Accessible Travel: Experience History and Art at Sarasota’s Ringling
By Janet K. Keeler
We often think of sight as the most important sense for experiencing art, but hearing also adds value, for fine and especially performing arts.
The Ringling in Sarasota offers several accessibility features, notably a hearing assistive system that amplifies world-class theater performances and docent tours in the sprawling art museum. The Historic Asolo Theatre and the Ringling Museum of Art are among the entertainment venues in Sarasota with the T-Coil looping system that works in concert with hearing aids and cochlear implants. By turning a compatible hearing aid to “T,” sound is directly relayed from the P.A. system to the device. This helps block out background noises.
In the theater, amplification headsets are available for those without hearing aids. Call the Asolo box office to find out what seating is best for T-coil usage. The looping system is also available for docent tours of the art museum. Though not available in the Circus Museum, there are sound amplification buttons on many of the audio features.
Other accessibility features at The Ringling include trams that carry passengers to the various venues. The trams accommodate walkers and non-motorized wheelchairs. American Sign Language Interpreters can be requested in advance to accompany docent tours. There are tours that incorporate tactile objects and visual descriptions for visitors who are blind or who have low vision. A tip for those needing these services or other accommodations at the Ringling: Call ahead to inquire and reserve as early as possible to ensure that the visit goes smoothly. Visitors with hearing impairment can get information about accommodations online from the Florida Telecommunications Relay.
In planning a visit to The Ringling, it’s important to know what’s there. And that’s a lot. Spread over about 70 acres along Sarasota Bay, the Ringling is a complex of two museums, an historic mansion, gardens and a performing arts complex with two stages. To say that The Ringling is all things to all people might not be an overstatement. A visit to the complex starts at the visitor center, which includes an information desk, a gift shop, Muse restaurant and the Kotler-Coville Glass Pavilion. A limited number of wheelchairs are available to borrow at the visitors center.
There is a beautiful rose garden in the middle of the complex near the Banyan Cafe, which has outdoor seating and accessible bathrooms. The garden has uneven shell paths winding through it, which can be problematic for visitors with mobility issues. However, there is a paved walkway on one side. A nearby playground has swings with large baskets for easy access. The Bayfront Gardens along the bay has paved walkways, which pass near where the Ringlings are buried.
The complex began as the estate of railroad and real estate magnate and circus impresario John Ringling and his wife, Mable. Their winter home Ca’ de’Zan is a reminder of the grand expansion into Florida in the Roaring ‘20s by tycoons who had made fortunes through real estate. Ringling was a lover of Italian art and architecture and the mansion was designed in the Venetian Gothic style of the buildings along the canals of Venice. He made Sarasota the winter home of the circus and the history of the traveling show is imbued in the culture of the city even today.
Ca’ de’Zan has been maintained and restored continually since Ringling bequeathed the estate, all of the buildings and his vast art collection to the state of Florida upon his death in 1936. Of all the venues at The Ringling, Ca’ de’Zan is the least accessible. Because of its age and historic designation there is no elevator to the second floor so those with mobility issues can only view the first floor. Admission to the home is not included in the main entrance price and requires an additional ticket. For everyone though, the view of glistening Sarasota Bay is impressive from the Italian marble terrace.
The other venues on the site include the Ringling Museum of Art, the Circus Museum and the Historic Asolo Theatre, which has performances on two stages, the Cook and the Mertz. History is heavy here, too, though the theater came along long after Ringling’s death but as a nod to the magnate it was named after a city in Italy. The theater also got its start as a Florida State University summer theater camp and is still an FSU venue and part of the university’s robust performing arts program. Today, the offerings stretch over the entire year and include Broadway touring shows and a repertory theater.
The pink Ringling Museum of Art is Renaissance-style palace that John Ringling built in 1925 to honor his wife. The U-shaped museum wraps around a courtyard full of sculptures. The museum includes a Center for Asian Art and the Keith D. and Linda L. Monda Gallery for Contemporary Art. There are special exhibitions throughout the year but the permanent works telegraph Ringling’s love of Italian art. The massive Rubens Galleries greet visitors and lead to room after room of fine examples of the Renaissance pieces Ringling collected. The museum is on one floor and people of all mobilities easily share the roomy galleries. Be warned, there are not a lot places to sit and rest or view the art.
For visitors with memory loss, the Ringling Art Museum offers a “reflections” tour on select Sundays. Reservations can be made starting 30 days in advance. These tours are casual, conversation-based tours of the galleries. The museum provides a social narrative that can be read prior to a visit for guests with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
The Ringling’s Circus Museum celebrates the history of the circus in America and includes an impressive collection of posters and banners, performers’ costumes, a cannon that shot the brave through the big top, John and Mable Ringling’s personal train car and a vast mural that artfully depicts the Greatest Show on Earth. Possibly the most fun is the 44,000-piece Howard Bros. Circus model.
The miniature circus is surrounded by an accessible ramp with the viewing windows built for viewers of different heights. Young children and guests in wheelchairs can enjoy the astounding layout as well as anyone else. The model shows life behind the big top including dressing rooms, dining tents and animal feeding areas in addition to the shows of acrobats and clowns. Even the small-scale parking lots are full of period cars. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus ceased operation in 2017 but the model illustrates a bygone area when the traveling circus brought excitement and entertainment to small-town America.
The Ringling brings together Florida history and world-class contemporary and classic art in a way that can be enjoyed by people of differing physical abilities. And the grounds dotted with Florida plants and trees strongly evoke a sense of place.
When you go…
5401 Bay Shore Road
Sarasota, FL 34243