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Circus World Museum

On my recent trip to the Midwest, I focused on three diverse attractions. The first attraction often overlooked by groups headed towards the nearby Ho-Chunk Casino and Wisconsin Dells to the north, or to the House on the Rock to the southwest, is the site of the one-time winter quarters of the storied Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Today, on the banks of the Baraboo River, the Circus World Museum preserves the history and traditions of the circus in America. The Museum, all buildings and exhibits are open annually from mid-April until late October, while live shows featuring a wide variety of circus performers are offered from the week before Memorial Day through the Labor Day weekend. I didn’t make my visit until late November, when they Museum itself was open, but the staff was also kind enough to allow me to wander the grounds by myself on a cold but sunny day. 

Within the complex are historic elephant, horse and animal barns, the Hippodrome (venue for the live performances), classic circus train cars, a carousel, sideshow facilities, and both the W.W Deppe Circus Wagon Pavilion and the C.P. Fox Wagon Restoration Center. The Museum building itself houses what is billed, in typical circus fashion, as “the largest collection of restored parade wagons, antique advertising posters and big top memorabilia in the world.” 

Here also is a theatre for regular showings of a circus movie, and displays that I found particularly interesting which tell the story of the Ringling Brothers themselves, as well as their extensive schedules of annual circus tours, performance and amusement innovations, plus the promotional efforts that they perfected. Groups with an interest in exploring a widespread form of public entertainment that was extremely popular before the days of movies, television and “virtual reality” are sure to enjoy their visits.