The Ringling Museum has been on my list of places to visit all summer. This 66-acre estate is more than a one-note museum of circus history. It takes you on a journey of what life was like as a member of the Ringling Circus. Visitors are also given a glimpse of the private lives of the Ringling family by visiting the extravagant Ca’ d’Zan mansion. The winter home of John and Mable Ringling, this estate on the shores shines like the treasure chest of precious gems on Sarasota Bay.
Where to Start – Circus Museum One
There are two dedicated circus museums on the property. The first museum immerses visitors in the life of a circus performer. A large portion of the museum is taken up by a ¾ scale model depicting not only the big top three-ring circus but the behind-the-scenes support staff needed to make the performances a success. Exotic animals alone required ample space to be fed and dressed for each performance. The communal tents for the performers and crew to sleep, as well as the kitchen to provide for the entire circus, had to be set up in a precise manner to ensure they were out of sight from the magic happening under the Big Top. The circus coming to town was like a city moving into a rural community. Schools and local businesses would close to allow everyone to spend the day enjoying all the wonders of the circus.
Once we fully circled the scale model, we moved along to the second portion of the museum. This is where we tried our hand at becoming circus performers. Costumes of notable acrobats and jugglers are displayed throughout the room. My mom tested her tightrope walking skills across a slightly elevated thin metal rod. Needless to say, she wouldn’t have a very long career if her job was to traverse the Big Top on a one-inch wire.
On another test your circus skills display, we further proved circus performing is not in our blood. Elevated less than a foot off the ground, trying to pose for a picture on a static plastic horse proved tricky. I can’t imagine riding around an arena on an actual moving horse. After almost giving up on our dreams of running away to join the circus, we found where we belonged, in the clown display. My youngest sister squeezed into the tiny clown car while I decided a pair of oversized roller skates would be my clown niche.
In the background, a video tutorial on how to apply clown makeup played on repeat. This tutorial wasn’t anything different from the beauty gurus I watched on YouTube, packing layer after layer of makeup products on their faces. Compared to the beauty gurus, this clown wasn’t applying nearly as much product to his face. In the end, the results were the same. The person we saw at the beginning of the tutorial was virtually unrecognizable by the time the look was completed.
Circus Museum Two
The second circus museum is focused on the history of the circus. Displays of unicycles and marketing fliers are delicately displayed in glass shadow boxes. Portraits of the Ringling Brothers hang in the hall, each displaying a more impressive mustache than the last. As we serpentined past the circus timeline, we found ourselves outside of John Ringling’s train car. As the Ringling Circus crisscrossed the country, this train car was his primary residence. It was the first car to arrive in a town buzzing with anticipation for the circus’s arrival.
Fully restored, this mansion on wheels features plush velvet seats, solid wood walls decorated with intricate stained glass windows, and a parlor for business contracts to be reviewed or guests to visit before arriving in the next city. The opulence of this train car was the prequel to their mansion before John and Mable built the Ca’ d’Zan.
The Ringling’s Winter Home – Ca’ d’Zan Mansion
At the water’s edge of the Sarasota Bay sits the Ca’ d’Zan mansion. This Mediterranean-style home will leave your eyes dancing around the room to capture all the details. Painted murals cover large areas of the walls. Marble columns vault your eyes towards the kaleidoscope of pastel-colored glass and intricately painted beams on the ceiling. There are subtle nods throughout the home that reminded me of the circus. Marble floor and the rainbow-stained glass illuminating the perimeter of the house are bursting with color and excitement, you are transported back 100 years, to the inside of a circus tent. Some people may see this maximalist style as over the top, but the whimsicalness of the Ca’ d’Zan is joyful and bright, just like the Ringling Circus itself.
After meandering around the gardens, we found ourselves at the Museum of Art. The building is a beautiful pink renaissance-style palace with 21 art galleries. Centered in the courtyard are copies of iconic sculptures, like Michelangelo’s David. Inside the gallery, room after room is filled with Baroque art collected by the Ringlings on their travels through Europe.
Where To Eat After
Many of us were wearing blisters into our feet by this point in the day, and staring at paintings from the renaissance period was not sparking an emotion other than exhaustion. After a long day, we were in search of food to regain our strength. Not far from the Ringling, we found Wicked Cantina. This Austin-style Tex-Mex restaurant was the perfect place to satisfy everyone. The menu featured tacos, burgers, and seafood, along with gluten-free and vegan options. We shared guacamole and cantina dip appetizers as we talked about our favorite parts of the day and shared photos of one another. The enchiladas were the perfect meal to recover from a long day of pretending to be a part of the circus.
With full stomachs, we drove back over the Skyway Bridge towards home. Our time at the Ringling Museum was a much-needed day to get together with the girls. The day was a mix of learning about the culture of the circus, and a peek behind the curtain of the private life of John Ringling. In a way, maybe a slight reflection of our own family circus.
Driving down the highway, I tried to imagine what life would be like cramped in a train car traveling across the country. I wondered what type of circus performer I would be; I already tried my hand at aerial silks, and that didn’t go over so well. Maybe the trapeze or the Wheel of Death could be my circus talent. I guess we’ll never know; unless I decide to run away to join the circus.
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