The week between Christmas and the new year is when snow-weary Northerners seek refuge in our theme parks, and sensible Orlando folks get the hell out of town. Capitalizing on the capsizing economy with a last-minute bargain, I took a micro-vacation back in time to an era before the Mouse ate Central Florida; no Mr. Fusion—powered Delorean required. I just headed southwest and stayed under 88, and in about two hours I traveled back four decades to the city of Sarasota.
I'm not implying that the town's thematic time warp has inhibited its growth, though Sarasota has a fraction of Orlando's population. A flip through the Creative Loafing alt-weekly (slimmer than the Weekly, but with some sharp writing) revealed a breadth of arts institutions, from small art galleries to the giant, purple Van Wezel performing arts hall. Sections of Tamiami Trail, the commercial thoroughfare, have the seedy motels and cheesy minigolfs of OBT and 192. But downtown's Main Street still has room among the wine, sushi and cigar bars for places like Toy Lab, stocked with educational and creative playthings instead of annoying electronic crap.
Take a left along the waterfront at the grotesquely gargantuan statue re-creating the famous "sailor smooching nurse on VJ Day" photo. In 20 minutes you'll reach Siesta Key, a narrow spit of sand that is suspended in the past. The shell-laden shoreline, saturated with hotels of vintage architecture, looks like a mod mirage. The retro aesthetic is especially intense after sunset when the seasonal décor switches on; only the cold light from a few LED fixtures foils the impression that you've fallen into a winter wonderland from 40 years ago.
I found my personal piece of pastel paradise at Siesta Key Bungalows, a quaint collection of lagoon-side cottages themed with names like Mermaid or Hibiscus with shabby-chic décor to match. The bedding was sumptuous, the kitchen thoughtfully stocked with coffee, the pool and fishing deck with kayaks all as anticipated. But the best amenity was unadvertised: stargazing at the light-pollution-less sky.
My first stop was John and Mabel Ringling Museum, a one-of-a-kind institution utterly emblematic of art in America. Originally purchased in 1911 by the circus magnate as a winter residence and extensively refurbished in 2007, the waterfront complex houses a combination of eclectic art collections that boggles the mind. The centerpiece is the Uffizi-esque palace full of an extensive assemblage of European masters; from Rubens' monumental paintings of fat babies to the full-sized cast of Michelangelo's David in the courtyard, this is the most overstuffed orgy of Gothic and Renaissance art I've seen outside the Vatican. Plus, like a hot-fudge sundae topped with lobster, there's a new extension with temporary exhibits on Japanese kimonos and Egyptian mummies.
A short stroll past Mabel's American Rose Society—accredited garden lies Cà d'Zan, the Ringling's 56-room Venetian mansion. Inside, a riot of rococo furnishings battle for attention; a Waldorf crystal chandelier hangs beneath a hand-painted pecky cypress ceiling with a multistory pipe organ sitting to the side. The gulf view from the Italianate patio is picture-perfect, but downing this much conspicuous consumption on the eve of the Great Depression is enough to make even Gatsby gag. More interesting is how Ringling amassed his enormous fortune in the first place.
Even though I grew up during the peak of Gunther Gebel-Williams' popularity, it's hard to understand the pop-culture impact of the traveling circus in early 20th-century America. The circus museum preserves artifacts — sequined costumes, animal cages and human-launching canons — from the golden age of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. A visit to the learning center, home of Howard Tibbals' astonishing scale model of an entire three-ring show circa 1919, should grant appreciation for those tasked with transporting massive spectacles to different towns before tractor-trailers and Teamster unions. While Ringling's fine art reflects an unflattering Euro—envy peculiar to the Jazz Age nouveau riche, the circus exhibits speak to an enthusiastic American ethos that is sadly evaporating.
If the bulk of Sarasota is serenely stuck in the 1960s, the best attraction in town may be a couple decades behind that. The Sarasota Jungle Gardens, established in 1940, features 10 acres of lush flora pierced by meandering pedestrian paths and populated by a menagerie of exotic feathered fauna (many rescued pets). Here you can see Frosty the Greater Sulfur Crested Cockatoo do two shows daily of the same tightrope-unicycle schtick he showed off on the Ed Sullivan Show; at 72 he's still a pro performer, but his pal Caesar was amusingly uncooperative.
Another delightful discovery was Professor DeWitt's Traditional Punch 'n Judy Puppet Show, held on the park's whimsical playground. Aside from a sprinkling of adult-aimed asides about Dickens and UPS, his act is about 300 years old. That he enthralled his ADD audience despite not being "television, a video game or a hologram" is a latter-day miracle. The thrill of standing among a flock of hand-fed pink flamingos swiveling and strutting past me to some unknowable avian choreography, was another.
My New Year's wish is that vintage animal attractions like this survive the economic storm for the next generation of kids to experience for email@example.com