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World’s Largest Miniature Circus: Sarasota, Florida

miniature circus

The Big Show Entrance

If you played with doll houses, built model airplanes, or created LEGO lands, you understand the fascination with miniatures. As a kid, I took omnipotent pleasure in making these small worlds look and operate exactly the way I wanted them to. As an adult watching my kids do the same, I appreciate the technical artistry and attention to detail reflected in miniature figures and furnishings.

We brought this love of little to the Ringling Circus Museum in Sarasota, Florida, where the world’s largest miniature circus fills 3,800 square feet of exhibit space, and can be viewed from two floors. Through 44,000 individual pieces, this circus tells a story, brilliantly, with moving elements and light and sound effects.

The Howard Bros. Circus Model was mostly built between 1956-1974 by Howard Tibbals, who named the circus after himself because he wasn’t allowed to use the names Barnum or Bailey. But in fact, it is a 3/4-inch-to-one-foot scale replica of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, as it would have looked during the years 1919-1938. It would span 11 acres if it were life-sized.

Ringling Museum

The View From Above

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World’s Largest Airboat: Sarasota, Florida

Myakka Wildlife ToursIf you live in Florida (and I have), alligator sightings are about as rare and exciting as observing a squirrel in its native habitat here in the northeast. But Floridians know that northerners think it’s thrilling to see gators while we visit their sunshine-y state, so a whole subset of the tourism industry has evolved to give us that opportunity. One such business, Myakka Wildlife Tours in Sarasota, sweetens the deal further with a ride on the world’s largest airboat.

During our December visit, the weather was perfect for outdoor exploration; sunshine, breezes, and low humidity. We spent a happy, restorative day in Myakka River State Park, one of Florida’s largest and oldest state parks. Follow the signs to find the tour boat dock and ticket booth.

The world’s largest covered airboats are actually two identical twin boats, the Myakka Maiden and Gator Gal. Both are 53-feet long and 16-feet wide. Each can seat up to 57 people for the 45-minute cruise. There are three cruises offered daily in the slower (hotter) summer season, June 1 through December 15. Four or more cruises, depending on demand, are offered during the high season, December 16-May 31.

The Gator Gal

The Gator Gal

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Taking the Kids to Big Cat Rescue, Tampa, Florida

Big Cat Rescue

Big Cat Rescue

The Girl is a BIG fan of animals, thanks to a steady diet of “The Wild Kratts” on PBS. A trip to Tampa allowed us to visit Big Cat Rescue, the largest accredited sanctuary in the country, and possibly the world, dedicated entirely to abused and abandoned big cats.

Big Cat Rescue is home to some 100 lions, tigers, leopards, cougars and other wild cats, who live in enclosed habitats on 67 acres in the Citrus Park area of north Tampa. These majestic creatures were, for the most part, former pets or victims of the “pet trade,” who were mistreated or abandoned. Some had been used for performing acts and were no longer wanted. The mission here is to end the abuse and abandonment of captive exotic animals and promote preservation of the species in the wild.

After learning all this, I explained to the kids that this was not a zoo, and these animals were not there for our entertainment, but because this was the safest place for them to live now that they were no longer accustomed to living in the wild. It was important for them to know that, although I tried to keep the message lighthearted for my six-year old.

You get to learn the cats’ individual stories along the way, both from the tour guide and from the posted signs which provide their name, the date they came to the Rescue, and where they were found. In many cases, this is an eye-opener. Divinity the Bobcat, for example, was rescued from a fur farm.


Divinity the Bobcat

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My Take on LEGOLAND Florida

LEGO storeEditor’s Note: The Boy, now 13, hates when I put conditions on some of the fun writing assignments I have. But the quid pro quo for getting to visit LEGOLAND Florida again was that he had to write another post. Here’s his take:

This summer, I was lucky enough to go to LEGOLAND Florida for a second time. The first time was on the Grand Opening day, and Mom and I had to lie to my sister and tell her we were going to Czechoslovakia. This time we had tried not to mention the whole “Czechoslovakia” thing as The Girl was with us.

LEGOLAND has improved in some very large ways, as well as some smaller ways. One of the main ways it has improved is offering the VIP Experience. Being a VIP allows you to have an assistant and some free meals, as well the chance to meet a master builder. This master builder was one of three master builders on staff of LEGOLAND, and he was the builder I met last time I was there.

LEGO master builder

As a VIP, you get the Hero Access pass to go to the front of the lines, so you get to essentially cut the lines. And you get a cabana at the water park (which could be a life saver, as it was with us).  If you are going to go to the water park, this is the way to do it right.

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What’s New at the World’s Largest LEGOLAND, Winter Haven, FL



We covered a lot of ground on our trip to Florida this summer, and, finally, The Girl got the chance to visit LEGOLAND® Florida, the world’s largest LEGOLAND theme park.

Two years ago, we were invited to visit for the grand opening, but I only brought her older brother, who was the real LEGO fan…at the time. Since then, she’s almost caught up to his level of fervor for the colorful plastic bricks. She especially loves the “Friends” line just for girls.

So, our visit was successful in alleviating my motherly guilt about not bringing her the first time, but also in seeing what’s been introduced since it opened.

Editor’s Note: Check back on Friday, when The Boy will offer his own LEGOLAND review!

New LEGOLAND highlights include:

LEGO World of Chima

There’s an entirely new area of the park called the LEGO World of Chima, which complements the animated show on Cartoon Network. There are several rides and activities, the highlight being “The Quest for CHI” wet ride. You board watercraft in small groups, and battle other boats with water cannons. There’s a definite masculine vibe here, especially at the Speedorz Arena where you race rip cord LEGO vehicles.

World of Chima

World of Chima

The VIP Experience

Another new offering at LEGOLAND Florida is the VIP Experience, which we were able to experience as part of our hosted media tour. With this package, you’re escorted by a private guide, you get “Hero Access” to skip the ride lines, and you get a snack and lunch.

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NASA’s Kennedy Space Center: Still Open, and Worth The Trip

space suits

NASA’s Kennedy Space Center

This U.S. government shutdown is going to do a number on the tourism industry, since all national parks, monuments, and historic sites are closed. And while NASA, the space agency, is also closed, it’s important to note that Kennedy Space Center near Titusville, FL is still open. The Visitor Center Complex is managed and operated by a private concern, Delaware North Companies Parks & Resorts, and not funded through public monies. There are a few services within the attraction, such as the KSC Bus Tours and the KSC Up-Close Tours, which won’t run until the furlough is over, but there is still a full day’s worth of activities you can enjoy.

This summer, we visited NASA’s Kennedy Space Center because it’s home to three world’s largests: the world’s largest twin IMAX® theater; the world’s largest collection of personal astronaut mementos; and the world’s largest store for space-related memorabilia.

Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex

It’s a smart strategy to consult the visitor complex map to make a plan for your day. We scheduled our day around the astronaut meet-and-greet. One of the biggest highlights for us as a family was the chance to meet astronaut Rick Searfross following his presentation at the Astronaut Encounter Theater, during which he described his experiences piloting three space shuttle missions. Translating that from Geek to English, we met Santa Claus, the Dalai Lama, and Bruce Springsteen, all rolled into one.

Rick Searfross

Meeting former astronaut Rick Searfross, and trying to keep it cool.

We actually didn’t get the chance to see a movie in the world’s largest twin IMAX® theater, because we had two other priorities: Space Shuttle Atlantis and the Angry Birds Space Encounter.

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Dinosaur World, Plant City, FL: World’s Largest Dinosaur Attraction

Dinosaur World

Dinosaur World, Plant City, Florida

In the summer “Pro” column: school’s out, so we can take fun trips to BIG places. In the “Con” column: school’s out, and having two kids at home leaves little time to blog about it!

We’re just back from almost three weeks in central Florida, and we made tracks across that state, let me tell you. We’ll be sharing the details in future posts, but our trip included visits to: the world’s largest manmade penguin colony; the world’s largest LEGOLAND; the world’s largest Hard Rock Café; the world’s largest collection of personal astronaut mementos and historic spacecraft; and the world’s largest accredited sanctuary for big cats!

But our first stop was to Dinosaur World, the world’s largest dinosaur attraction. I’ve seen the giant T-Rex menacingly stalking the I-4 highway many times on the drive between Tampa and Orlando, and have always wanted to stop in.

I could not have picked a hotter day to visit. It was 173 degrees in the shade. This is what I looked — and felt — like:


The friendly Dilophosaurus, best known for appearing in the movie “Jurassic Park.”

Actually, this is just one of more than 150 life-sized dinosaurs you’ll see as you take the paved – and gloriously shaded – “Dinosaur Walk” through a forest setting. Fact-filled signs near each creature provide paleontology lessons along the way. The dinosaur models, up to eighty feet long, are made of fiberglass, steel, and concrete.


These Brachiosaurus can also be seen from the I-4 highway. Which could be startling at night if you’re not expecting them!

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Fantasy of Flight: World’s Largest Private Collection of Vintage Airplanes

Fantasy of Flight

Fantasy of Flight, Polk City, FL

I remember my first flight; a KLM 747 from JFK to Amsterdam, en route to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. I was only seven, and so I thought the airplane would shoot straight up into the sky on a nearly vertical trajectory. Flying in an airplane was a fantastical voyage for me then. It still is.

So I get why Kermit Weeks began amassing his own collection of vintage airplanes at Fantasy of Flight to preserve their romantic history.

Where we went, and who was coerced into going:

We were looking for large on our summer vacation to Orlando, and we weren’t disappointed. After an itinerary of gators, potatoes, planetariums, and Big Macs, Fantasy of Flight offered something a little different — the world’s largest private collection of vintage airplanes.

WHY did you go there, exactly?

We stayed in a lovely USA Vacation Home in Davenport, which was 20 miles west of Orlando. This location brought us pretty close to Polk City; too close to pass up the opportunity!

Okay, what was so cool about it?

This attraction offers more than a museum of old planes.  You know that wouldn’t be enough to hold a kid’s interest! Even in the main hangars, there are several planes to climb into and play with the controls, as well as a few flight simulators.


A Young Earhart in her Cessna

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Gatorland: World’s Largest Collection of White Alligators, Orlando, FL

Gatorland“Family travel” is a term conjuring images of theme parks and children’s museums, in between stops at local ice cream parlors. As a helicopter parent, I’m all for that safe, reliable model of away-from-home entertainment. So I’m still trying to figure out what came over me when we visited Gatorland in Orlando, FL this summer.  I brought my two kids into a pen containing a white, ten-foot alligator.

Of course, Gatorland — one of Florida’s oldest attractions – is a wholesome family outing; one which I highly recommend to get off the beaten theme park track. And we could have stayed along the sidewalks to passively view the gator habitats and the “wrestlin’” shows with their campy yet endearing theatrics. But on this day, we met Trezo Je. And I loosened my death grip on the apron strings, more than a little.

Here’s how it happened: I contacted the local tourism office, which I normally do before we travel, to request assistance in planning our visits to the area’s attractions. They’re always willing to help travel writers and bloggers find great adventures, so they arranged for us to meet Tim Williams, the “Dean of Gator Wrestling,” when we arrived at Gatorland.

Tim immediately put all of us at ease with his obvious experience and knowledge about all of Gatorland’s residents, which include all manner of reptilians, as well as birds, zebu, deer, and emus. Before we even left his office, our kids were wearing baby alligators on their heads. And not freaking out.


We were there expressly to see the world’s largest collection of the extremely rare Leucistic alligators. Only 15 are known to exist in the world, and four of them live at Gatorland. They have white skin, but unlike the more common albino alligator, have some color variations, as well as steely blue eyes instead of pink. While albino gators have other genetic mutations and tend not to survive to adulthood, Leucistic gators are strong, healthy… and mean.

Leucistic alligator

Tim brought us to their pens. Trezo Je lives alone, because apparently he doesn’t warm to company. (Get it, warm? Cold-blooded? Still with me?) He and the other white gators were relocated from Louisiana bayous, so his name honors his Cajun Creole “roots.” Trezo Je means “Treasure’s Eye.”

Tim introduced us to the animal trainer who works with these gators, and asked him to bring us in to the small space surrounded by wood and plexiglass walls. The trainer opened the door, Tim waved me in, and I …just…went. No dramatic protests, no time to wish my husband farewell. Then he sent my kids in behind me, and those chickens from my own gene pool followed me blindly.

Trezo Je

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Orlando Science Center: World’s Largest Digistar Planetarium

We’re just back from Boston, and summer is winding down. Say, is that a dim light I see at the end of the tunnel?? Why, it looks like the light coming from a local elementary school classroom…

Orlando Science Center

Photo credit: Orlando Science Center

Of course, we have yet to share all of our Orlando adventures, so…

Where we went, and who was coerced into going:

Picture it: Orlando. Summertime. A heat-phobic family of nerdy tourists needing somewhere to escape. Orlando Science Center to the rescue!

WHY did you go there, exactly?

Orlando is not only theme parks, a fact which I urge everyone to consider when they visit. There are some really fun attractions which have nothing to do with a certain mouse and his friends.

Because we proudly fly the geek flag on our homestead, we’re always up for a visit to a science museum. The OSC lured us in with its promise of the world’s largest Digistar Planetarium.

Okay, what was so cool about it?

The Planetarium was our last stop, after visiting the center’s other exhibits. The kids enjoyed the “DinoDigs” exhibit gallery features several reproduction skeletons of dinosaurs and prehistoric sea creatures, including a T-Rex. Two fossil dig areas attracted a gaggle of kids clamoring to find dino bones.

The Girl especially enjoyed being with other pre-schoolers in KidsTown, where she spent an inordinate amount of time at the water table and in the pretend orange juice processing plant.

water table

Remaining relatively dry at the water table.

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