Who doesn’t love the circus?

The magnificent Ballroom!

At The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art (www.ringling.org) in Sarasota, Florida , you’ll see the genius behind “the greatest show on earth.”

John Ringling was not only a circus entrepreneur, but also an art collector and financier, whose estate now includes the Museum of Art, Circus Museum, and Ca d’Zan mansion, all located on 66 acres overlooking the sparkling Sarasota Bay.

Ringling’s art collection, which included paintings by Peter Paul Rubens, Velazquez, Poussin, Van Dyck, and other Baroque masters, was left to the people of the State of Florida in 1936. The collection has since been expanded to include American art, antiquities from Cypress, Asian ceramics, drawings, photographs, sculpture, and contemporary art.

The Ringling Mansion - Ca d'Zan.

The Circus Museum was added in 1948, to honor Ringling’s career as the circus tycoon who united the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circuses in 1907. And the beautiful Venetian Gothic mansion, Ca d’Zan (old Italian for “House of John”), which was built between 1924 and 1926 for $1.5 million, offers visitors a glimpse into the wealth and opulent tastes of its owners.

The mansion's Solarium.

Mable Ringling became enchanted with Venetian buildings on the couple’s many travels and personally collected sketches and photos to incorporate into the design of the house. What was once the Ringling's winter home has now been completely restored and includes many of the couple’s personal possessions on display in the 32 rooms, six guestrooms, and 15 bathrooms. (When you’re in the ballroom, don’t forget to look up so you won’t miss the murals representing the most popular dances of the time.)

While a visit to Ca d’Zan and the Art Museum are well worth the time (as an interior design/architecture writer, I was especially taken with the mansion, which included an informative guided tour), it’s the Circus Museum that will probably tickle your fancy the most (especially if you have children in tow).

Original memorabilia abounds
in the Circus Museum.

In 1952, the Academy Award for Best Picture was given to the film “The Greatest Show on Earth,” which is still considered the greatest of all circus films. The movie, released in 1951, used actual footage taken of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus on the road and in Sarasota at its winter quarters. Inside the Circus Museum you’ll see not only photographs of the filming and model trains created by Paramount Studios for the train crash scene in the movie, but also vintage circus posters, an exhibition on the history of the American circus, videos and interactive displays, and the Howard Bros. Circus, the largest miniature circus in the world, built to scale, including 55 railroad cars, eight circus tents, 130 circus wagons, a 200-animal menagerie, and 1,500 artists and workers — all an authentic replica of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus during the late 1930s. (For those who have their own circus fantasies, sign up for a class at the Flying Trapeze Academy & The Flying Fantasy Circus.)

Of course, you can’t visit the Sarasota area and ignore the beaches; located along Southwest Florida’s Gulf Coast, Sarasota is situated between Tampa and Ft. Myers and is comprised of a string of eight islands — Sarasota, Longboat Key, Lido Key, St. Armands Key, Manasota Key, Siesta Key, Casey Key, Englewood, Nokomis, North Port, Osprey, and Venice.

Gulf Coast beach bums.

Sarasota ’s reputation as a beachlovers’ paradise is well-deserved. On Siesta Key, for example, you’ll find the baby powder-white sands of Siesta Key Beach, Crescent Beach, and Turtle Beach . It’s no wonder that the area is consistently recognized as one of the best beach destinations in the country.

There’s still yet more to do in Sarasota; other attractions include:

Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, www.selby.org, a world orchid center with more than 20,000 exotic tropical plants on Sarasota ’s downtown waterfront.

Mote Aquarium, www.mote.org, with a shark habitat, manatee, and sea turtle exhibits, stingray touch pool, and a new high-tech cinema.

Sarasota Jungle Gardens , www.sarasotajunglegardens.com, the city’s oldest attraction with bird and reptile shows and a kiddie jungle.

Lookout for beachcombers.

Asolo Theater Company, www.asolo.org, performing a repertory of classics and new works at the Florida State University Center for the Performing Arts.

And for a relaxing afternoon or evening, visit charming St. Armands Circle on St. Armands Key, where you can enjoy dining al fresco and then browse the many upscale shops (there are enough ice cream stores though to keep the little ones busy while you’re window shopping). Free jazz concerts are held on Friday evenings.

For more information on Sarasota and her attractions, visit See Sarasota, www.SEE-Sarasota.com

By Carol Sorgen, Baltimore Jetsetters Magazine Correspondent.