringling campus and circus museum so perfectly encapsulate everything that was so over the top and lavish about the golden age of the circus before the depression and during the roaring 20's. It's an amazing history lesson for both young and old and an amazing way to expose kids to where the circus really came from.

    Addie and I both still kind of want to run away with it.

I just learned that of the 42,000+ items in the Tibbals circus, all of them can be packed up into the 55+ train cars. How’s THAT for attention to detail?

For more information on visiting The Ringling, including the Circus Museum, Asolo Theater, Ca’ d’Zan, gardens and art museum, visit

Find more of Casey’s writing on her blog moosh in indy or her Babble Voices site Shutterlovely. She’s also available on twitter, facebook, flickr and Instagram. If you can’t find her any of those places? Check the couch, she’s probably taking a nap.

Article Posted 3 years Ago

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