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The Ringling in Sarasota is a Museum and Much, Much More

It's not easy to put your finger on just one thing the Ringling is, because it's a lot of different places all sitting on 66  acres of waterfront property in Sarasota. It has enough gardens to inspire even those with the blackest of thumbs, it has a circus museum for kids and adults, a world class museum of art, and Ca' d'Zan, the winter private residence of John and Mable Ringling, which is now a historic landmark open for tours.

Just out of the welcome center is the Circus Museum. As well as being a businessman and art collector, John Ringling is best known for his traveling circus.

The circus museum features exhibitions of circus history and memorabilia including  vintage posters, exploding with color advertising the different acts visitors could see when they bought a ticket. One of the exhibitions is dedicated just to the ladies of the circus.

And, then there is the walk-a-round recreation of the circus itself in perfect scale miniature. It  does an amazing job of capturing the excitement of what it was like in the early 20th century when the circus rolled into town.

Credit M. S. Butler
The miniature recreation of the big top as it was seen in small town American in the early 20th century.

The detail invested in these tiny figures is so real you can almost feel the sawdust under your feet, hear the sound of animals, and smell the popcorn.

The next stop is the building that houses the train cars that carried the circus from one small American town to the next, including the residence car of John and Mable Ringling. This 65 ton, 79 foot long Wisconsin Railroad car carried the Ringlings in style. It is beautifully restored and a reminder it was good to be king of the circus.

Outside of these buildings I walked through the acres and acres of gardens including the rose garden, patterned by Mable Ringling after the gardens she visited in Italy. This is a dream location for gardeners, photographers or just anyone who admires  beautiful things.

Credit M. S. Butler
One of the many varieties of roses to be seen in the Mable Ringling Rose garden on the grounds of the Ringling in Sarasota.

The rose garden is surrounded by  groves of banyan trees sitting in fern beds as thick as deep snow.
To the southeast end of the property sits the Ringling Museum of Art a 21-gallery, world-class museum opened in 1931. It features works by greats such as van Dyke and Rubens. It's not unusual to round a corner and find an art student with pencil and sketch pad in hand learning what they can from the old masters.

The courtyard gardens feature replicas of Greek and Roman sculptures and is watched over by a bronze replica of Michelangelo's David that must be 20 feet tall.

Credit M. S. Butler
The courtyard gardens outside the Ringling Museum of Art. The courtyard is also frequently the site of concerts.

But for me the highlight of the afternoon was time spent in the winter home of the Ringlings Ca' d'Zan.

This is Downton Abbey meets American ambition.

Credit M. S. Butler
The grand court room where John and Mable Ringling entertained guests at Ca' d'Zan.

Once again inspired by Venetian design, this is a five story, 36 thousand square foot mansion with 41 rooms. It  has 15 bathrooms.

If you want to take a few minutes and relax you can kick up your heels on the back patio that continues in steps down to the gulf waters. The gulf is calm today so the water just quietly laps at the steps, which like the patio is already washed end to end in Italian marble.

Ron McCarty has taken care of the house and property for 34 years and he's been a busy man.

"Well, I'm the curator and keeper of the property, so I oversaw the restoration of Ca' d'Zan with an entire team. And then of course I'm in charge of every aspect of the interior. I write books about the Ringling's history. I really do a lot a with the legacy of the Ringlings."

Ron and I decide to take a walk up to the tower at the highest point of the house so I can get a good look at the surroundings.

It's so quiet - nothing but the sounds of the wind and the water.

Ron tells me the Ringlings owned everything they could see from here. And what a view it is.
On the grounds of the Ringling there's so much here that leaves you with the impression the Ringling family knew all about taking the time to stop and enjoy the view.


M.S. Butler joined WUSF in October, 2014 after becoming the first recipient of the Stephen Noble Intern Scholarship. A Bay Area resident since 1999, he became a full-time student at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg in Fall 2012.He has written articles for the school newspaper The Crow’s Nest covering topics ranging from seasonal flu shots to students carrying guns on campus.