Sarasota, FL: A Town Fit For A King

Sarasota, Florida is the poster child for Florida retirement. Every frustrated worker in every sitcom ever: “Someday I’m gonna get outta this rat race and buy a condo in Sarasota!” And it’s not hard to see why!

But before there were hundreds of thousands of retirees here sporting high-waisted pants, swinging golf clubs and grabbing those elusive 4:30 PM dinner reservations, Sarasota was basically the Florida outback: undeveloped, nothing-to-see-here, jungle. One man changed all that, and that’s why he is considered not only the Circus King, but the King of Sarasota. That man is John Ringling, of Ringling Brothers fame.

Our interest in the Ringlings was stoked during a 2021 RV trip visit to their hometown and summer mansion in Baraboo, Wisconsin (below). Our circus knowledge came full circle as we explored their winter digs.

Why Sarasota? John Ringling, and his wife, bought a winter home here when prices were dirt cheap, because: jungle, jungle, nothing but jungle. He then took three years to build a drool-worthy mansion on the property, and continued to buy up allll the land in the surrounding areas, which is today’s Sarasota and swanky islands like St. Armands Key and Longboat Key. But back to the 1920’s-era mansion, christened “Ca d’ Zan,” which means “House of John,” because rich guys love naming things after themselves, aka Trump Tower, et al.

Entry gates to the 66-acre property

Once a rich guy buys a bunch of land, he needs new rich guys to which to sell that land. This, kids, is “how the rich get richer” … just ask Bernie Madoff. In order to impress said rich guys, Ringling needed a spectacular palace to demonstrate just how cultured Sarasota would eventually become. They modeled the details of their home after the place they most admired during their travels, which was Venice, Italy.

This five-story, 36,000-square foot home was gorgeous, but not overly ostentatious compared to other mansions of the time. It was set on Sarasota Bay to take advantage of gorgeous views and ocean breezes.

Visitors to Ca d’ Zan are generally limited to a self-guided walk through the first floor only.

However, every so often they offer full guided tours of the entire property, all five floors, to super-small groups of no more than 8 people. Guess who scored these special rights?? >>>THIS GIRL<<< That’s right, by being organized and proactive (my superpowers for RV trip planning), we were part of the the VIP treatment this day.

Like every mansion, there were architectural details and rare artwork and special furnishings, blah blah blah, fancy fancy fancy. Of greater interest to us provincials slobs, were the fun and whimsical touches the Ringlings added. Here, they painted themselves and their precious pets (dogs and birds) onto the ceiling.

Or, how about the Mardi Gras style characters painted on all four sides of various beams.

Got a ballroom? Why not paint dancers, doing various dances, on the ceiling? Genius!

The second and third floors have bedrooms and bathrooms for the John and Mable, their staff of 7, and visitors.

The fourth floor included an enormous man cave, to which John would decamp each night with (male) guests for poker, cigars, cocktails (this was Prohibition, but remember he was rich, so rules did not apply), and endless frivolity … no girls allowed.

And the piece de resistance … a 82-foot tall tower on top, with rooftop party zone and 360 degree views.

The mansion is located on 66 acres with native overgrowth and beautiful gardens, including over 1,000 rosebushes (not yet blooming in March), and seating for a king, and/or his queen.

Also located on-property is the Ringling Art Museum. The U-shaped building, surrounding a central courtyard, is impressive enough …

… but what REALLY impressed us was access to the art works in this museum! There were hardly any people there (even during spring break week), no velvet ropes, very few employees supervising … it was art geek nirvana!

Ringling was the ultimate rich-guy opportunist, kind of a expensive-garage-sale junkie. Many of the furnishings he got from New York hotels or mansions that were going out of business, or being torn down, and a lot of these cast-offs were precious works of art. He also built an enormous art museum on his property to house (and more importantly, to show off) his acquisitions.

And these artworks weren’t just some local dudes. Rembrandts … Peter Paul Rubens … many great masters … and a scale that was awe-inspiring throughout the 21 small galleries.

Poor sickly Mable only enjoyed the property for 3 years before her early death in her 50’s. And although John was a prolific businessman who was one of the richest men in America in the 1920s, a series of bad business decisions and overspending during the Great Depression left him with $311 in the bank when he died one week before all of his stuff was to be sold at bankruptcy auction. However, because his will left everything to the State of Florida, the property and all its treasures were ultimately saved for posterity. Also on the grounds are a Circus Museum dedicated to his legacy.

Inside the museum, a 3,800-square-foot circus model is the work of one guy who devoted 50 years of his life to its creation. Photos cannot represent his incredible — and huge! — 44,000-piece re-creation of the Ringling Bros. circus during its heydey from 1919-1938.

Understandably, a vast majority of Sarasota is circus-named, circus-themed, circus-relevant, and circus-statued, in honor of its most famous son.

Even the 20-mile-long local bike path has circus origins, located on the abandoned “Legacy Trail” that brought the circus and all its participants back home to Sarasota every winter.

Sarasota is not just for Kings, however … how ’bout this Queen??!

No, it’s not Jackie Kennedy, it’s Tootsie … one of only a dozen-ish Uniroyal Gals remaining in the U.S.! Obviously made from the same mold as Martha, another one we recently saw in Blackfoot, Idaho, but she’s got a completely different vibe goin’ on. Va-va-voom!

Tootsie’s not the only hearty dash of patriotism in Sarasota, however. Down along the waterfront, “Unconditional Surrender” demostrates the profound joy of a sailor and a nurse upon the spontaneous surrender of the Japanese that ended WWII.

Lastly, our RV campground in nearby Bradenton had us feeling like kings and queens. Linger Lodge, an old fishing camp which was recently redone after oh, about a hundred years of neglect, had a beautiful pool area, fully screened for bugs, although our hopes of avoiding them by being here in March has so far paid off.

It also sported a fantastic lending library! Just ask its most active customers.

Thus ends our time in Sarasota, celebrating the King of the Circus, everything that he created, and his hope that every day can be a circus day for us all!

From here, we head to the east coast of Florida and St. Augustine, the oldest city in America, simply oozing with old European charm!

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