Last summer when we visited the Kalahari Resort in Wisconsin Dells, we decided to stop by the Baraboo Circus World Museum. This small venue played a significant role in the history of circus life in the US between 1884 and 1918. The site, which hosts circus performances daily in the summer, showcases several of the original buildings used by the Ringling Brothers for their winter housing as well as an enormous amount of artifacts and memorabilia. Open year-round; it is under the auspices of the Historical Society of Wisconsin who promotes the history of North America, so we planned for an educational experience.
In 1954, John M. Kelley, a former attorney for the circus, decided to start a museum of the Ringling Brothers Circus and Circus history in general. After extensive fundraising and acquiring the circus’ former winter housing the museum finally opened in 1959. Nowadays the museum features several buildings filled with displays as well as an area that visitors can see circus acts and explore reconstructed circus wagons. Even though the museum doesn’t look like much from the outside, it is quite vast and has a rather large outdoor area boasting various circus performances and animal encounters.
What to See
Many travelers come to see the shows in the Hippodrome big top, which showcases events like interactive kid’s shows, animal encounters, and a magic show. However, there are many different building and exhibits to see at this location.
“Caught in the Act”
The ‘Caught in the act’ indoor display displays the extensive Ringling Brothers Circus history. The brothers started out from this exact location in 1884. The first two rooms are decked with turn-of-the-century colorful posters, programs, old newspaper clippings and even old photographs detailing the museum as it looked when it first opened.
This section displays the remaining buildings of the Ringling Brother’s Circus. Today, the site exists as a National Historic Landmark. These buildings include the Animal House, Wardrobe Department, and Ring Barn. One can also take a tour of Ringlingville to get more information about how the Ringling Brothers prepared for their shows.
Irvin Feld Exhibition Hall
This Hall, the largest building in the museum, features nine forced perspective dioramas detailing the history of the Ringling Brothers Circus. These Jean Leroy dioramas from the 1960s advertised the circus in towns. The dioramas were discovered two years ago in a New Jersey attic. Museum volunteers then meticulously refurbished them to their original glory. There are also other sections that detail general aspects of circus life and history.
W.W. Deppe Wagon Pavilion and C.P. Fox Wagon Restoration Center
This section features an important aspect of circus life. Here, visitors can see over fifty antique circus wagons, recovered from all over the US and restored by the museum. Many of these wagons were retired and turned into chicken coops and coal bins. One can also view wagon restorations in progress at the nearby C.P. Fox Wagon Restoration Center.
Robert L. Parkinson Library and Research Center
This research facility houses various collections related to the circus fandom. These include books, photographs, and periodicals. One can visit this fan’s paradise at no charge.
The next two buildings are filled with circus costumes, large props like Cinderella’s carriage, musical instruments and even old circus wagons. One can spot odd trinkets like old-fashioned souvenirs and fascinating mementos like an elephant tusk and a chair that a lion trainer used to protect himself. There is even a flea circus complete with flea high-wire act and tiny wagons.
For those itching to get that circus ‘selfie’, there are several displays to pose with. These displays include a high trapeze wire and a side booth where visitors are turned to gorillas.
The outdoor area looks like a mini carnival and is primarily geared towards the youngest visitors though older children might like it too. It includes a play area with swings, inflatable bounce house, and petting. There is also a carousel with miniature ponies and elephant rides. Kids can even pretend they are riding a unicycle or walking a tightrope in some areas.
As in all family based attractions, the museum has a food venue with the usual fair grub of funnel cakes, cotton candy, ice cream and hot dogs. There is also the obligatory souvenir shop for those who wish to collect mementos of their travels.
The entrance fee is a bit hefty at twenty dollars per person but does include circus shows throughout the day from ten am to five pm.
The venue does feature some rides that cost extra, like the pony and elephant rides. Visitors can stop by the big elephant to get tickets to these attractions.
Autism Travel Tips:
- We recommend this museum to those highly interested in circus memorabilia or turn of the century posters.
- Everyone in the family should wear closed shoes as the terrain is uneven.