The Ringling Grounds. Photo by Eddie Kirsch.

Starter's guide to The Ringling

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, people of all ages, welcome to the home of John Ringling, owner of the ‘greatest show on earth.' From traditional to modern, indoor to out, somber to whimsical, The Ringling – with its Art Museum, Circus Museum, Ca' d'Zan, and Bayfront Gardens – has plenty for anyone to ooh and aah over.

Visiting The Ringling in Sarasota, Florida, is akin to entering a whole new world. Unlike any other art museum, it allows its visitors to spend a day in the life of art-collecting, rose-planting, entrepreneurial 1902s socialites. It's the Great Gatsby and you're invited to his party.

John Ringling, of circus fame, was one of the wealthiest men in America in the 1920s. He and his wife, Mabel, built the residence, the grounds, and the art museum for their own use. To view the collections, the construction, the enormity and beauty of the place as a whole as somewhere where two people once actually lived is mind-blowing.

The Ringling includes The Art Museum, Circus Museum, Ca' d'Zan, and Bayfront Gardens. Entrance to the grounds is always free and beyond that visitors can customize their tickets based on their specific itineraries. Entrance to the Art Museum is free every Monday.

Art Museum

Ringling Museum. Photo credit: Cat Pennenga
Ringling Museum. Photo credit: Cat Pennenga

The art museum portion of the Ringling may be the most prevalent, and its 31 galleries are definitely worth viewing. The museum, shaped like a U with a courtyard in the center, allows visitors to pop outside for some fresh saltwater between exhibits if desired. The enormity of the pieces is unexpected. These are pieces that John and Mable Ringling purchased of their own accord, simply out of their love of art. Works of various types adorn the galleries, most permanent and some traveling. The courtyard in the center, full of statues and fountains, is the ideal location for a rest, a chat, or to let the little ones play hide and seek and burn some extra energy. The kind staff of the Ringling Art Museum provides maps and docents answer questions galore for the self-guided. Tours are also available and are included with admission.  

Ca' d'Zan

Ca' d Zan
Ca' d'Zan

Beyond the Art Museum, a short walk or tram ride towards Sarasota Bay brings visitors to the Ca' d'Zan, home of John and Mable Ringling. Meandering through this mansion is not unlike popping into an episode of a Floridian Downton Abbey. Learning how the staff worked and lived is just as fascinating as the ornate furnishings. Parties galore transpired amongst these walls and onto the stunning terrace. During the holiday season, the mansion oozes festive décor that puts most trees and lights to shame.

Stopping on the terrace of the Ca' d'Zan to appreciate the view allows visitors to reflect upon the fact that someone used to live here. It was their home, where they drank coffee, chatted with friends, read their mail, parked their yachts. And thanks to them, we get to live vicariously now.

Bayfront Gardens

The bayfront grounds, to which entry is always free, are equally impressive with the art within the museum's walls. Fourteen massive banyan trees, a dwarf garden, butterfly garden, secret garden, and, of course, Mabel's rose garden give visitors a sense of wonder and whimsy as they meander the stunning landscape. Turtles and birds frolic in the ponds as dolphin and sting rays leap from the Bay. Statues peek out amongst the banyan roots. The David F. Bolger Playspace provides an idyllic place for kids to swing, slide, splash, build, and play. For the full flora and fauna experience, request a tour and learn the names of each tree and bush as well as the history of the Gardens themselves. Many artists bring their supplies and set up their easels. There is no shortage of stunningly beautiful subjects to forever capture on canvas.

Circus Museum

Circus Museum at The Ringling
Circus Museum at The Ringling

Once the kiddos have gotten their sillies out, take them on a venture through the Circus Museum. Within, circus memorabilia abound with plenty of hands-on activities for those little curious hands. The history of Ringling Circus and its performers gives a new perspective to this world of entertainers. The 3800-square foot model of the circus itself demonstrates the grandeur of the traveling show as well as the hidden challenges such as quarantined animals, feeding that many people daily, and laundry.

Dining

Just as The Ringling offers art options for various tastes, they also do so for dining. The Muse features contemporary seated dining with views of the stunning Ringling grounds. It offers the ideal opportunity to relax and discuss the fine arts surrounding the restaurant. The Banyan Café, located near the David F. Bolger Playspace, features quick, light dining for those with little ones or who prefer to eat and promptly resume their visit. The Museum Café provides coffee and pastries for that morning or mid-afternoon pick me up. And, in accordance to its laid-back and kind aura, The Ringling permits coolers on its grounds and features two picnic areas, in the Dwarf Garden and Playspace.

Child-friendly

When I take my children to many art museums, they are often treated with an unwelcome air. The Ringling is different. Of course, the art, grounds, structures, etc are to be respected by all visitors, but The Ringling manages to go the extra mile to ensure guests of all ages can enjoy their experience. Once such way is with their ROAR! Ringling Order of Art Readers program. For free, toddlers and preschoolers enjoy an art-related storytime and activity. Kids Quest provides a more advanced activity and lesson for children ages 5 through 10 on Saturdays at 1:00 for a mere $2. Each week, two or three different stops are incorporated so repeat attendees explore something new with every participation.

Ringling Underground

Ringling Underground
Ringling Underground

To hang out with the cooler side of The Ringling, swing by during Ringling Underground. Live music and new artists give the courtyard a distinctly different vibe. At times, Ringling Underground overlaps with another special feature provided by The Ringling, Art after 5. On Thursdays after 5pm, entry to the Art Museum and Circus Museum is $15. Less expensive entry and fewer crowds. If Ringling Underground occurs that day, it is included with the Art after 5 ticket.