Sarasota and Venice together were home to The Greatest Show on Earth from 1927 to 1992. Ringling’s Clown College, which began in Venice in 1968, remained in operation until 1996.
Although the Sarasota site is gone as is the Venice Arena, (the only arena built by a circus in any state in the United States), much remains to be seen.
Learn the area’s circus history from an expert, Bob Collins, media man for the Greatest Show on Earth during the ‘70s. (The Ringling show moved to Venice in 1960.)
Circus tours and many other Discover Sarasota Tours depart from its Trolley station at 1826 4th St. in downtown Sarasota.
Collins’ tour passes St. Martha’s Catholic Church, which holds a circus mass early each January. When the Ringling circus wintered in Sarasota, the priest from St. Martha’s would bless the train as it departed for its annual tour.
The tour passes the Ringling College of Art and Design, the Classic Car Museum which owns two cars once belonging to John and Mable Ringling, the home of Charles Ringling on the New College campus, the Ringling museum complex, homes of some of the “little people” in the circus, the Circus Ring of Fame on St. Armands Circle, and Sarasota Opera House where the film, “The Greatest Show on Earth” had its world premier in 1952. Then the trolley heads south to the home of Circus Sarasota and the Sailor Circus and finally Bob Horne’s restaurant, which also is the site of the Jo-Mar, John and Mable Ringling’s second rail car. Horne has been painstakingly restoring the rusty car for several years. Like Collins, he is a fount of knowledge about the circus. His train car restaurant, adjacent to the Jo-Mar is open most days for lunch and is filled with vintage circus photos.
There is so much to learn about this whole area which many refer to as the Cultural Coast, thanks to John Ringling. John’s brother Charles did not want to move the family’s circus to Sarasota. After Charles died, John brought the circus to town. He built an art museum, which led to the founding of the Sarasota Ballet, Asolo Repertory Company and Sarasota Opera.
In 1960, to cut expenses, the circus moved to smaller quarters in Venice, putting Venice on the map and setting in motion a chain of growth spurts that has yet to cease even though the circus left in 1992. Its arena was torn down in 2014 by the city.
Many of the sites on the tour are worth visits on their own: the Circus Ring of Fame, the Ringling Museums, the Car Museum and Jungle Gardens, as examples.
Circus tours are scheduled for 1 p.m. every Thursday in March and on the following Saturdays: March 10 and 30.
But this company offers so much more, it even has a special membership for its “SERIAL tour goers.”
Tammy Hauser is the brains behind what has to be one of the most prolific tour companies in the world. While every city of size has a basic city tour, a ghost tour perhaps and of course the Hop-On, Hop-off tours found in most of the world’s major cities, Sarasota may be alone in having such a variety of tours produced by one company.
Hauser was financially savvy enough to realize that even during Snowbird Season, Sarasota would not provide enough tour-goers to operate a profitable business with just one topic, even one so interesting to so many as the circus.
The answer was obvious to this lady — offer a variety of tours, both educational and entertaining.
“I learned everything I need to know in the theater,” she said.
In addition to working in that realm, she is the CEO of a consulting firm specializing in arts organizations and other not-for-profits. In her spare time she enjoys travel with her two children and comes up with still more tour topics based on the unique qualities of Florida’s cultural center.
Just as Discover Sarasota Tours had to have a circus tour, it also needed a city sightseeing tour, a ghost tour, a sports history tour, Love Stories of Sarasota tour, a Public Art Tour, an Amish Experience tour as well as specialty tours like the “Irish Hooley on the Trolley” set for March 15, 16 and 17 at 7:30 p.m. Wearin’ of the green would seem appropriate.
Sarafina Murphy-Gibson is the guide and co-creator for the ghost tour. She dresses somewhat like Vampira once did on an early 1950s television show. The tour includes some popular Sarasota ghost stories as well as a look at some of the city’s spookier sites such as the Rosemary Cemetery, stories about famous events such as the murder of Harry Higel who had moved from Philadelphia to Venice about 1880 and then to Sarasota where he was a city councilman and its first mayor. The Higel murder occurred in 1921. It remains a mystery to this day.
Tour-goers learn the legend of Sara de Sota and are told a story about the old Bay Haven Hotel which is now a dorm at the Ringling College. Sarafina shares many tales, even one about a dead body in the former hotel.
Ghost tours are scheduled for the evenings of March 16, 22, 28 and April 4.
The Infamous Happy Hour Tour runs every Friday from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.
A new Amish tour is scheduled for Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.
City tours are offered each Wednesday, Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.
While anyone can book a single tour, this company offers so many tours that it offers a TOUR-ista membership program for “Serial tour enthusiasts.”
To learn about all the tours, including new ones being added, visit the website: discoversarasotatours.com.
Also not to be missed is the gift shop at the Discover Sarasota Trolley Depot at 1826 4th St. Find vintage circus items, books related to many of the tour topics, sports and public art items, cards, T-shirts, magnets, drinkware, candles, pins, table cloths, tea towels and flamingos.