The Ringling Museums & Mansion are a full day of educational fun! I just love stuff like this. Another must-do during off season. The grandeur and splendor that await at this vast estate are amazing, astonishing, and really cool! The stories behind it all are fascinating. And I thought I heard the voices of various animal handlers and performers whispering to me throughout the day….and maybe Mable herself.
At the entrance you are greeted by a bevy of little old ladies waiting to tell you about different exhibits and shows in the visitor center, hand you programs, sell you tickets and make sure you stay on the walkways! (They are rather strict about this.)
The miniature circus exhibit takes up the entire first building that we decided to check out and is based on the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus from 1919. It took the model builder, whom the building is named after, Howard Tibbals, 50 years to create the finished product, referred to as the “Largest Miniature Circus in the World.” He started building it in college in 1956. Pretty impressive that what started as a hobby turned into a life-long pursuit. The second story of the Tibbals Learning Center was closed for renovation when we were there.
The Circus Museum is the second stop with its musty smell of Grandma’s old steamer trunks and attic, but as is also the case, it is filled with costumes, dresses, trinkets and such that were once treasured by their owners and now tell a story of times past and lives lived long ago. There is a collection of parade wagons, some original, some replicas, the difference pretty apparent, but not always. I just loved the ornate hand carved wooden wheels.
Another exciting find here is the original rail car that John & Mable Ringling traveled in all across the country. Plenty of original woodwork, fixtures and glass are still present in the impressive car circa 1905. The restoration is ongoing.
A refreshing stop at the Banyan Cafe’ centrally located on the grounds was perfect timing for lunch. A couple of college aged guys took our orders, fried up and prepped a few chicken strips and sandwiches and had the most amiable dispositions of those we encountered the entire day. Couldn’t help but notice they were also the only employees who appeared to be under age 60. The food was very good, but pricey for small portions, not surprising though since they are the only option, they have AC, indoor and outdoor seating, and they serve cold beer.
On to the Ca’ d’Zan Mansion, while we quickly finished our ice cream cones before they melted in the heat & humidity that engulfs SW Florida year-round. Owners John & Mable Ringling were so enamored with a particular style of architecture from Venice, Italy, Venetian Gothic, that they built their 36,000-square-foot (that’s right, 36,000, I did not misplace the comma) in that style on the expansive shores of Sarasota Bay which somewhat mimicks the canals of Venice.
Ca’ d’ Zan means “House of John” in Venetian and was apropos since we had Grandpa Jon with us that day. The mansion is heavily roped off and visitors are allowed very limited access to the estate’s 41 rooms & 15 bathrooms. For an extra $5 per person you could access 5 more rooms upstairs, but we declined. Seemed quite restrictive, frankly, what little they would let you tour. Nonetheless, I just loved it!! I could have stayed in there for days daydreaming about fancy dinner parties featuring sideshow acts and a full staff of servants, dessert on the marble terrace overlooking Sarasota Bay while watching the sunset with a couple hundred of your closest friends…ah the life they must have led. By far my favorite part of the day, if I had to choose, which I am glad I didn’t.
Next was the enormous Museum of Art. This place is so big, I almost had to stop and take a nap halfway through. There is almost too much to see…room after room after room. Some of the highlights though are the largest of the paintings, which John Ringling actually built the museum to house. These things are so big!! A single one of these monstrous pieces of art takes up more square footage than my first apartment! You could probably make a day just of the Museum of Art if you wanted.
The courtyard is in the middle of the museum’s two wings. This is a very inspiring location on the property and features casts of original works from the Renaissance, including Michelangelo’s David, in all his glory, as well as many others, several fountains and plenty of flowers and vegetation that stays green all year in this tropical climate.
This was the end of our day at the Ringling Grounds and well worth every dime we spent. There was a special on the tickets that day and I think we spent less per person to see all this than we did at the Sarasota Jungle Gardens just down the road. So if you have limited time in Sarasota–hands down, you must make a day of the Ringling Museums & Ca’ d ‘Zan before devoting time to any other tourist sites. Be sure to have plenty of batteries for your digital camera and take your time wandering through the acres and acres and many thousands of square feet of rich, Ringling estate. And please, be sure to tell Mable I said “Hello” and “Thank you.”