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Florida constantly amazes me. I’ve lived here over 20 years and I’m still discovering hidden gems, history, and interesting things to do. I mean, the state is over 65,000 square miles so it stands to reason there’s plenty to discover. Recently, Visit Sarasota County invited us to discover their area. I knew about the beaches; Siesta Key is often rated the best beach in the country. What I didn’t know much about is the circus history in the area. Forget what you know about The Greatest Showman and visit these top things to do in Sarasota to see the real circus history.
Visit Sarasota County invited us as press. All opinions and experiences are my own.
First, a little background on Sarasota. The area is both a city and a county and is often used to refer to the entire area. The county includes the islands of Longboat Key, Lido Key, Siesta Key, Manasota Key, Osprey, Casey Key and the inland cities of Sarasota, Venice, Nokomis. The area is about an hour south of Tampa and two hours from Orlando, making it a great beach destination not far from the amusement parks.
St. Armands & Lido Key
We started our visit on the islands of St. Armands and Lido Key. They are two small islands connected by John Ringling Causeway. This is where Sarasota’s circus history begins.
John Ringling, one of the five Ringling Brother’s Circus, spent the winters in Sarasota and built an estate there, now a part of the Ringling Museum. He moved the winter headquarters of the Ringling Circus to the area. Additionally, he bought the island of St. Armands Key and financed the bridge connecting it to the mainland.
St. Armands may be a small island, but St. Armands Circle packs more than 130 stores and restaurants.
Circus Ring of Fame
The circle itself is a tribute to the history of the circus with the Circus Ring of Fame. A nod to the rings a circus took place in, starting with one and moving to three under the big top, the Circus Ring of Fame inducts new members each year with a bronze circus wagon wheel plaque located around St. Armands circle. More than 100 inductees are on the circle with more added each year.
A unique and delicious way to explore St. Armands is a walking food tour with Key Culinary Tours. In between bites, of which fill you up at each location, the guide regales you with stories of John Ringling and the history of the Ringling Brothers Circus. I highly recommend this tour, not just for the food but the stories and insight into the area that you cannot get on your own. Our tour took us to three different restaurants for sit down bites, as well as two stores for more samples and finally a sweet dessert stop at the end. We got an in-depth look at the Circus Ring of Fame as well. It’s a tasty and unique way to learn about circus history.
If you want to stay on Lido Key, check out the Holiday Inn Lido Beach. It’s located across the street from the unspoiled white sand beach. Lido Key is the local’s favorite beach with fewer crowds.
The Ringling Museum is many things: an art museum, a historic theater, a garden, and the former home of John Ringling and his wife Mable. Our favorite, however, was the Circus Museum. Filled with over 200 years of circus history, the Circus Museum also has plenty of interactive exhibits for kids. They can walk the high wire, stand on an elephant, shoot from a cannon and more.
The best part of the museum is the 44,000 miniature replica of the circus coming to town. It’s awe-inspiring to imagine how up to 60 train cars, holding hundreds of wagons rolled into town and set up the big top. The feature tents could seat as many as a modern day stadium. Additional tents included the menagerie and the sideshows. Imagine hundreds of performers and crew taking over the town for a single day. This model brings it to life in a splendid fashion.
The circus coming to town was once a huge part of life in small-town America. While the model for the modern day circus has changed and Ringling Brothers circus no longer exists, the art of performing is still strong. The Circus Museum takes a look at the past and shows off what the human body is still capable of.
At the Ringling Museum, take in shows such as the Summer Circus Spectacular. Or experience the Circus Arts Conservatory, which offers classes to the public such as flying trapeze and aerial silks. See their classes here.
When to Go
Combine a visit to Sarasota county with their annual summer event, Savor Sarasota. Savor Sarasota is an annual event in June (and in some places longer) that offers prix fixe menus at the area’s restaurants. Enjoy a two-course meal at lunch for $16 or a three-course meal at dinner, including dessert for $32.
My teenagers had an amazing time visiting the Sarasota area. We covered more of what to do with teens in Sarasota here.
Where to Stay
We enjoyed our stay at the Sarasota Surf & Racquet Club that featured a full condo and steps to the world famous Siesta Key Beach.
If you enjoy Sarasota, you may also like Savannah. Check out what to do with teens in Savannah.