By Jim Ferri
There’s a multitude of good places to visit in Florida beyond Orlando, South Beach, and the Keys.
One of them is Sarasota, south of Tampa on the state’s Gulf coast, about a two-hour drive from Orlando, three-and-a-half hours from Miami.
One of the best things to do in Sarasota is to visit the Ringling Museum on Ringling’s old 66-acre winter estate.
Incredibly, it isn’t one museum but actually several museums: the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, the Ringling Circus Museum and the opulent Ringling mansion.
They all sit on the shore of the Gulf of Mexico, spread across a beautiful park-like setting with manicured lawns and massive oaks trimmed with Spanish moss. The 1920s estate is now owned and maintained by the state.
John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art
Ringling, a wealthy man, enjoyed art and travel. He and his wife Mable made many trips to Europe, especially to Italy, and as they wandered the Continent, they purchased art for their collection. They also had copies made of classical sculptures, now part of the museum’s collection, which he envisioned as being a component of an art school he planned to build on the estate.
Inside the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, you find numerous galleries that contain late medieval European art, 16th– and 17th-century Italian masterpieces, and 18th-century American works.
It’s an intimate place; it makes you feel as if you’re wandering through someone’s home admiring his or her private collection. If the Ringling museum were in Europe, travelers would rate it as a “must see.”
What sets it apart from many other museums is that it’s not just a place to admire art, but to learn about it. In many rooms you find guide-sheets hanging in a corner, from which you’ll get a better understanding of what you’re viewing.
One of the most beautiful parts of the museum is its inner courtyard that’s filled with sculpture and casts of classical works standing amid pools and fountains. You can get a good view of it all from the benches in the rose-colored colonnade.
You’ll find it to be one of the best small museums in Florida.
The Ringling Mansion: Ca d’Zan
The Venetian-inspired Ringling mansion was named Ca d’Zan by Ringling, which means “House of John” in the old Venetian dialect. It sits upon a vast lawn amid a scattering of statues and several large banyan trees, some of the largest I’ve seen anywhere.
Like everything else in the house, its beautiful terrace overlooking Sarasota Bay is both broad and striking and obviously was used for outdoor entertaining since a wall of stain-glass doors opens onto it from the house.
The Ringling mansion is a home you’d only see in a Great Gatsby-era movie. It’s five stories tall, and 36,000 square feet in all, with 41 meticulously restored rooms (plus 15 bathrooms) and an 81-foot Belvedere tower. It’s a treasure trove filled with beautiful art and tapestries, old Venetian furniture, marble floors, and stained-glass ceilings with crystal chandeliers, just about everything one could desire to live well, really well, during the Roaring Twenties.
The main room of the Ringling mansion, called “the court,” was the focal point for the Ringling’s entertaining. I stood and admired both its size and splendor, with a beautiful inlaid desk in one corner, a piano in another and, across from the grand fireplace, a beautiful Aeolian organ flanked by tapestries and paintings of Ringling and Mable.
The Tap Room made me feel as if I were in a small bar tucked away somewhere in Venice. Behind the bar are beautiful stained glass and painted panels, crowned with, of all things, the horns of a longhorn steer.
The Ringling Circus Museum
You get around the Ringling museum complex on chauffeured golf carts that take you wherever you’d like to go. When we left the mansion, we took one over to the Ringling Circus Museum, which is, in fact, two separate museums.
The first is a nondescript building containing old circus wagons and Ringling’s opulent restored railcar from the original circus. Here you find everything from a ticket booth and the mechanic’s cart (which contains everything to keep the show going), cars that held the animals for the sideshows, as well as a ton of other memorabilia.
The second part of the Ringling Circus Museum and the real star of the show is the Tibbals Learning Center. The center contains an incredible miniature recreation of a circus, which is called the “Howard Bros. Circus,” but is patterned after Ringling’s extravaganza.
The exhibit’s million pieces are built to exact scale (3/4” to the foot) and are amazingly detailed. For example, there are 7,000 miniature-folding chairs in the Big Top, and when folded they fit into the five little wagons, just as they would in the real show. Even more amazing is that one man, Howard Tibbals, created the entire thing over a period of 55 years.
It’s fascinating and shows all aspects of the circus, from the time the train pulls into town, to when the big show is over. It covers an area of 3,800 square feet and is about 1½ times the length of a football field.
As you wander along you hear the sounds associated with each event you’re passing … elephants bellowing, people cheering, grunts, groans, and music. Every 10 feet or so small plaques explain what you’re viewing.
As I was reading one of the plaques, the lights dimmed, and little lights twinkled on inside the tent showing just what it was like at nighttime. Down to the right, I saw a miniature policeman grabbing boys sneaking in under the side of the tent. The entire thing is correct down to the smallest detail. It’s fascinating.
After visiting the miniature circus make sure you go up to the second floor. There you’ll find another interesting exhibit that details the history of the circus from ancient times to the present. You won’t want to miss this either. In fact, you won’t want to miss anything in the incredible Ringling museum complex.
If you’re looking for things to do in Sarasota area or the west coast of Florida, put it at the top of your list and plan to spend a day.
If you go:
The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art
5401 Bay Shore Road
Sarasota, Florida 34243
Tel: (941) 359-5700
Admission: Adults $25 | 65 years+ $23) | US Active Military $15 | Children and college students $5 | Florida Teachers $10