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Tibbals Learning Centre, Ringling Museum, Sarasota - Orlando / Florida Guide

Florida Guide > Accommodation

One of the most fascinating parts of the Ringling Museum is the Tibbals Learning Centre. Upstairs are various displays of the circus from early days to Cirque Soleil where you can even see Buffalo Bill’s gloves and an old black and white film of the famous showman. On the ground floor is an interactive exhibition where children can try various things but the highlight (even for someone who has never been interested in trains or models) is Howard Bros. model circus.

Ever since his first visit to a circus at the age of 3 years old Howard Tibbals has been fascinated by the circus. As a child he borrowed scraps of material from his mother to dress his circus people – dolls as his father disgustedly remarked. Later he was giving a fret-saw and started making models himself.

The canvas circus has not been operating in America for 50 years. In 1958 Howard Tibbals began making a replica 1/16th scale model of an entire circus. He collected over 1, 000, 000 old photographs and books for accuracy and it is intended as an example of a Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus during 1919-38.

Tibbals, who ran a successful flooring company, gave the Ringling Museum $6. 5 million donation to house a permanent home for his circus. Ringling Bros. refused to let him use the name Ringling so undaunted the circus is named Howard Bros. Containing over 1, 000, 000 pieces, he says that it will never ever be completed but his model circus (the largest model circus in the world) has found a permanent home in the Ringling Museum, Sarasota. Ccomplete with eight main tents, 152 wagons, 1, 300 circus performers and workers, more than 800 animals and a 57-car train, it is on permanent display in the Ringling Circus Museum’s Tibbals Learning Center. It took over a year to set it up in a 3, 400 square foot display case which is the length of 1 ½ football pitches. For the first time Tibbals can see his circus completely assembled.

Tibbals had always been fascinated by the logistics of moving a circus from town to town. It took over 1, 000 men to unload the trains and set up at a new site. His model starts with the trains bringing the circus to town. Teams of horses are pulling the wagons containing animals, props and tents from the train wagons. From here the display progresses to the various stages before the performance in the big tent. Each tent is cut away to allow the viewer to see the contents. First to arrive would be the cook house so we see mobile kitchens with miniature sacks and crates of food and tiny pots and pans. Nearby is the restaurant tent flying the traditional hotel sign. Inside are dozens of tables and chairs with circus performers eating from over 900 sets of dishes.

From here we go the parade which would pass through town with elaborately decorated elephants, colourful floats with girls in costumes, horses, clowns and everything to attract people to the circus.

Needless to say there are also tents for animals, blacksmiths, vets, food for the animals and even an infirmary. As we get closer to the big top there is the performers changing tent, divided for men and women of course. Another has all the props used by performers and clowns with miniature cycles propped up outside.

As we pass along the display the light changes from day to night with lights for added excitement. The sounds one would have heard are also played from the sound of the steam trains to the roar of the lions and trumpeting of the elephants.

Finally we reach the ticket office with streams of people approaching the grounds. Such is his attention to detail that even the ticket office has a desk, typewriter and apparently miniature tickets. Asked why when nobody can see them, Tibbals is said to have replied “I would know they are not there”!

Inside the grounds are food stalls and what seems quite strange to us the exhibition of people from the famous Siamese twins to the smallest/tallest man. With modern science some of these oddities might never have happened but in the time of the circus this was their only way of earning a living.

Finally the big top. A three-ring circus with 7, 000 individual wooden chairs. Inside can be seen many moving acts while overhead trapeze artists and high wire acts are taking place.

Whether child or adult this is a fascinating exhibition. Admittance can only be as part of an inclusive ticket to the Ringling Museum but there are many other things to see which should keep all the family happy. With easy parking the grounds are excellent for disabled with courtesy buses and wheelchairs available.

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