Sarasota-America’s Circus City
Sarasota – “America’s Circus City” – isn’t just for circus fans.
The immense influence of the Ringling Brothers – particularly circus magnate John Ringling and wife Mable – gave the history of this city of some 51,000 a three-ring swing. Today, it attracts thousands to view remarkable circus memorabilia, a world-renowned art collection, vast gardens and the opulent mansion owned by the circus magnate.
Setting your sites on the circus
The Ringling Museum of Art, the Mable Ringling Rose Garden and the 56-room Ringling mansion dubbed “Ca d’Zan” (“House of John” in Venetian dialect) are among “must-sees” in this multicultural center of Sarasota County, says Jan Thornburg, the city’s public information officer. Sarasota and environs are “known as Florida’s cultural coast because there are so many activities,” said Lynn Hobeck Bates, media liaison for www.VisitSarasota.org. “We have an opera, a performing arts hall, a multitude of theaters and an orchestra.”
A touch of history
The first “visitors” to Sarasota some 500 years ago were explorers – Ponce de Leon and Hernando de Soto among them. De Leon “found” his fabled Fountain of Youth which, today, is the site of the Warm Mineral Springs Spa. De Soto was immortalized by John Hamilton Gillespie, a Scottish aristocrat and lawyer who built the DeSoto Hotel on Main Street in 1902. Gillespie was also the city’s first mayor, elected in 1902.
Sarasota was strongly influenced by Scots. Also, a thriving Amish community living in “500 tiny homes” calls Sarasota their seasonal home, says Hobeck Bates. Nearby is Northport, largely Ukrainian.
He and four other Ringling brothers started the famed under-the-big-tent spectacular in 1894. Thirteen years later, they acquired the Barnum & Bailey Circus and offered spectators the combined clout of “the greatest show on earth.” The circus, along with investments in rail lines, oil and 30 other enterprises, brought John Ringling vast wealth. John and Mable acquired an inestimable collection of art – including more than 600 Baroque masterpieces and a Peter Paul Rubens collection considered the finest in the world.
The 66-acre Ringling estate includes the art museum, the “Ca d’Zan” mansion and theater reflecting Italian Renaissance architecture that Ringling loved. The historic Asolo Theater and the Tibbals Learning Center – containing the Ringling Museum of the American Circus, the first institute to document the rich history of the circus – also share the site.
A tour aboard a “Big Top Bus” hosted by veteran performer Toby Circus Ballantine includes visits to homes of those who contributed to the circus’ success as well as the historic Sarasota Opera House, St. Martha’s Church (known as “the church the circus built”) and John and Mable’s personal railroad car.
Other Sarasota “must-sees”
Thornburg urges visitors to end their day by viewing the spectacular “sunset on Lido Beach.” The Ritz-Carlton Sarasota, which recently underwent a multimillion-dollar renovation, offers a stunning tiki-lined private beach on Lido Key that guests can enjoy via complimentary shuttle service. At the Ritz-Carlton Sarasota’s main property, located on the Sarasota Marina, be sure to check out the exquisite one-man gallery of painter William Wolk (see below) who studied, in part, at the Ringling College of Art & Design. And for an amazingly interactive and intriguingly clever dining experience, be sure to check out the new Jack Dusty restaurant, also on property (next page). The next time you’re searching for the ideal Florida vacation spot, keep in mind Sarasota, a sunny slice of paradise.