Step Right Up to the Ringling Museum

A week before the Ringling Bros Circus performed their last show, we made a visit to the Ringling in Sarasota, Florida! The Ringling estate is made up of three main sections, the Circus Museum, Ca d’Zan and the Museum of Art. The last living Ringling brother, John Ringling and his wife Mable owned the entire 66-acre estate and bequeathed it to the state of Florida upon his death. The five Ringling brothers created the circus empire comprised of a 100 rail-car caravan, which crossed the country each season.

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Admission to the estate is $25 for adults but $5 for students so be sure to bring your student id if you have one! The first building you will come to is the Tibbals Learning Center. The center is home to a 44,000-piece re-creation of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus combined shows. Howard Tibbals created all the miniatures starting in his Tennessee basement in 1963. The 3,800 square foot display showcases all aspects of the circus, from unloading the trains to the kitchen tents to the main event in the Big Top! Here we learned the three main sections of the circus that the public sees: the sideshow tent featuring acts like the bearded lady and conjoined twins, the menagerie filled with exotic animals, and the Big Top where the top performers and acts could be viewed!


Next to the expansive model was an interactive room. We tried our hand at tightrope walking to press a button for applause on the other side. I attempted to balance on a very still horse’s back, and fit my 6 ft frame into a tiny clown car! Along with the interactive areas there was also a small theater with circus acts through the ages playing.


Next door to the Tibbals Learning Center is the original Circus Museum, where we arrived just in time to take a guided tour. The museum houses the railroad car fit for the “King of the Circus” aka John Ringling. The railroad car, known as the Wisconsin, has various compartments solely for John and Mable Ringling, including a small kitchen, bedroom, bathroom and large sitting area. Also in this area, volunteer wood carvers restore beautifully carved parade wagons and large handcrafted animals. The volunteers only work one morning a week, so the camel we saw in progress has been under construction for the past seven years!


After seeing the thrills of the circus, we wandered the estate to see more of John and Mable’s home, the Ca d’Zan. Ca d’Zan translates as “House of John” in the old Venetian language. Situated on the edge of Sarasota Bay, the mansion is designed in the Venetian Gothic style, it looks very similar to the Doge’s Palace in Venice, Italy! At an extra cost, tours are offered of the interior of the Ca d’Zan, but we were satisfied exploring the exterior, including Mable’s Ringling Rose Garden, the oldest rose garden in Florida!


The last area on the estate that we visited was the Museum of Art. In 1925, John and Mable hired an architect to build a museum on the property to house their ever-expanding collection of art. The museum offers docent tours throughout the day included in the price of admission. Far from being art connoisseurs ourselves, we tagged along on a docent tour to learn the history behind a few of the paintings before exploring on our own.

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Until we realized how much the Ringling had to offer, we never imagined we would spend so much time there – we were there most of the day and we didn’t even see everything!

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