Sarasota: Circus Capital of the World

By: Claire Bullen

November 20, 2014

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls: step right up to the Circus Capital of the World. Sarasota may be known for its sun and seas, but this beachy city also happens to be one of the world’s top destinations for bearded ladies, trapeze artists, and all things three-ring. And while the Sarasota circus tradition stretches all the way back to 1927, the contemporary scene is as vibrant today as it was in its storied past.


For lovers of the circus, one name stands above all others: Ringling. Operated by five brothers, the Ringling Brothers Circus made its debut in the late 1800s, and soon grew in scale and reputation. By 1889, the circus was travelling on trains around the country, and in 1907, it bought rival Barnum & Bailey. At the end of the 1920s, the Ringling Brothers owned every travelling circus in the United States.

Sarasota Circus | Barnum and Bailey
Once the Ringling Bros acquired Barnum and Bailey, they became the country’s biggest travelling circus operator © Collection of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art Tibbals Digital Collection

But it was in 1927 that the big top moved down to Sarasota as its winter home, and when the town’s reputation for showmanship was cemented. Spearheaded by John Ringling and his wife Mable, the move meant the circus could debut winter shows and thus perform all year long. Fame and fortune swiftly grew, and Ringling built himself a sizeable estate in Sarasota.


In town and want to learn more about Sarasota’s founding father of circus? Visitors should make their first stop the fascinating Circus Museum, located on the Ringling Estate – alongside a theatre, gardens, Ca d’Zan (the opulent mansion that belonged to John and Mable), and an impressive Museum of Art.

Sarasota Circus | Ringling Estate
The Ringling Estate comprises a theatre, gardens, circus museum, art museum, and more © The Ringling

Like the show itself, the Sarasota Circus Museum aims to delight viewers of all ages. Collection artefacts include everything from costumes and cannons to historic posters and golden wagons. For those after a bit of the limelight, the museum also hosts regular performances, while young visitors can go for a wobble on a tightrope and squeeze into a clown car in the interactive galleries. The 44,000-piece Howard Bros. Circus Model, the largest model circus in the world, is another collection highlight.


Once you’ve brushed up on all the history, though, no trip exploring the Sarasota circus tradition would be complete without taking in a performance. Though the Ringling Bros touring circus no longer touches down in Sarasota, nearby Tampa frequently hosts the circus. The next performance, of the “Circus XTreme” tour, will be held there on 1st-4th January, 2015.

Sarasota Circus | Ringling Bros
Today, the Ringling Bros touring circus still travels around the country © Ringling Bros

Other performance options include the Circus Arts Conservatory, a highly respected training academy that’s local to Sarasota. The Conservatory is the parent organisation of Circus Sarasota, whose celebrated stars (like tightrope walker Nik Wallenda, a seventh-generation performer) and creative shows inspire wonder. The 65 year-old Sailor Circus – a youth circus academy known as “The Greatest Little Show on Earth” – is also sponsored by the Conservatory; both will unveil new performances this season.

Sarasota Circus | Ringling Bros Circus X-Treme
Ringling Bros are currently touring their “Circus XTreme” show © Ringling Bros

But there’s still more to see – Sarasota isn’t the Circus Capital of the World for nothing. Stop for lunch at Bob’s Train, a restaurant located within a historic circus train carriage, while the Showfolks Club is a circus-themed, non-profit club that caters specifically to those in the industry – though admirers are also welcome.


Whether underneath the big top or tracing Ringling Brothers’ glittering hotel, Sarasota circus culture is as vibrant today as it was almost nearly 90 years ago.


Header image © Circus Sarasota


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By Claire Bullen


Have you experienced the Sarasota circus scene? What are your favourite memories of visiting the circus? Let us know in the comments section below.


Claire Bullen

Claire is a born globetrotter: before relocating to London, she spent time in New York, Paris, Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Francisco. When she's not in pursuit of the next exciting meal, she can be found haunting indie bookstores and sketching outdoors. Follow Claire @ClaireMBullen

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