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The Ringling Museum is nestled among the shores of Sarasota, Florida, and is a must-see for any traveler looking to immerse themselves in art and culture. Founded in 1927 by John and Mable Ringling, the complex is more than a museum, it’s a sprawling estate that weaves together history, art, and nature within four main areas – the circus museum, Bayfront Gardens, Ca’ d’Zan Mansion, and Museum of Art.
View of Ca’ d’Zan Mansion
The first stop on your visit is The Circus Museum, paying homage to the golden age of the circus with antique circus wagons, memorabilia, vintage costumes, and even a mini replica circus model of the layout from 1919-1938 with more than 42,000 pieces spanning 3,800 square feet. The Circus Museum first opened in 1948 to honor the memory of John Ringling and showcase the history of the circus.
The circus Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show On Earth came to fruition in 1888 with an exciting new line of costumes, wagons, and new acts, marketing a promising 18 different displays ranging from the Museum of Wonders and Curiosities, Professor Worth’s Museum of Relics and Antiques, 13 performing elephants, 2 droves of Arabian camels, and 2 troupes of stallions. The circus in 1888 had an astonishing 620 employees, 64 railroad cars, 292 horses and ponies, and 382 performances within 192 days.
As the circus grew in popularity in the early 20th century, so did the size of the circus. In its Golden Age from 1919-1938, as many as 15,000 people could enjoy the performances under the big top. The circus traveled across the country with more than 1,300 workers and performers, 800 animals, and all equipment necessary for the giant production. A typical show would last 2.5 hours with no intermission.
With the increase in popularity, the circus now traveled via railway with over 100 railcars and were able to set up and open the doors to guests within a few hours of arrival. The largest tent, known as the big top, could be raised in less than 4 hours – after 6 center poles, 74 quarter poles, 122 sidewall poles, 550 stakes, and 26,000 yards of canvas. Food was delivered to the setup site the same day to feed the more than 1,300 employees with a typical supply including 226 dozen eggs, 285 pounds of butter, 2,470 pounds of meat, and 2,220 loves of bread.
Most of the animals on display were kept in hand-carved and painted wagons. These same wagons were then used for travel with attachable panels that enclosed the animal. Included in the lineup was a sea elephant named Goliath who weighed 3.25 tons and traveled in a specially constructed water tank on the train and was fed 150 pounds of fish per day.
While I don’t condone the parading of animals or their involvement in the circus, it’s essential to acknowledge that the practices of the Ringling Circus were rooted in a different time, reflecting historical norms and attitudes toward animal entertainment that have since evolved.
Banyan Tree on the grounds of Ringling Museum
Stepping onto the meticulously landscaped grounds, you are transported to an oasis with towering, expansive banyan trees against the lavish gardens.
The Rose Garden was completed in 1913 and is an expansive 27,000 square feet. Today, the garden contains 1,200 roses, many of the same species that Mable planted in the garden in the early 1900s. The roses are cut back every February and October, with lively blooms appearing approximately 6 weeks after.
The Secret Garden north of Ca’ d’Zan contains plants that were given to Mable over the years. When Mable died in 1929, the garden was neglected and quickly became overgrown. It wasn’t until years later that the Sarasota Garden Club, which Mable was the first president of, revamped the garden to what it is today – with a variety of bromeliads, succulents, and several Florida plants. It’s just past the garden where Mable, John, and Ida Ringling are buried.
The Dwarf Garden is a whimsical and enchanting area on the estate with various stone characters from commedia dell’arte, an Italian theatrical form that originated in the 16th century, hidden throughout the branching banyan tree and sub-tropical plants.
Ca’ d’Zan Mansion
Ca’ D’Zan Mansion
The Ca’ d’Zan Mansion was a winter home for the Ringling family, completed in 1926 and extending over 36,000 square feet. Ca’ d’Zan is Venetian for “House of John.” The impressive estate contains 56 rooms and cost 1.5 million to construct, taking 2 years to complete.
New Year Architect Dwight James Baum designed the estate with an Italian Venetian Gothic style, using only the best materials such as colored marbled, glazed terracotta, and stained glass.
Mable Ringling only spent 3 winters in the estate before she passed away in 1929 at 54 years old due to Addison’s disease and diabetes.
By the mid-1990s, the mansion had fallen into disarray. The community came together and secured funding to restore the mansion to its glory, with restoration occurring from 1996 to 2002 and costing $15 million.
Museum of Art
Ringling Museum of Art Garden
The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art opened in 1930 with a collection of European paintings from the late Middle Ages to the 19th century. The goal of the museum was to promote art education and appreciation. John Ringling became a collector of art, with over 400 paintings collected in less than 6 years, with his overall collection at over 600 pieces.
John and Mable Ringling married in December 1905 in New Jersey. John was 39 while Mable was 30 at the time. In 1907, the Ringling brothers purchased the circus Barnum & Bailey and 20 years later, moved the winter headquarters to Sarasota, Florida.
In 1911, John and Mable purchased their first home on 20 acres in Sarasota Bay. They became well-known in the community and quickly built up their real estate portfolio in the area, owning more than 25% of Sarasota at one point. John Ringling even founded the Bank of Sarasota in 1923.
In 1927, John Ringling moved the winter quarters of the circus from Bridgeport, Connecticut to Sarasota, Florida, quickly making the city a tourist destination. The circus lot was open for visitors, allowing tourists to even view rehearsals for acts in the upcoming tour.
John Ringing passed away in 1936 from pneumonia at the age of 70. On John’s passing, he bequeathed the estate to the state of Florida. From this point, it was clear the estate needed improvements and tremendous care. The Museum of Art was able to stay open thanks to private donors, however, it was not enough to bring the property to its full potential and maintain enough staffing.
It was Ringling’s first director, Arthur Everett Austin Jr., who created momentum with the establishment of America’s first circus museum which brought in the necessary funds. Arthur continued to foster the Ringling’s love for the arts and live performances with the construction of the Historic Asolo Theater, located in front of the Ringling Museum entrance. The Historic Asolo Theater was originally built in 1798 in Asolo, Italy, and reassembled in Sarasota. Today, the theater is still used for plays, concerts, films, and more inside the John M. NcJay Visitors Pavilion. This theater is accessible on visits to the Ringling Museum.
In 2000, the State of Florida passed governance of Ringling to Florida State University (FSU), making it one of the largest University art complexes in the United States.
Visiting The Ringling
🏛️ Entry to the Museum of Art, Circus Museum, Bayfront Gardens, and a guided tour of the first and second floors of the Ca’ d’Zan.
🎟️ Adults $50, Age 6-17 $30, Under 6 $25, Members $10
❕ The guided tour is 40 minutes. Tickets do sell out quickly.
🔗 Purchase Tickets
Free Admission Mondays
Every Monday, receive free admission to Bayfront Gardens and the Museum of Art. Additional fees apply for the Circus Museum and Ca’ d’Zan Mansion.
Memberships are also available here and range from $75+.
Visiting The Ringling Museum
When is The Ringling open?
|10 AM – 5 PM
|10 AM – 5 PM
|10 AM – 5 PM
|10 AM – 5 PM
|10 AM – 8 PM*
|10 AM – 5 PM
|10 AM – 5 PM
On Thursday, only the Museum of Art and Bayfront Gardens are open after 5 PM.
Closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.
What is The Ringling Museum’s address? 5401 Bay Shore Rd, Sarasota, FL 34243
Should I pre-purchase tickets online? If you are interested in a guided tour, I highly recommend purchasing a ticket online prior to your visit. These tours sell out quickly and chances are you may miss out on the tour if you wait to purchase in person.
Is parking free? Yes, parking is free.
Is food available? Yes, there are several dining options, including:
- The Ringling Grillroom: Open Sunday – Monday 11 AM – 5:30 PM and Tuesday – Saturday 11 AM – 7:30 PM. Reservations are recommended. The menu and reservation system are available here.
- Mable’s Coffee and Tea: Open daily from 10 AM – 5 PM serving beverages and fresh-made salads, sandwiches, and baked goods.
- Ringling Concessions: Open daily from 11 AM – 4 PM and located near Ca’ d’Zan.
You may also bring your own food and picnic in designated picnic areas.
How long does it take to explore Ringling? This depends on how much reading you’d like to do in the museum. For a high-level view of the museums and walking the estate, expect to spent a minimum of 1 hour. If wanting to fully immerse yourself in the history of the museums and explore the grounds, expect to spend up to 5 hours.
Where to stay: Discover the perfect place to stay in Sarasota, Florida, where there’s a wide array of accommodation options that cater to every traveler’s unique needs.
Have you been to The Ringing Museum before? Comment below!
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