In The Happy Hollisters at Circus Island, Pete, Pam, Ricky, Holly, Sue, and their parents take an impromptu vacation to “a place ‘way down south where it’s summer all the time.” If Pete’s description of their destination has you thinking about beaches, orange groves, and alligators, you’re right—in this thrilling mystery, the Hollisters go to Florida! Their destination is the fictional “Circus Island,” which is likely based on Sarasota, a perpetually sunny tourist favorite in southwest Florida.
Sarasota, on Florida’s Gulf Coast, is the southernmost city in the Tampa Bay area, which also includes the popular destinations of Tampa, St. Petersburg, and Clearwater. Like most of Florida, Sarasota is known for its humid summers and warm winters, and for its several keys, or small coral islands. It’s also well known for its historic connections to the Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey Circus, which was probably the inspiration for the “Sunshine Circus” that the Hollister family visits in The Happy Hollisters at Circus Island. Author Andrew Svenson (aka “Jerry West”) loved the Gulf Coast and visited the area quite often to visit his parents and do on-the-spot book research.
Sarasota’s circus history began in 1927 when it was established as the winter quarters of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. After spending most of the year performing in northern cities, the circus, its performers, and all their animals, from lions to elephants, traveled to Florida to practice new acts and prepare for the next season. Locals would flock to catch a glimpse of the hilarious clowns, daring trapeze artists, and ferocious and majestic creatures, and Sarasota quickly became synonymous with the circus. The first “clown college” was even opened in nearby Venice in 1967. There, aspiring clowns could learn all the tricks of the trade in exchange for fulfilling a one-year contract with the circus.
While the popularity of the circus has waned over the years, its legacy is still very much alive in Sarasota. Visitors to Sarasota can learn all about Florida’s rich circus history at the Ringling Circus Museum in Sarasota, which is part of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Florida’s official state art museum. The Ringling Circus Museum includes displays on everything from the colorful costumes to a miniature model of the “Greatest Show on Earth,” giving guests a peek into the glory days of the Florida circus.
The Ringling Museum grounds are also home to Ca’ d’Zan, the elaborate estate of circus magnate John Ringling and his wife. Built in the 1920s and inspired by Gothic and Venetian architecture, the waterfront home of one of America’s former wealthiest couples is now open for tours and special events. Guests can marvel at the terra cotta architecture and the opulent décor, which includes an extensive collection of china and a crystal chandelier from the original Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.
For tourists who aren’t interested in Sarasota’s circus history, there is still plenty to do. The area is home to numerous beaches; Siesta Key and Longboat Key are among the most famous. Sarasota’s beaches are renowned for their white sand and wildlife, especially the sea turtles who build their nests on the beach.
For the more adventurous, Sarasota’s Myakka River State Park is perfect for kayaking, hiking, and getting a front-row look at ospreys, roseate spoonbills, and the occasional alligator! Learn from the Hollisters’ scary reptile encounter, however, and exercise caution near Florida’s natural waters!
Whether you’re searching for the nostalgia of the circus or simply looking to relax on the beach, Sarasota has something for you. So pack your sunscreen, watch out for alligators, and have a swell time at “Circus Island” like the Happy Hollisters!
by Libby Svenson Kennedy
Research notes, Andrew Svenson Archives of The Hollister Family Properties Trust