If you played with doll houses, built model airplanes, or created LEGO lands, you understand the fascination with miniatures. As a kid, I took omnipotent pleasure in making these small worlds look and operate exactly the way I wanted them to. As an adult watching my kids do the same, I appreciate the technical artistry and attention to detail reflected in miniature figures and furnishings.
We brought this love of little to the Ringling Circus Museum in Sarasota, Florida, where the world’s largest miniature circus fills 3,800 square feet of exhibit space, and can be viewed from two floors. Through 44,000 individual pieces, this circus tells a story, brilliantly, with moving elements and light and sound effects.
The Howard Bros. Circus Model was mostly built between 1956-1974 by Howard Tibbals, who named the circus after himself because he wasn’t allowed to use the names Barnum or Bailey. But in fact, it is a 3/4-inch-to-one-foot scale replica of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, as it would have looked during the years 1919-1938. It would span 11 acres if it were life-sized.
As a voyeur from behind the glass, you’ll make a circle around the floor, and follow the chronology of a circus coming to an American town. At that time, the circus would perform in 150 towns each season, covering 15,000 miles by train.
The first scenes are at the train station, where cars are emptied of the equipment, building materials, animals, and performers. The circus traveled with 1,300 workers and performers, and 800 animals – elephants, lions, zebras, giraffes, even polar bears. After that, it’s a behind-the-scenes look at the circus family members setting up their own tents in the “backyard.”
As you peer closer into the glass, you’ll get a glimpse of performers sitting in front of mirrors in the dressing tent. You can watch the performers eating their meals under a common tent. You’ll see trolleys pull up to the entrance, where the balloon seller holds a rainbow of colors. You may even spot a runaway elephant!
Every few minutes, the lights in the exhibit area will dim, and the lamps in the tents illuminate, indicating nightfall. In a few moments, daylight returns, and the circus opens to the fans lined up at the box office. In the Big Top, the three ring circus amazes the bleacher-bound crowd with tightrope walkers and aerialists, daredevil stunts, lion acts, and plenty of clowns.
The Big Top could seat 13,000.
The movement and sounds completely pulled us in.
There are plenty of other intriguing exhibits at the Circus Museum, which is just one building on the Ringling grounds. You’ll see collections of circus memorabilia, props, costumes, and even parade wagons. While the whole place is kid-friendly, there are several interactive exhibits on the second floor that our kids loved. They tried fitting into a clown car, propelling a human cannonball, and walking a high wire. There were video kiosks showing clips of circus performances, and a magnetic board where they could create their own circus posters.
Hey YOU! Go BIG!
Ringling Circus Museum
5401 Bayshore Road, Sarasota, Florida 34243