Exploring New and Old at Ringling

By Kai Rambow


When you think Ringling, you probably think circus. The Ringling encompasses a diverse collection with something of interest for just about everyone.  What started as the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art continues to grow with a new addition this past year and one scheduled for later this year.

Ca d’Zan

This winter home built by John and Mable Ringling is a rich, fun explosion of architecture outside and inside. Mable Ringling loved Venice and fostered much of what she loved in the design and building of this mansion.

This requires a separate ticket.  While there are three different types of tours, I’d recommend the Private Places tour. Docents train for six months to guide these tours. Their knowledge combined with a small group makes for an intimate look at life at Ca d’Zan and helps preserve the mansion and its furnishings.

Our docent, Manny Joaquin, visited Ringling many times and wanted to know more, so he became a guide. Unlike some overwhelming tours, Manny focused on the highlights of each room, allowing to us to learn what we were seeing and soak it in.

Howard Tibbals Learning Center

This is a hobby on steroids – and you’ll be glad it is. Opened several years ago, this addition houses a 1/16th scale miniature circus over 3,800 square feet. Tibbals handcrafted nearly one million pieces over 50 years, including 1,500 performers, 7,000 folding chairs for spectators and meals (dishes, tableware) for 900 people.

While the numbers are impressive, the attention to detail is astonishing.  The ticket booth has a money drawer with little bills.  Remember this is 1/16th scale.  When asked about this detail, which people can’t see, Tibbals replied, “I know it’s there. That’s all I care about.”

This visually rich, 3D experience enables you to experience the grandeur of the circus at its peak. I’ve seen this a few times, and each time I spot something I didn’t see before.

Also here is a brief history of the circus. It is beautifully displayed with easy-to-digest segments providing a quick trip through time.

Museum of Art

“Most of our visitors are in the same category I was,” explained docent Leslie, “I thought this was just a circus museum.  I was dumbstruck that all this great artwork is in our backyard.”  Want to know what you’re looking at?  Complimentary tours from the docents can be a great help.

While the huge masterpieces by Rubens are impressive, thanks to the tours, visitors can discover other works of art.  “Instead of an intense history lecture, we try to make it a conversation. ‘What do you see here?’” explained Leslie.

“Docents are volunteers who are keen,” expanded Leslie.  “It takes one year to train.  There is a tremendous amount of reading you do on your own time, then levels of testing.  We learn about all aspects of conservation and of our galleries (20+).  It’s really rigorous and a lot of fun.  Once we’re trained, we’re free to determine what we’d like to focus on, so no two tours are the same.”  That kind of dedicated volunteerism makes a difference.

Tours start on the hour from 11 to 4 and run approximately 30 to 45 minutes.


Circus Museum

You’d expect one of these at the Ringling. Next door to the Tibbals Center, there are various artifacts from the circus. This does not take much time, so you can squeeze in a quick walk through.

Asian Art Wing

Attached to the Museum of Art, this newest addition opened in 2016, showcases a wide variety of Asian art. Experience a contrast in art, going from the giant Ruben’s paintings to the netsuke miniature Japanese sculptures.  The detail in these small pieces of art is impressive.


Tips for a Great Trip

Timing:  The winter months are a great time to go. Weekdays are better than weekends. Pick a day when the temperatures are pleasant, so you can enjoy the grounds while traveling between buildings.

Driving: A 45-minute drive, take I-75 South, exit at 213 (University Pkwy), turn left and follow the road until it ends.  Once you pass the Sarasota airport, get in the center lane so you cross the last set of lights straight. Parking is free.

Walking:  There are tram (golf car) stops throughout the grounds to help people get around. You only have to wait a few minutes for a golf cart and the driver will then take you where you want to go.

Dining Options: The Muse, near the main entrance, has a nice menu with decent prices for lunch. The Banyan Café, located near the center, has sandwiches, hot dogs and hamburgers with nice outdoor seating available. There is also a designated picnic area should you choose to pack your food.

Prices: Seniors, $23; Children 6-17, $5; Ca d’Zan private places tour $30. You may want to consider a membership for two with numerous benefits. Experience Ringling a few times, then take the grandchildren for the highlights. The Tibbals Learning Center alone, is worth the price for children.

The Ringling

5401 Bay Shore Rd.

Sarasota, FL 34243

(941) 359-5700


Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (8 p.m. Thursdays)