Behind-the-Scene Tour of The Ringling, Crown Jewel of Florida’s Cultural Coast

Behind-the-Scene Tour of The Ringling, Crown Jewel of Florida’s Cultural Coast

Disclosure: Thank you, and partners, for the hospitality, education, and fun. Readers, as always, the opinions here are my own.


This last feature of a 3-part series celebrating Florida’s Cultural Coast pays tribute to Sarasota’s crown jewel, The Ringling. The 66-acre complex of world-class art and circus museums, an educational center, a glass pavilion, historic theater, arboretum, gardens, and  palatial mansion is a place where lovers of all kinds can wander away from crowds. More a destination than an attraction, The Ringling alone is worth a trip to Sarasota County. It’s also a cultural center for local members and a dream venue for romance and weddings.

I took a three-hour private tour with Virginia Harshman, Ringling Public Relations Head, M.A. Harvard University in Museum Studies. She gave me a behind-the-scenes look, unlocking secret areas with keys, masterful storytelling, and passion for the property and the people who built it. I left wishing that I’d explored this hidden gem and national/global treasure a long time ago and looking forward to a future visit.

The Ringling is beautiful in any season. It’s not too late to plan  the perfect Valentine’s, Spring Break, Remote School, or Summer Getaway.

Who loves The Ringling? 

The Ringling Art Museum Courtyard

I Do! I Do! And if you’re one of these 10 Kinds of Lovers, you will, too…

1) Lovers of Love Stories & The 1920s American Dream

Even before I heard the love story of John and Mabel Ringling, American Royalty who owned the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus, I fell in love at first sight with their home. Ca’ d’Zan transported me to my favorite era, the Roaring ‘20s, and two of my favorite places on earth. Its Moorish arches took me back to Morocco 

and its overall design to Venice where I started another new year. Inspired by the Doge’s Palace on the Grand Canal, the five-story Venetian Gothic Revival mansion overlooks Sarasota Bay. 

Doge’s Palace, New Year’s Eve, 2015
Doge’s Palace
Ca’ d’Zan Photo Courtesy of The Ringling

The exterior’s stucco as well as many glass windows and bedrooms are pink hues. My favorite color,  the breathtaking property, and  John Ringling’s story reminded me of one of my favorite characters, Jay Gatsby, and his pink suit. John Ringling, like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s protagonist, had humble beginnings and both tenaciously pursued The American Dream. I could imagine Jay Gatsby’s Rolls-Royce, called a “circus wagon,” parked in the driveway beside John Ringling’s Rolls-Royce, now on exhibit in the Sarasota Classic Car Museum.

Walking the grounds, I could imagine legendary ‘20s parties around Gatsby’s and on the Ringling terrace.  John and Mabel frequently entertained celebrities, like Will Rogers who had his own guest room, movie directors, politicians, and actresses, such as Billie Burke, better known as Glenda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz.

Jay was “The Great Gatsby”and “John was King of The Greatest Show on Earth.” Both built romantic palaces for the women they loved, but here the parallels end. Daisy rejected Jay and his new money. John and Mabel had similar values–maybe because she, too, came from a modest family. They were kindred spirits in their shared love for culture, art, and travel, as well as their desire to give back. Their legacy is now the State Art Museum of Florida administered by Florida State University. 

Though Ca’ d’Zan means “House of John” in the Venetian dialect, it has been called John’s “love letter” to Mabel. They built it together, getting ideas as they traveled the world for twenty-five years buying art and new circus acts.  She collected in an oilskin portfolio photos and sketches of architecture, gardens, and design. See the video below of my behind-the-scenes tour where I learned more about Mabel and why everyone at The Ringling adores her.

John and Mabel Ringling

2)  Lovers of Architecture and Design

In 1911, John and Mabel began spending winters in Sarasota on 20 acres of waterfront property they purchased. They continued buying real estate and at one time owned 25% of the town. In 1924 they hired architect Dwight James Baum to design and Owen Burns to build the 36,000 square-foot Mediterranean Revival of their dreams. In addition to the Doge’s Palace, Ca’ d’Oro and the Grand Hotel d’Italie Bauer-Grünwald  inspired the plans. 

Ca’ d’Oro, Venice taken New Year’s Day, 2016

The roof was made of 16th century tiles John found in Barcelona and sent home in two cargo ships. The marble bayside terrace –now used for weddings, yoga classes, and other gatherings– was used by the Ringlings for entertaining. The orchestra played for guests from their yacht, Zalophus, beside Mabel’s gondola which bobbed in the bay. Their dining room table seated 22, and cocktails were served in style at parties and in John’s Man Cave. 

Ballroom Ceiling

John’s Man Cave

Virginia gave me a look at the upper floors of the house which were closed due to Covid. I felt like I was a kid again–Nancy Drew on a snoop–when she showed me the secret Playroom. Overlooking Sarasota from the 82-foot tower is a moment I won’t forget. (See video below.)

Everywhere you look there is regal beauty. John Ringling’s bedroom
Mabel and John painted on The Playroom ceiling
Some guest rooms, such this one where Will Rogers often stayed, were closed due to Covid
Everyday feels like a holiday at Ca’ de’Zan


3) Lovers of Art and History

After Ca’ d’Zan was completed, John built a 21-gallery museum modeled from the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. In the courtyard stands a cast bronze replica of Michelangelo’s David purchased from the Chiurrazi Foundry outside of Rome, Italy.  It’s now the symbol of the City of Sarasota on Florida’s Cultural Coast.

The Ringling, Sarasota, Florida’s Cultural Coast

Ringling Courtyard Photo Courtesy of

 Inside are collections of Classical and Modern Masters. In 1931, two years after the death of Mabel, John opened the museum to the public to promote “education and art appreciation, especially for our young people.” In 1936 he left it to the state of Florida upon his death. See the video above on the Rubens Gallery, the family crest John had designed, and Modern Art exhibits, such as the photography series, A Girl and Her Room . A world-class cultural center, The Ringling Art Museum was just awarded another grant–this one from the Andy Warhol Foundation.

At the Museum of Art and Education Center budding artists,  Artists in Residence, and teachers find resources, professional development, and inspiration. 

4) Lovers of Theater/Performing Arts

The Historic Asolo Theater itself, once in the castle in Asolo, Italy of Queen Caterina Cornaro, Venetian-born widow of the King of Cyprus is a MUST-SEE.

It has been restored and moved into the John M. McKay Visitors Pavilion, designed by Yann Wemouth, architect for the Pyramide du Lovre, East Wing of the National Gallery in D.C. and the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida. See performing arts schedule here.

5) Lovers of Glass Art

Grouped by country of origin, works of art from the studio glass movement from the 1940s to the present are in the Glass Pavilion here.

5) Lovers of Gardens and Gorgeous Landscapes

In the 66-acre paradise are waterfront gardens and a Level II Arboretum with 100 different species of trees to hug. John and Mabel are buried in the Secret Garden below.

Secret Garden

6) Lovers of Cinderella Stories, Business, and Finance

The Ringling family story is fascinating. In 1927 John Ringling, one of the wealthiest men in the world, made Sarasota the winter headquarters for the circus. In addition to owning “The Greatest Show on Earth” he invested in oil, railroads, Madison Square Garden, and his community. When he died his estate appraised at $23.5 million, and he had $311 in the bank. Business Insider gives an in-depth analysis here.  

7) The Circus and Circus Movies

Ok, I admit it. I’ve saved the best for near-last.  One of my favorite movies as a child wasThe Greatest Show on Earth  which I watched again this week while writing this piece. Director Cecil B. DeMille traveled with the circus for research and John North, John Ringling’s nephew, plays himself in the film as he tries to save the show in changing times. I loved seeing Sarasota where it was filmed–especially the parade down Main Street which included locals as extras. When it was made, there was no Walt Disney World; time under the Big Top was the premiere happy place for children. The movie was the highest grossing film of the year. Though some critics didn’t agree with it winning Best Picture, I’m with  Stephen Spielberg, another fan. He said it was the first movie he ever saw and it inspired his film career.  Since my mom’s generation, kids would say, “I’m goin’ run away and join the circus!” Swinging from a trapeze in sequins and feathers still looks pretty fun to me. 

Check out Sarasota’s Circus Legacy and Circus Museum here. Don’t miss the world’s largest model circus (see video) and special exhibits, like Circus and Suffragists

9) Lovers of Visionaries, Dreamers, and Muses

John was one of eight children of a German immigrant. Mabel grew up in a small farming community in a family of eight. John began in a small circus as a clown. 

After making his fortune, he bought Saint Armand’s Key to develop it into a center for shopping, restaurants, and art. Though the Great Depression deferred his dream, it was fulfilled later by others. Today his statue overlooks Saint Armand’s Circle, a global destination. Here statues he donated to the city  transport visitors to other cultural centers, like Rome and Athens. Other plans he had for Sarasota were thwarted by the times, such as a residence for a U.S. President and a Ritz-Carlton on Longboat Key. The statues today in The Ringing Art Museum Courtyard had been purchased for the hotel.  One thing is for sure. He shared his love for mythology and was a muse and myth maker himself.

St. Armands Circle

10) Lovers of Photos Ops

If you are vacationing with teens and they aren’t convinced yet to do The Ringling, tell them it’s Instagram heaven. You can also book professional  portraits  here. 



Until you can visit in person, virtual options are here:

Valentine Celebration

Spring Break Treat April 1–my favorite artist on the Big Screen here.

Florida’s Cultural Coast: Part 1

Part 2




Glamour on Board: Titanic Fashion at Biltmore Estate

Glamour on Board: Titanic Fashion at Biltmore Estate

IMG_4893 (2)
Travel Fix and Titanic Fashion at The Biltmore
Biltmore Estate
Perfect place for a King of the World Fly Photo

Climb aboard The Biltmore! You have until May 13, 2018 to experience Glamour on Board: Fashion from  Titanic the Movie , the maiden voyage of the first large-scale costume exhibit from the iconic film that won 11 Oscars including Best Costume Design.  No location could be more fitting for simulating a first-class passage on luxury liners, “Floating Palaces” of the early 20th century.

On this ultimate girl getaway, my friend, Sally, and I channeled-for- a- day lives of patrons of White Star Line ships: Rose DeWitt Bukater, movie heroine, and Edith Dresser Vanderbilt, Mistress of Biltmore. Edith’s love story with George Washington Vanderbilt II  was truly “A Transatlantic Courtship.” Their home, inspired by the Chateau de Blois in the Loire Valley in France, was constructed by George  from 1889-1895. While gorgeous in every season, The Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina is the perfect spring escape/road trip for romantics and history-lovers. This exhibit is also a marvelous Mother’s Day gift.

IMG_4890 (1)
With Biltmore as backdrop, I finally had a real-time reunion with Sally, best friend since we were five growing up in Kentucky. We both lived in Africa, though not at the same time, and love trading travel tales. She’s now in Virginia, and I’m in Nashville, so we met in the middle.

Thankfully, after spending winter in Paris, George, Edith and daughter Cornelia who were booked on Titanic’s first and only voyage cancelled a week before the ship sailed. They arrived home April 10 and learned two days later that 1517 people perished on The Titanic after hitting an iceberg. Edith wrote to a friend: “For no reason whatsoever we decided to sail on the Olympic and had only 18 hours to get ready in. We were homesick and felt we simply must get home, and changed our ship, as I say, at the 11th hour!”

George Vanderbilt's Hourglasses
Time for a beauty, adventure, relationship break at The Biltmore

Something for everyone, the movie was a collaboration of realism and romanticism. Director James Cameron explains in a 2014 TED Talk:  I went and pitched it to the studio. It was ‘Romeo And Juliet’ on a ship. It’s going to be this epic, romance, passionate film. Secretly, what I wanted to do was I wanted to dive to the real wreck of Titanic, and that’s why I made the movie.”  

Cameron spared no expense on authenticity–$200 million which was more than the budget that built the Titanic. Our Biltmore guide on the Premium Tour, Tom, said 20th Century Fox bought every gown they could find made around 1910. Costume Designer, Deborah Lynn Scott, used patterns and parts from vintage garments and some in pristine condition on extras. According to Vogue, Rose’s red “jump dress” (see below) was one of the seven most expensive dresses of all time, selling for $330,000. According to the Hollywood Reporter the beading on the gown took 1,000 hours to sew. When she accepted the Best Costume Award for Titanic she said that her two young daughters’ beauty was her inspiration. Her range is legendary. Design credits for other cult classic favorites include Back to the Future, About Last Night, Legends of the Fall, Transformers, and The Amazing Spider- Man 2. 

The exhibit immerses us in authentic Edwardian style–intricate beading and patterns; sumptuous velvets, satins, and chiffons; tailored suits. For me, reliving The Titanic up close and personal was a dream–vintage style worn on travel adventures and a love story transcending death. I have loved Kate and Jack (and Kate Winslet and Leo DiCaprio who played them) since first seeing the film twenty years ago with my grandmother and children, but learning about the adventurous, kindred spirits of the exhibit’s host family was a bonus. Before Edith married George, she had traveled to the Caribbean, Europe, and South America. George had been to 26 countries across Europe, Northern Africa and Asia. They were regular first class passengers on White Star Line, the company that owned Titanic, and brought back art, books, fashion, and other treasures from their travels. 

The Biltmore’s 250 rooms, 2.4 million cubic feet space is breathtaking and puts the massiveness of The Titanic in perspective. The ship had 416 first- class state rooms. In The Biltmore, costumes are displayed in context–fashion for each room’s function. Clothes indeed made the man (and woman and child). Characterizations were achieved through wardrobe.

Glamour Boards Titanic
This outfit was the designer’s favorite creation. When curators learned 20th Century Fox was making available costumes, they selected 50 consisting of over 650 items.
Rose Boards The Titanic
Rose makes her entrance onscreen from under this hat. The acorn on the hat pin is the Vanderbilt family symbol also seen at Breakers, their New York City Estate.
Glamour on Board at Biltmore
Rose’s “Jump Dress”–my favorite in the movie–is what she is wearing when she meets Jack. Though he persuades her not to commit suicide, tripping on the dress’s train almost causes her to fall to her death.


The exhibit inspired me to learn how to make beaded jewelry from Sally, something she does beautifully for her soul.
Biltmore Estate Library
George Vanderbilt personally chose 10,000 books for this library he shared with guests–half of his 22,000 volume collection of American and English fiction, world history, religion, philosophy, art, and architecture.
Biltmore library ceiling
Jack plays Rose’s guardian angel, saving her from jumping overboard. The Chariot of Aurora, painted in the 1720s by Italian artist Giovanni Pellegrini was originally in the Pisani Palace in Venice.



Rose's gown
In her suite on Titanic (Edith Vanderbilt’s bedroom at The Biltmore) Rose recovers from the scare of almost losing her life at sea. She’s then given the Heart of the Ocean by Cal.
Edith Vanderbilt's bedroom
Like other married couples of the Vanderbilts’ social class, Edith and George had separate bedrooms so maids could dress her and valets could dress him. Behind curtains is Edith’s walk-in closet. Her closets held 1,000 square feet of frocks.
Cal, Kate’s fiance, wore the best even to bed


George Vanderbilt's bedroom
In the mirror reflection in George Vanderbilt’s bedroom is his paw-footed tub cut from one piece of Italian marble. His walls were 22 carat gold. The mansion has 35 bedrooms and 43 bathrooms.


Glamour on Board: Rose's Day Dress
The morning after Jack saved her, Rose looked at his drawings as they drew close. This was her dress on the promenade deck.


In the Downstairs Breakfast Room two Renoir paintings hang right of the fireplace. See George Vanderbilt: A Modern Art Collector.


Cal reveled in showing off his wealth–even by wearing shirts that buttoned up the back. This announced he had a valet that dressed him. I couldn’t help but notice the parallel between Cal and Fitzgerald’s Tom Buchanan, and how Leo DiCaprio as Jack and Jay Gatsby played the perfect foils to the obnoxious characters. I also fell in love with the pink etched champagne coupe glasses.
Costumes worn by Rose and her mother
Our guide pointed out the Victorian-style dress of Rose’s mother (heavy damask pattern like on wallpaper) contrasted to Rose’s more romantic, loose chiffon and silk dress.


Glamour on Board Titanic at Biltmore
The Unsinkable Molly Brown (Kathy Bates) was snubbed for being nouveau riche as the daughter of Irish immigrants whose husband struck it rich in Colorado mines. Based on a historical hero, she forced the captain of her lifeboat to go back to save lives and later fought for women’s suffrage and labor rights.


In the Biltmore’s Banquet Hall under the seven-story ceiling are costumes worn by Rose and Jack. Molly Brown loaned Jack one of her son’s tuxedos for the dinner thanking him for saving Rose.  Men wore white ties and tails to dinner; women wore evening gowns.



The scale of this fireplace is in keeping with The Titanic’s enormous size. There are 65 fireplaces in the Biltmore.
This 1916 Skinner pipe organ towers above the dining table which seats 38. The Vanderbilt family often ate by the fireplace 7-10 course meals. Five crystal wine glasses were set at each place for enjoying George’s wine collection.
The Countess of Rothes helped 3rd class passengers onto the boats and raised money for those widowed and orphaned by the sinking of The Titanic.


IMG_5028 (1)
Stairs lead to costumes displayed on the second and third floors.
In the 2nd floor Living Hall, guests at The Biltmore would wait to be called to dinner in the ballroom by a gong below.
These costumes were worn by John Jacob Astor IV and his new wife, Madeleine Talmage Force. John was 47 and his wife 18 when they married 3 years after he divorced his wife. Though he was the richest man on the Titanic, the couple was snubbed for the scandal. He, like most first-class males, did not survive for lack of lifeboats, but his wife did. When it was discovered she was pregnant, gossips softened toward her and her child.







Titanic dance downstairs
Jack slips Rose a note to meet him downstairs for a real party after the formal dinner. There he dances with a little girl and introduces her to his friends–immigrants and refugees. See this site on how The Titanic impacted US immigration and other historical facts.
In the basement of the Biltmore were the maids’ quarters where 24/7 they awaited calls from the bell in the hall, including setting pins and returning balls (below) in the bowling alley. On the Titanic, first-class passengers had electric buzzers to summons 322 stewards and 22 stewardesses in addition to their personal valets and ladies’ maids. One of the kitchen maids survived not only the sinking of The Titanic but of two other ships on which she worked.



The Biltmore pool was filled with cold mountain water. On board the Titanic the pool had heated salt water.
IMG_5003 (1)
When Cal’s spy reports that Rose was below deck, Cal threatens her over breakfast. Above is the Oak Sitting Room between Edith and George’s bedrooms where the Vanderbilts shared breakfast and Edith planned the day with her head housekeeper.



This gorgeous piece has hidden panels for hiding treasures, such as the Heart of the Ocean necklace.


Biltmore music room
In the Biltmore music room, completed in the 1970s, are church-going costumes. Rose attends with her mother and Cal after promising them both she won’t stray from their plans for her arranged marriage.
Music Room of Secrets
This room played a huge part in preserving National Treasures. See below. Also here are candlesticks made for Empresses Amalia and Maria Theresa of the Austrian Hapsburgs.

Just before moving to Morocco in 2014, I saw The Monuments Men starring George Clooney, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, and Matt Damon, based on  Robert Edsel’s book. Read here on the Biltmore blog more about the estate as proof of the premise of the film: “the importance of art and the lengths to which nations and individuals will go to either steal or save it.”

In the Flemish tapestry gallery hangs a 1530s set, The Triumph of the Seven Virtues, where curators placed costumes from afternoon tea. When Rose sees a little girl forced to play a part Rose is no longer willing to play, she boldly chooses freedom as a virtue.
IMG_4960 (1)
Loved this form most because she looks relaxed.



Adore this look
Wigs are made of watercolor paper
After the tea scene, Rose is ready to fly from her cage. Below is the “fly” dress in a room that compliments its rich color.


Glamour on Board
This robe Rose wears briefly before asking Jack to sketch her like one of his “French girls.”
Our guide pointed out the frayed ties on the robe. Kate did several takes of the scene to unveil herself  picture perfect wearing only the necklace.
Outside the bedroom where Rose posed on a chaise lounger is this painting, the last bought by George Vanderbilt before his death, of a Spanish woman on a couch.
At this time, the Titanic hit the iceberg that cut into six of its sixteen watertight compartments. It was built to withstand four losing water,  but the blow was fatal for most of the passengers save the first class women and children.
The last dress in which we see Rose is worn throughout the second half of the movie. There were many replicas made to film her in water in different scenes. The chiffon was chosen so it would float. The coat was a size 8–purposely too big for the actress to show her vulnerability.
I have always loved backs of dresses more than any other feature–especially  when this beautiful.
Rose’s mom dresses in high fashion to go into the boat,  complaining that seating etiquette by class isn’t being upheld. She is oblivious to the suffering of those who won’t be able to escape the sinking ship. Of the 48 lifeboats needed, only 20 were onboard and some of them were dropped during the panic only half-filled.


Ostrich feathers were in high demand in Edwardian wear.

When the Titanic sank, valuable cargo on board was a shipment of twelve cases of ostrich feathers insured for $2.3 million in today’s money.  In 1912 only diamonds were worth more by weight than feathers. Hats covered in feathers, even entire birds, were the rage. Ostrich feathers were exported from South Africa as were diamonds and gold.


Edith Vanderbilt painted by Giovanni Boldini





IMG_5024 (1)

IMG_5025 (2)


In the billiard room were costumes worn by Rose and Jack  in the final scene when they are reunited after death. Though they enter the grand ballroom together,  Jack is wearing the clothes he boarded the ship in–not a tuxedo. Rose is wearing an elegant but free flowing dress, clearly part of his world.



The Vanderbilt family’s love of learning moved them to support what is now Vanderbilt University. Likewise, opening the Biltmore to the public provided a portal to the past and future because, as Keats said: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”  Thanks to this exhibit, we can enjoy splendid, classic couture, elements of  style which designers continue to revive in modern fashion. More importantly, the The Titanic movie reminds us of what’s important in life and death. The story of Jack and Rose is timeless because underneath the face and form we wear for the world, we all want to our core to be treasured for our essence. For someone to say as Jack did to Rose:

Winning that ticket, Rose, was the best thing that ever happened to me… it brought me to you. And I’m thankful for that, Rose. I’m thankful. You must do me this honor. Promise me you’ll survive. That you won’t give up, no matter what happens, no matter how hopeless.

In the end, their story is our story. We want someone–friend, family, lover–who says, “You jump. I jump.” Whether hanging onto the bow of a sinking ship or flying high, we want at least one ride or die person in our lives.


Thank you to The Biltmore Estate for this unforgettable experience. As always, opinions here are my own.