What to Expect on a Visit to the Ringling Museum
After parking in the shady car park, head for the main Visitor Center where maps, information, and tickets are available. There is also a tasteful Museum Store and the lovely Treviso Restaurant overlooking the lake and fountains.
Roll up, roll up for all the fun of the circus! For most visitors, the first stop will be at the Tibbals Learning Center which houses the first part of the Ringling Circus Museum. After stopping to admire the beautiful circus mural and watch the short introductory film, wander around the 3,800 square foot model of a typical travelling circus in the early 20th century. The scale and logistics of having such a show on the road become apparent as you enjoy this beautifully recreated circus “village” of animals, wagons, tents, sideshows, and rail cars that transported 1300 workers and performers, plus 800 animals over 15,000 miles each year!
In the Golden Age of the Tented Circus (1919-1938), circuses such as Barnum and Bailey, Howard Bros, and the Ringling Brothers would cover 150 towns erecting a Big Top to seat 15,000 visitors. The model is beautifully made and can be viewed from all angles to see the crowd, animals, tents, and performances along with railroad carriages and animal cages in the menagerie. The atmosphere is perfectly staged with lively circus music, lion roars, and laughter playing in the background.
Once you can tear yourself away, the second floor has a colorful collection of memorabilia, showcased miniatures, costumes, videos, and exhibits which all build up the picture of the workings of a 1920s circus. See the glorious bandwagon that was pulled through the streets of New York City by 40 black horses ahead of the traditional street parade and enjoy the interactive exhibits which are part of this display.
The neighboring museum is just as amazing with galleries of hand-carved animal wagons and the restored “Wisconsin” Railroad Car used by John and Mable Ringling and their friends. Built in 1905 by Pullman, the private railroad car was 79 feet long, 10 feet wide and 14 feet high and it lacked nothing. Stained glass, decorated domed ceilings, a kitchen, observation lounge, dining room, and staff quarters have all been restored to their former luxurious standard. The three staterooms had upper and lower berths which converted into sofa seating, washstands, toilets, and even a full-size bathtub!
During the winter, the circus originally rested at its winter quarters. From 1928 onwards, Sarasota was the chosen winter destination for the Ringling Circus, known as the Greatest Show on Earth. The mild weather allowed shows to continue throughout the winter for the first time.
Grounds and Gardens
Visitors are sure to enjoy the pleasant gardens of the Ringling Estate which include Mable’s Rose Garden, the Secret Garden where John and Mable are buried, the Dwarf Garden and the Millennium Tree Trail.
The extensive grounds are laid to grass and planted with mature specimen trees including sabal palmettos, Florida’s state tree, and 13 historic banyan trees with their distinctive aerial roots. There is a small lake and the property overlooks the calm Sarasota Bay towards Longboat Key. There is ample seating in wicker-style chairs for visitors to relax and enjoy the beautiful surroundings.
Ca’ d’Zan Mansion
Built in Venetian Gothic style, the five-story mansion was completed in 1926 and was lavishly furnished for John and Mable Ringling. The name “Ca’ d’Zan” is Venetian and means “The House of John.” The pink sandstone exterior is unusually decorative and very colorful with tiled decoration, an ornate balcony, wrought iron work, and Moorish-style windows. When the mansion was built, money was clearly no object and the huge terrace overlooking Sarasota Bay is of various colorful patterned marbles enclosed by a fabulously ornate balustrade. Take a seat and enjoy the sea breeze, watching the sailing yachts, fishing boats and cruisers on the water, as John and Mable no doubt did long ago.
When you arrive at the entrance to the museum, check the tour times of the house for availability and take a self-guided tour through the lovely first floor of the house. Other optional tours and docent-led tours of the upper house and tower are also available for an additional fee and photography is allowed, without flash.
The ground floor tour begins in the solarium at specific times and then progresses through the gilt carved doors into the ballroom, foyer with its grand piano, furnished central “court” or living room, breakfast room, pantry, and kitchen. There is also a formal dining room and a quaint Tap Room, complete with bar. Many of the formal rooms have beautifully decorative coffered ceilings and there are displays of silverware, dinner services and flatware in the cupboards, just as the family would have left it.
Ringling Museum of Art
Finally, head to the pink colonnaded buildings which were completed in 1929 to house John Ringling’s considerable art collection. The Renaissance-style buildings surround a sunken Italian courtyard garden complete with gushing fountains, water features, potted bougainvillea, and many statues, including a replica of Michelangelo’s David. The original was initially installed at the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy.
Complimentary docent-led tours of the art museum are available at certain times to help you get more from your visit to this impressive legacy of artworks, or you can stroll through the galleries reading the exhibit labels. There is also a 30-minute film of the lives of John and Mable Ringling.
The museum has some circus-themed artworks and sculptures as well as wonderful masterpieces by Rubens, van Dyck, Titian, El Greco, Gainsborough, and Velazquez. Many of these were purchased by Ringling from collections made when grand European country houses closed and sold off their assets, accumulated during the traditional Grand Tours of Europe in the 18th century.
Two of the galleries in the art museum were historic salon interiors bought from the Astor mansion in New York City prior to the demolition of the house in 1926. As you pass from room to room appreciating this remarkable legacy, you are sure to find some favorites in the paintings, silverware, statues, busts, and 20th century photographs which make up this eclectic museum.
Along with the house and gardens, this remarkable art collection was bequeathed to the state of Florida when John Ringling passed away in 1936. It is now the State Art Museum of Florida, a national treasure, giving pleasure to many thousands of visitors each year.