By Chrissy Kruger-Gruendyke
Believe it or not, there was a time when children agonized with anticipation for the great American circus to visit. It was a time when small towns across the U.S. would close down to allow each person an opportunity to witness the three-ring spectacle during its fleeting 24-hour stay before disappearing to the next eager community. The mirage-like "city without a zip code" was one of the biggest highlights of the early part of the 20th century. Its arrival was so significant that it reprises today as part of childhood tales told by older generations to the younger.
Much like within those memories, circus continues to vividly exist today in Sarasota. Its half-century presence in Sarasota has shaped the county influencing it as a world-class vacation haven with an abundance of culture, flare, beauty and whimsy. Yet pinpointing its points of origin within the community would not be an easy task for visitors interested in seeing where it all began -- until now with the debut of the Circus Heritage Guide. The Circus Heritage Guide highlights significant points of interest that earned Sarasota and Her Islands the title of home of the American circus. The many sites and symbols featured in the Guide tell the story of how Sarasota was dominated socially and economically by the circus and immerse seekers into the destination's true cultural fiber. The self-guided tour makes it possible for children of all ages to relive or live for the first time the great American circus and make brand new circus memories to share for generations.
Following The Guide
The journey begins with the estates of circus magnates John and Charles Ringling located on Sarasota's northern border. Arrive early to stroll the grounds of both estates and enjoy the cool morning breeze off Sarasota Bay. After taking in the palatial magnificence, make a quick stop for breakfast at the Hob Nob Drive In off Washington Boulevard, a local, outdoor hang out in existence for almost as long as the circus in Sarasota.
Turn left down Martin Luther King Way to visit the 35-acre campus of the Ringling College of Art and Design, a school John Ringling himself envisioned and helped establish.
Take Tamiami Trail south toward St. Armand's Circle and on your way dote on Sarasota's beautiful skyline as you leave the mainland for island paradise on Bird Key, Lido Key and Longboat Key. You will travel on the John Ringling Causeway - a recently updated version of the roadway linking the islands and city. It takes you into the heart of posh St. Armand's Circle where you're enveloped by shopping and dining. After a retail frenzy for one of kind items and Sarasota momentos, grab a scoop of ice cream at ScoopDaddy's or of rice pudding at Miami Rice Pudding Co. While enjoying your scoop skip over to the center of the circle to explore the ring of fame where the "who's who" of the circus world are celebrated.
Spend the rest of the morning driving through the key islands before heading downtown where a plethora of lunch options await. Sierra Station, an old train depot moved piece by piece from Kneeland, Indiana and converted into an indoor/outdoor eatery in Sarasota is a local favorite found off Lemon Ave. a few blocks north of Main Street. After lunch walk the quaint streets of downtown and explore the Florida Theater and Sarasota Opera House. If available, grab tickets to the evening performance for a truly dazzling night of culture. From there you're not far from St. Martha's, a church built by fund-raising circus performances and where many circus families remain active.
The journey continues south into Venice where you'll learn about Gunther Gable Williams, the famous animal trainer and beloved son to Venice. A life-size bronze statue of Williams is found at the Train Depot. Then it is time to cross another bridge where a historical marker highlights the path of circus animals and equipment parading from the train yard. While in Venice grab dinner at any of the delectable restaurants in historic downtown Venice including Cassariano Italian Eatery.
As the tour winds down with sites familiar to circus-insiders such as the Ringling Bros. Circus prop and design shop, your family will be ready for a performance by any of Sarasota's eight active circuses including Circus Sarasota and Sailor Circus. When you reach the end of the Guide, you haven't reached the end of your circus heritage enlightenment. There is much more circus history on exhibit at The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art Circus Museum and Tibbals Learning Center. It is worth the price of admission just to see the world's largest miniature circus, which is a 3,800-square-foot time capsule of the tented-circus during its heyday in the 1920s and 30s. The Cà d'Zan Mansion and 21-gallery Museum of Art are also included with admission and with both venues also playing a major role in the growth and notoriety of Sarasota, a visit offers even further insight.
The Circus Heritage Guide is available at no cost from the Sarasota Convention and Visitors Bureau Visitor Center, 701 North Tamiami Trail, Sarasota or by ordering online at www.sarasotafl.org/visitorsguide.
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