The circus is dead. Long live its successors

January 15, 2017, 12:04 PM · Feld Entertainment announced today that it will close the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus this spring, bringing to a close a 146 year run. Circuses were one of the progenitors of the themed entertainment industry, so it's well worth a moment for fans of theme parks to think about what the passing of the most famous circus in America might mean for the industry.

But before we look back at the past, let's consider the present — in which the circus hasn't been relevant to any broad audience in at least a generation. I thought Disney blundered in using this theme for the Storybook Circus section of the recent Fantasyland expansion at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom. Yes, Dumbo continues to draw thousands of fans daily at Disney's theme parks, and the company had a great opportunity to expand that ride's capacity by adding a carousel and making it the centerpiece of a new themed area.

But Dumbo's a big draw because it's the chance to ride on a flying elephant, not because of any ongoing popular affinity for the circus setting of the original 1941 Disney animated film. Disney would have done better to give Dumbo the kind of retcon treatment it gave the Song of the South characters and songs when it designed Splash Mountain. Flying elephants are cool. Circuses are not.

So... why not? Why did circuses lose their appeal? This is where we look to the past, to understand the entertainment void that circuses once filled. Circuses starting entertaining fans not just in the days before the Internet, or television, but before anyone could listen to the radio or go to the movies. With their "big top" tents, pulled up by elephants and hauled around the country by rail, circuses could set up and wow people in far-flung towns that weren't a part of the vaudeville circuit.

If you lived in one of these towns, the day the circus showed up was a big deal. Imagine getting the Internet, TV, movies, online gaming, and radio for just one weekend a year, and having to do without any digital entertainment the rest of the times. That weekend would be like what the circus coming to town was more than 100 years ago. It'd be nuts.

Now, I threw all those different entertainment media together not just to make a point about scale. Circuses really were kind of like throwing together movies, video games and concerts altogether. They provided a mash-up of clowns, daredevils, acrobats, and animal acts — the only chance almost all audience members ever would get to see elephants, lions, and other exotic animals in their entire lives.

With the circus on town maybe once a year, it had to provide something for everyone — so it tried. But as the years past and people did start going to the movies, listening to radio, watching TV and going online, circuses such as Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus kept offering that same, stale mix of entertainment from more than a century ago. Once the youngest fans who remembered the days when the circus was entertainment grew old and passed on, the circus' end as a nostalgia act was near. And once the children of those last original fans gave up, well, that end is now here.

Clowns terrify as a horror cliche more than they make any children laugh these days. Daredevils can't complete with Michael Bay's CGI. Zoos and animal parks provide better environments in which to watch exotic animals, where we can learn about their native environments and professional care. And for acrobats? Well, here's where one circus promoter did evolve to compete with modern entertainment. Canada's Cirque du Soleil cut the rest of the circus show, focused on the acrobatics, set it to music and set a new standard for amazing performances that Ringling Bros and the like simply didn't match.

Feld Entertainment, the company that has owned the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus since 1960, will go on producing its many other shows, including Marvel Universe Live and Disney on Ice. So even if its circus did not adapt, its parent company did.

But let's give some respect. Disneyland has wrapped its 61st year. That means it has 85 more years to go just to match the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Circus founder P.T. Barnum is a member of IAAPA's Attractions Hall of Fame. (He was inducted in 2012, 121 years after his death.) Circuses begat traveling carnivals, which begat the theme park industry. And there's no question that the circus provided one of the primary sources of entertainment inspiration for a young Walt Disney. That's why he put Dumbo and the Casey Jr. Circus Train in his park, after all.

The circus might no longer be relevant as modern entertainment, but its history remains crucially relevant to the entire themed entertainment industry today. And part of that circus history is its passing. The circus leaves a final lesson to its successors in themed entertainment: Know your audience and deliver what it wants — not just what your former audience wanted, generations ago. Ignore this lesson, and suffer the circus' fate.

Replies (17)

January 15, 2017 at 1:00 PM · Its a shame to see such a great going. A travelling version of the Moscow Circus came to Glasgow last year with its 7 Zhelaniy show. Although crowds may prefer the CGI graphics nonsense that Mr Bay can do, I think its clear even in a striped down state, he cannot compare with the circus - even a post animal circus.
January 15, 2017 at 1:34 PM · It would be great if they created and living museum with live acts permanently in Florida Maybe like the old Circus World. Something that complements the Ringling Museum in Sarasota.
January 15, 2017 at 1:41 PM · For an excellent look back at what circuses were like in their heydey, watch the Oscar-winning film "The Greatest Show On Earth."
January 15, 2017 at 2:49 PM · The circus train parks next to my home every time they come to town. I will greatly miss seeing the extreamly talented performers come to my home town. For me the only part of the circus that has fallen out of modern senseablilties is the exotic animal acts. I would have loved to see the circus continue without that one element.

This is a very sad day indeed.

January 15, 2017 at 3:01 PM · Storybook Circus is interesting in much the way that Main Street USA is, by taking a idealized look at a unique time and place in history. The Magic Kingdom version has more charm than any real circus had. While an expansion on other fantasy properties maybe would have made more sene, I still enjoy this area. While significant in history it is clear that the traditional circus has not been relevant in decades and its demise is not unexpected.
January 15, 2017 at 3:42 PM · I found it disappointing that they couldn't design a new show without the elephants that people wouldn't mind seeing. The stadium show is just too big. Their acts are nothing new. Cirque did this for years and charged top dollar. RingLing caters to families and kids. I went my share of RingLing, Vargas, and Cirque shows, and Disney Ice Shows. I was also sad the original ice shows no longer exists like the Ice Capades and Champions On Ice. It's replaced by Stars On Ice that I haven't seen tour yet.
January 15, 2017 at 3:59 PM · Walt loved circuses so much that he opened the Mickey Mouse Club Circus in Disneyland, but it closed in a couple of months. People going to Disneyland were not interested in stopping to watch a circus, even in 1955. It's sad though, that not enough people are going to see a circus today.

I disagree though, that it was a mistake to theme the Dumbo area to a circus. I remember years ago they were planning a Dumbo's circus area where Big Thunder Ranch was. It was going to have a dark ride with Goofy, etc. performing circus acts. I think this would have been great if it was done properly.

It's a Small World is great because of the sheer scale of the ride, and the large amount of animatronics. The Little Mermaid ride disappoints because the scale is smaller and it has few animatronics, even though they are more sophisticated. Super Star Limo suffered because it was low budget, small scale AND corny.

People today may not go to see a circus, but I still think it is a good theme for a Dumbo area. Storybook Circus isn't that great because it's basically a big store, a Casey Junior play area and a not-so-great Goofy coaster. But if it had an immersive dark ride, that would be different.

Another land worth talking about is Paradise Pier at DCA. It started out as a hip version of a California seaside amusement park. They tried to make it more period specific, like the glory days of the early 1900s, but they haven't gone far enough. It still looks like a plain amusement zone, which Walt was trying to get away from.

Circuses may not be revelant to this generation, but it can still work as place from days gone past to escape to. After all, how many people today can relate to Main Street or for that matter, Buena Vista Street? But they're still cool places to hang out in.

January 15, 2017 at 4:28 PM · Main Street U.S.A. Works in part because there are still small towns across the country that were once very similar. Today however, many at least partially empty, have been altered to the point they no longer resemble their original facade, and are have empty lots where buildings once stood. Instead of going back to the Main Street of Childhood, it's now seeing it for the very first time. While I enjoyed the circus as a kid in the late 90s and early 00s, I'm sure it meant more to children of the past. I think it's awesome when Disney recreates elements of the past and let's new generations get a taste of the past. While it's sad circuses are disappearing, at least Disney is in a way preserving them. Maybe someday they will have a circus show again. If there's no longer any others left, people may be willing to enjoy them at Disney, at least more than in 1955.
January 15, 2017 at 7:26 PM · This also may be related to how society is less interested in live animal acts and more aware of their plight. Sea World also discontinued their orca shows, so maybe the writing was on the walls for circuses too.
January 15, 2017 at 8:31 PM · The circus news this morning made me sad. Robert's comments about the circus and its appeal seemed dismissive to me and made me disappointed. I disagree with some of his key points. In particular, I think Robert made an error in his assessment of why the traditional circus failed.

I don't believe it is because children became disinterested in the circus because of too many alternative and better forms of entertainment, thus making the circus "stale". I believe the traditional circus failed because the Parents started to Believe that this type of entertainment does not appeal to children (at least children of a certain age). Or worse, parents began to project their interests and disinterests onto their children. While certainly not broad proof of my opinion, I have one personal story to highlight this.

I have a 6-year-old and a 2-year-old. Last year, I took my then 5-year-old to the circus and we left our younger child at home because of fear of too much stimulation. At the end of the show, my very excited son turned to me, shook me, and said "THIS REALLY IS THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH." He's not a country bumpkin. We travel extensively (he's been to several countries and states), own iPads and Android devices, a TiVo, a Google Home and Amazon Dot, have Netflix and Hulu and Amazon Prime, etc. He's been to Disneyland, Disney World, Cedar Point, Busch Gardens, and other similar places. Real people and animals, doing real risky things, right before his eyes, exceeded most of these experiences for him.

I look back on my childhood (I'm 34 now), and times I went to the circus with my family are some of those few memories that have cemented themselves in my consciousness because of the entirety of the experience (personal and shared). I will not have the opportunity to create this shared experience with my younger child (or again with my older child), and that makes me sad. One could say "well you can get a similar fix in the future in VR from the Oculus" or whatever future form of virtual entertainment exists in the future, but I don't think this is true. People still and will continue flock to concerts, sports events, theme parks, and other live activities because real > fake. They don't flock to the circus because there is this narrative out there that children don't or can't or won't enjoy the circus. This post perpetuates that narrative. I typically agree with Robert, but this struck a nerve. I don't want to dive into the morality and ethics of the animal component of the circus, because that is a different and complicated topic altogether.

I'm just one guy, but it's an opinion from the other side. Thanks for reading this far.

January 15, 2017 at 10:22 PM · It's sad and a shame indeed, but the world changed and the circus did not.

It was just the same old circus, failing to evolve and adapt to the times.

Movie Cinemas and even Televisions have evolved since they were first introduced but the circus experience stayed the same. Nothing new, a one and done experience. The circus did not provide reasons to come back again.

Mind you, it did outlast 8 track, Vinyl records, cassette tapes, VHS, Betamax, VCD and Laser Disc.=)

January 16, 2017 at 10:43 AM · I was very happy to hear this news. Wild animals are not here to do tricks for humans, or to be whipped by humans. They belong in the wild. I'm all for humans doing tricks in Cirque du Soleil, but not the animals.
January 16, 2017 at 11:29 AM · The truth is in the pudding, or in the number of sold tickets. The switch from old to new came to late. It could happen to every business, like the American car industry or a certain theme parks that is riding the nostalgia wave for way to long.

I can recommend the Ringling Circus Museum and Ca'd'Zan at Sarasota, FL.

January 16, 2017 at 8:59 PM · I may the only one who is not particularly saddened by this news. I'm indifferent. I have never been to/seen a traveling circus and have never had a desire to. Apparently I'm not alone if the ticket sales are down that much. These things happen. Time is as much of a curse as it is a gift. I feel the same way about the circus as I do boxing, beauty pageants, and pennies, let them go, let them go.
January 17, 2017 at 9:33 AM · This is like the loss of any classic Disney attraction. There are fans who will mourn it and people who won't care. Kids growing up will never have known about it and only have family's old home movies to witness it. I did see a few circuses as a child but they never really wowed me like the first trip to WDW. Sadly what I remember most was the smell inside the tent from elephants and other animals who well....have to potty somewhere. I'm sure Ringling Brothers was a totally different operation but I still have no attachment to the circus.
January 17, 2017 at 12:10 PM · What if they turned the whole thing on its head and had the animals whipping the humans and demanding that the humans do inane tricks for Cheetos? Could we then get the elephants back?
January 20, 2017 at 11:56 PM · Thank you--I really enjoyed the article.
I'm old enough to recall a true sawdust and tent traveling circus (Clyde Beatty/Cole Bros.) as well as the more recent indoor sports arena versions of Barnum & Bailey's new-gimmick-every-year circuses. In my humble opinion, the latter was just too slick and prepackaged for my tastes. The grandkids had a nice time the first time then a second trip 2 years later seemed (in their words) "hokey." They've seen La Nouba 3 times, however, and have sat mesmerized each time--as have I. Hooray for CdS!
The circus was what it was and now it's history. Good lessons for Disney to remember.

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