train driving people around an amusement park
Floridaland held its opening day on Christmas in 1964 (Photo: State Library & Archives of Florida)

Sarasota County Holiday History

Check out a few surprising historical facts surrounding the holidays in Sarasota, and how you can still experience them today

Sarasota County has not had settlers for nearly as long as other parts of the country, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few interesting tidbits that can surprise and delight anyone interested in a little history while visiting somewhere new. Experience even more surprising local history by booking a day with Discover Sarasota Tours and Newtown Alive which feature some of these stops along their popular trolley tours.

Theatre District Hauntings

exterior florida studio theatre
Florida Studio Theatre

Downtown Sarasota's historic theatres—the Sarasota Opera House (formerly the Edward Theatre, where a young Elvis performed in 1956), and the Florida Studio Theatrehave their fair share of ghoulish ghostings.

Florida Studio Theatre artistic director, Richard Hopkins, had a series of exorcisms performed on FST's Keating Theatre in the 1980s to dispel disruptive ghosts. The Keating was originally constructed in 1915 as the Sarasota Women's Club, and, Hopkins said, was home to a collection of boisterous spirits who would rap on the walls and shine shafts of light on the stage at random—quite a nuisance for actors practicing their lines!

Employees of the Opera House claim to hear the shuffling footsteps of a more benign specter, who roams the opera hall at night in search for a theatergoing friend. Some say he also roams the street between the Opera House and the former Golden Apple Theatre—which for 40 years was the nation's longest-running dinner theatre, until it closed in 2013.

Ghosts of the Unfinished Ringling Hotel

aerial view historical picture longboat key
Aerial view overlooking John Ringling's Ritz-Carlton Hotel at the southern tip of Longboat Key (Photo: State Library & Archives of Florida)

John Ringling’s tragically fated Ringling Ritz-Carlton Hotel project on Longboat Key would be his last.  Unfortunately, the plans for an opulent luxury hotel were built on the edge of the bursting Florida land bubble of the 1920s—just as tourism was receding and the Great Depression loomed. When the bubble burst, so did Ringling’s holdings, and the half-finished Ritz-Carlton fell into disrepair over three decades before it was demolished. The site later became a scene of tragedy: Sarasota County historian Jeff Lahurd tells the Longboat Key Observer that as many as eight people fell to their death from the hotel before its demolition in 1964. Paranormal experts believe ghosts linger at the site to this day.

Today, the Chart House building and restaurant reside on the real estate formerly inhabited by the shell of The Ghost Hotel. Feel a sudden chill pass through the room during dinner? Don't worry, it's probably just one of the spirits of The Ghost Hotel, who restaurant employees say still wander through the dining room from time to time.

Circus Santa Clause

man dressed as santa at a circus show
A Ringling Bros. Circus performer dressed as Santa Claus during a performance (Photo: State Library & Archives of Florida)

The Sarasota Holiday Parade is an annual tradition that continues to this day, but imagine what a spectacle it must have been when the famous Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus called Sarasota County its home for the winter. In 1925, circus magnate John Ringling himself starred as Santa Claus in the streets of Sarasota during the Christmas Day Parade. Learn more about Ringling by visiting his former home-turned-museum The Ringling.

Floridaland is Born

porpoises jumping at a show
A porpoise show at Floridaland (Photo: State Library & Archives of Florida)

South Sarasota County opened the gift of its first year-round tourist attraction “Floridaland” on Christmas Day in 1964 just south of Blackburn Point Road before what is now the north bridge to Casey Key. 5,000 visitors spent the holiday at the $1,500,000 amusement park on that opening day, and the ceremonies were reportedly christened by a billy goat that gave birth to twins! Floridaland is one of the famous “Old Florida” attractions that despite boasting trained porpoises and an Old West town and show could not survive the opening of Disney World, shutting its doors in 1971.

A Historic House and Notorious Murder

historic house in sarasota
(Photo: Sarasota County Parks & Recreation)

The historic Bidwell-Wood House can be found just north of Downtown Sarasota and is among the earliest documented structures of the area’s exploration/settlement phase. In 1881, the Bidwell family held a housewarming party on Christmas Eve where Alfred Bidwell allegedly to have planned the murder of local postmaster Charles Abbe, who was killed in front of his store on main street of early Sarasota in 1884.

Lewis Colson Helps Create the Town of Sarasota

Lewis Colson and his wife Irene (Photo: Sarasota County Historical Resources)

Lewis Colson came to Sarasota with his wife Irene around the holidays in 1885 to drive the first stake into the ground and assist in platting the new town of Sarasota. Colson, a former slave, is regarded as Sarasota’s first black settler and would later start Sarasota’s first black community Overtown in 1910—a bustling residential and business district that has been redeveloped into what is now the Rosemary District.

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Back to the Holiday Guide

The Ultimate Holiday Guide to Sarasota County

The most wonderful time of the year lives up to the motto near the glistening gulf coast beaches of Sarasota County. The daily sunshine will make you feel warm on the outside, but there are plenty of local traditions for winter visitors that can make you feel cozy on the inside too.