One thing I love about international travel is the opportunity to see unique architecture. When I visited Spain and France after high school, a highlight of my trip was getting to see the amazing castles scattered throughout the European countryside. So when I found out a similar structure existed in Sarasota, Florida I was excited. And at finding out it was the winter home of John and Mable Ringling (think Ringling Brothers Circus), I immediately added Ca’ d’Zan to the itinerary of our next Florida trip. This property offers so much more than just a look at stunning architecture though. It provides a day of entertainment and learning for the whole family.
The Ringling estate has several tour options available as the property is rather expansive. We opted for Mable’s Tour of Ca’ d’Zan. This included a docent led tour of the 1st and 2nd floors of the home, the Circus Museum, entry to the Museum of Art, and access to the lovely gardens on the property.
Shortly after marrying, John and Mable Ringling began travelling to Sarasota for winter breaks. They fell in love with the beautiful bay area and began purchasing acreage around the city. After several years they decided to build their dream home along the Sarasota Bay in a Venetian Gothic style because of Mable’s love of Venice, Italy. After three years of construction the winter home ended up being 5 stories tall, with 41 rooms and 15 bathrooms.
It wasn’t just the size of the property that was elaborate either. Mable intricately planned every detail of the home. The main entrance double doors are covered in 24-carat gold leaf. Stained glass windows, created in Mable’s favorite jewel toned colors, cast rainbow hues across the interior of the home. Keeping with the theme of the ballroom, Mable commissioned paintings of dances from various cultures and had these installed into the ceiling. Al James Otis (of Otis elevators) personally installed the elevator (the first elevator in a private Florida residence). I giggled as the tour guide explained John once said he gave Mable no budget for the home, and she still exceeded it. At the time of completion in the 1920s, the cost ended up at $1.5 million.
One of my favorite parts of the house was the marbled terrace along the back of the house. The open expanse of this patio overlooking the Sarasota Bay was breathtaking. Despite the heat of the Florida sun, the reflective color of the tiles and the breeze from the water way kept the veranda comfortable. Visitors occasionally report seeing dolphins from the terrace as well.
The Ringling Circus Museum
Also on the property are the Tibbals Learning Center and Original Circus Museum. Exhibits include a ticket wagon, the human cannon truck, and other circus carriages. Vintage costumes, worn by circus performers, are also on display. Interactive exhibits like walking across a low tightrope or fitting into a clown car are additional fun options.
One of my favorite parts in the Circus Museum was the opportunity to peek into the traincar that Mr. Ringling took when traveling across the country with the circus. The stained glass windows, tufted velvet seats, and rich wooden panels had me yearning to travel by railcar.
Across the Ringling estate are lavish gardens and landscaping features. Though the rose garden no longer contains the original flowers planted by Mable, it has been maintained continuously for over 100 years and still features 1,200 rose bushes. In the center of the garden stands a romantic iron gazebo, offering a place to admire a 360 degree view of the blooms.
Kids will have fun searching for koi fish and turtles in ponds around the property. In the Dwarf Gardens miniature statues hide among the greenery in comical poses. Additionally, guests can bring a picnic to enjoy at tables near the Playspace play ground.
Though we stayed until closing time, I still didn’t have enough time to explore everything. I would have loved to grab a bite at the Banyan Café, offering outdoor seating tucked among banyan tree’s roots. And with John Ringling’s love of art, there is an impressive art museum available that we only briefly passed through. If you’re near Sarasota and searching for something to do, the Ringling property will provide a great day of entertainment.