Location: Baraboo, Wisconsin
General Description: In 1884, the Ringling Brothers began their first tour as a circus. In six years the wagon show expanded to a railroad show with 225 employees. After each summer tour to cities across the United States, the circus would return to Baraboo for the winter. During the winter the Ringling Brothers Circus would work on new acts, train animals, create new costumes, construct new parade wagons, and refurbish every other aspect of the circus as it continued to grow. Eventually the circus consisted of over 100 railroad cars and hundreds of employees as it became one of the largest circuses in the US. The central part of their winter quarters in Baraboo became known as Ringlingville, even though many of the operations were scattered throughout town and the surrounding area. This practice continued until Ringling Brothers merged with Barnum and Bailey in 1908 and within a couple of years had moved their winter quarters to Sarasota, Florida the winter site for Barnum and Bailey. The combined circus continued to put on circus performances until 2017 when it closed its doors for the last time. Today the area known as Ringlingville has become the Circus World Museum which seeks to preserve the memory and excitement of the traveling circus, as well as, collect and restore as many of the circus wagons used throughout the history of the circus.
1) When you visit Circus World, plan on spending the entire day as there is a lot to see and do. While this museum cannot truly capture the excitement of the circus coming to town, it does a very good job of giving a sense of the history of the time and the huge logistical demands of creating a traveling circus, as well as, the performers both human and animal.
2) You enter Circus World through the Irvin Field Exhibit Hall which contains the history of the Ringling Brothers Circus. Sections are set aside for each of the original 5 brothers giving an account of what each brought to the huge enterprise. There is also sections devoted to the history of the circus following the death of John Ringling.
3) Ringlingville consists of the remaining 7 buildings of the huge complex that made up the winter quarters of the circus. These buildings include the Ring Barn, Elephant House, Animal House, Baggage Horse Barn, Winter Quarters Office, and Wardrobe Department. Most of the buildings are open to the public and include many interesting exhibits about circus life. You can see some of the Ringling Brothers circus wagons, a display of the many circus posters, samples of the wardrobes, dioramas of the circus parades, and much more.
4) The price of admission also includes attendance at the performances done throughout the day. When we were there this included a one-ring circus in the Hippodrome, a short Tiger Performance show, a comedy show titled “Nothing But Nonsense”, and elephant and horse rides. While not as impressive as I remember real circuses, the Big Top performance is worth seeing just for the nostalgia.
5) In my opinion, the highlight of Circus World is its work to locate and restore their large collection of circus wagons. Once a day they give a tour of their two large showrooms that contain most of their collection from the simple circus wagons to the most ornate wagons covered in gold leaf. I was especially impressed by the wagons that would have multiple extensions that lifted out of the center to create wagons over 40 feet tall!!