Beyond the Big Top: a Ringling’s Sarasota Legacy
For nearly 150 years, the Ringling brothers have been a household name: synonymous with energetic circus performances and dramatic productions. Though “The Greatest Show on Earth” took its final bow in May 2017, John Ringling and his family’s legacy live on in Sarasota, Florida. During my low-season visit to Sarasota I stopped by The Ringling to not just relive my childhood circus-going memories, but to learn more about the family beyond their circus fame.
The Ringling History
John Ringling was once one of America’s richest men -- as well as one of five brothers who created the Ringling Bros. Circus. Eventually acquiring Barnum & Bailey, the brothers became the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus that we know of, today.
As the circus scene evolved over the years, so did its presentation: in 1957 the company decided to leave the "big top" behind and trade traveling white tents for permanent venues. Fast forward another 60 years amid animal rights criticism, high operating costs, and a decline in ticket sales, one might wonder if their legacy would dwindle slowly.
One of Florida’s top tourist cities would beg to differ...
Home to America’s best beach and key Ringling history, Sarasota keeps the Ringling vision alive across 66 acres of meticulously manicured gardens, museums, and some of the state’s most acclaimed attractions -- including the Original Circus museum and a 44,000-piece figurine depiction of the tented circus’ Golden Age.
The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art
I had no idea that John Ringling was more than a circus showman -- that he had a deep love for art, as well. Color me surprised when I learned that in 1930, he and his wife opened six year’s worth of art collections to the public: creating The John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art in hopes of encouraging worldly curiosity.
A replica of Michelangelo's David can be noticed through glass doors upon entry, with an elaborate palace courtyard below him. I strolled between crisp, squared landscaping as the clouds slowly drifted over salmon-colored arches and noticed sculptures dotted along the second-story balcony's perimeter. It was as if they were there to watch us fall in love with the work surrounding us.
The museum itself houses some of the United States' most distinguished art collections. In the style of a Renaissance palace, the museum has 21 original art galleries, a Center for Asian Art, and its first gallery for contemporary art (the latter two established in 2016).
Take a free tour: While visitors are welcome to peruse at their leisure, the museum offers docent-led tours at no additional charge, Tuesday - Sunday. We enjoyed our guide's informative explanations of some of the Ringlings' favorite work.
The Historic Home of John and Mable Ringling
When John and Mable Ringling moved to Sarasota in 1911, they sought to share their love for art and opulence while building Sarasota into a must-visit tourist destination. In the 1920’s they completed their home and started working on the aforementioned art museum in pursuit of this vision.
Under the Sarasota heat, I hopped on the tram -- in hopes of preventing any more sweat from staining my blouse -- and rode down the path toward a glimpse of Ringling home life.
Ca’ d’Zan, meaning “House of John” in Venetian dialect, was John and Mable Ringling’s Sarasota paradise. They’d visit the $1.5M property in the winter to entertain friends, family, and colleagues with extravagant parties. After Ringling’s death in 1936, the home and grounds were entrusted to the state of Florida.
The lavish mansion stands surrounded by a bay-facing terrace decorated with detailed floor tiling, as well as a secret garden, promenade, and rose garden. Stained glass windows in shades of blue, purple, and yellow complement the structure's balcony and column detailing -- making Ca' d'Zan's exterior feel almost Cathedral.
Visit the majestic abode: I took a self-guided tour through this historic home to see some of the Ringlings’ favorite rooms: my favorite being the breakfast room. A separate ticket to visit the house is required and docent-led tours are available for an extra fee (but I found the included first floor self-guided tour to be sufficient).
Visitor and Wellness Information
Here is information for your visit based on my experience. The Ringling is a great attraction for all ages and adequately accommodates people with wellness concerns. Bring sunscreen and plenty of water, as the Florida heat and humidity will follow you while you pass between those air conditioned buildings -- even with overcast.
- Hours and directions: The Ringling is open daily from 10:00 am - 5:00 pm at 5401 Bay Shore Road in Sarasota, Florida. You can reach this destination by car or public bus.
- According to the museum, SCAT bus #30 and #99 provide service closet to The Ringling.
- Tickets: admission prices and event/exhibit listings can be found on The Ringling website
- Accessibility: Complimentary on-site parking (including accessible spaces) and tram service is available. Provided two-weeks notice, visual and hearing-impaired guests can receive additional tour accommodations.
No food or drink is allowed in the galleries, but can be enjoyed on the grounds and in multiple dining establishments. If you need to take your time or don’t do well in the heat, allow for at least 3-4 hours to tour the venues at a light pace.