Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls!

Step right up to the Greatest Show on Earth!

Hear the music. Laugh at the clowns. Be thrilled by the perilous leaps of the acrobats. Marvel at everything the performers do, and when you’re done, relax in the gardens, gaze enraptured at the art of the masters, recline at the seaside pavilion. All this and more awaits you at The Ringling.

Quoting from The Ringling’s website: John Ringling was one of the five brothers who owned and operated the circus rightly called “The Greatest Show on Earth.” His success with the circus and entrepreneurial skills helped to make him, in the Roaring Twenties, one of the richest men in America, with an estimated worth of nearly $200 million.

John and his wife Mable, shared a love of Sarasota, Italy and art. In 1911 they purchased 20 acres of waterfront property in Sarasota and began spending time there. After a few years they decided to build a house and hired the noted New York architect Dwight James Baum to design it. Mable kept a portfolio of sketches postcards and photos of her ideas and wanted a home in the Venetian Gothic style. Construction began in 1924 and was completed two years later at the then staggering cost of $1.5 million. Five stories tall, the 36,000 square foot mansion has 41 rooms and 15 bathrooms. Mable named it Ca’ d’Zan or house of John.

While traveling through Europe in search of acts for his circus, John began acquiring art and gradually built a significant collection. Soon after the completion of Ca’ d’Zan, John built a 21 gallery museum to house his art. John opened the Museum of Art to the public in 1931, two years after Mables death, saying he hoped it would “promote education and art appreciation especially among young people.” Five years later, upon his death, John bequeathed it to the people of Florida.

After John’s death the museum had its ups and downs. John had by the time of his passing, fallen into debt. That along with mechanical upgrades needed, weatherproofing and other maintenance needs caused the museum to languish for a time. Eventually the board was able to raise money to get things done and add other attractions to the property such as a circus memorabilia museum.

Today the estate has many sights to see, the art museum, Ca’ d’Zan, two circus museums, gardens, and walking paths. We foolishly thought it could be done in one day. If you are the kind of person who takes time to appreciate exhibits, allow two days at least.

Regular admission includes the circus museum and art museum.

Ca’ d’Zan is a separate admission and a tour time is assigned to you. With the regular admission it is possible to walk around Ca’ d’Zan just not tour the inside.

Upon entering the grounds, the Tibbals learning center is the first museum you come to. Recent additions have been made to the building specifically to house Howard Tibbals’ amazing collection of circus memorabilia and most importantly to provide a home for his astounding, handcrafted circus model.

Howard Tibbals was fascinated by the circus at a young age. He had an engineering mind and was particularly amazed by the clockwork precision it took to mobilize the circus. He built his first circus train model out of balsa wood at age thirteen. Though he has never worked in the circus himself, that first model led to a lifelong obsession with building circus miniatures. He has been working on his scale model of the circus for over 60 years. There is no adequate way to describe this wonder. I’ll let the pictures do the talking.

The entrance depicts the circus train arriving in the outskirts of town.

The right side shows the industrial areas of the city. The precision of the models is amazing. No matter how close you look, no detail has been left out. Sorry for the glass reflections, hazards of museum photography.

The left side of the aisle shows the trains unloading into the town. Small video screens are strategically placed in certain parts of the exhibit. These video screens show scenes of a real circus performing the actions depicted in the model. In this one, it shows a circus train unloading its cargo.

Here a circus wagon is rolling into town.

The first thing unloaded is the cookhouse. Circus workers build up a good appetite!

Signage gives more information.

Feeding the workers.

Look at the detail!

At this point we have moved into the main room but the shear size of it is still partly hidden. After viewing the exhibit, you can go upstairs to an observation window. This is one view looking down. Only about half or maybe even a third of the model is visible!

Moving around the room, various parts of the circus camp are shown. In this view the elephant performers are making their way to the big top tent.

The cyclist has fallen off the wire, note the medics with a stretcher coming to the rescue.

The clown’s tent.

The walrus tank.

I apologize for the blurry picture but here you can see that every tiny component has been meticulously crafted, down to the beads on the costume. Every piece of this model was made by Tibbals alone. One of the signs states that even the people inside the trucks and the interiors that are not visible are included. He said that even though no one would know they weren’t there, he would know.

Moving around the other side, it’s circus day and cars are in the parking lot. In this picture the light looks a little dim. The model cycles through day and night every few minutes. As the night descends, the lights come on in the model. In this picture it’s becoming dusk.

The midway and concessions.

The menagerie. In this picture it’s night and the lights are on inside.

The big top itself is huge. The trapeze artists and acrobats spin and twirl. This is the one part of the model which includes movement.

Continuing around, we pass the truck repair shop, the dog kennels and the horse tent. I tried to get a picture showing the inside of the horse tent but it just wouldn’t cooperate. As far as you can see into the horse tent the little people with little bridles and brushes are tending to the horses.

Moving back to the outskirts of town people are going about their business as night falls.

Apparently there’s a problem with the power lines, (note the lineman on the pole).

The exhibit continues along the back side of the trains.

…and the trains move on out of town.

Absolutely incredible and believe it or not there was a lot I didn’t show!

Upstairs, as I mentioned, there are observation windows looking down on the model. This is also where Tibbals personal memorabilia collection resides, as well as a workshop and video describing his crafting process.

Looking down on the lobby.

The collection includes props, costumes, personal effects, newspaper articles and many vintage videos showing various aspects of the circus.

Another model builder named Howard Drumm is featured upstairs.

His models are exquisite!

Back downstairs the second wing has circus wagons.

Sarasota Florida was considered the winter quarters of the Ringling circus. The performers spent time training here. There is another Ringling headquarters in Baraboo, Wisconsin. Baraboo was the original home of the Ringling brothers. It was in Baraboo that they established themselves and built up the circus. Circus World museum in Baraboo highlights that part of circus history. It has a world class collection of circus wagons and a shop which restores them. You can also tour the original circus buildings and see circus performances.

This room showcases props and memorabilia from famous circus performers through the years.

Finishing the circus museum we make our way over to Ca’ d’Zan. It’s impressive from a distance. Unfortunately they are doing some construction on the grounds.

Once you get close, the details are even more striking.

The patio and dock at the back.

Steps lead right to the water.

The back of the house.

Detail of the towers.

Balcony detail.

We opted not to take the interior tour and it’s a good thing we didn’t since we ran out of time as it was.

Leaving the house we walked through the gardens. John and Mable and John’s sister Ida are buried in a small, hidden garden on the estate.

The grounds of the estate are lush and tropical, with statuary placed strategically here and there.

Trees drape over each other and roots puddle on the ground.

Mable Ringling loved roses and one of her first projects was to design a rose garden based on an Italian wagon wheel design.

We’ve made a cursory tour of the grounds. There is much more to explore but by this time we were getting tired and decided to take a lunch break.

There are three food options here. A cafe in the art museum, a “contemporary dining experience” in the Visitors Pavilion and the Banyan Cafe near the gardens. We opt for the Banyan cafe. It’s a canvas covered, casual, snack and sandwich shop typical of most museums. I had a turkey sandwich that was fresh and tasty. While we were eating, a large white crane came and perched on the on the other side of the screen. A meal and a show! Speaking of shows, in the summer, The Ringling hosts live circus shows.

I’ll leave you here as this post is long enough. Be sure to join me for part two of The Ringling experience coming up.

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