A Kid Friendly Midwest Getaway: See The Freaks At Circus World In Baraboo

Five years ago, when my wife and I had our first child, our lives as travelers changed. We still hit the road just as often as before, but now we find ourselves seeking out zoos and playgrounds and children’s museums and a host of other kid friendly attractions that we never would have visited during our childless years. Most of the time, I acquiesce to the child-centric activities more or less kicking and screaming, and although I enjoy watching my kids have fun, 3- and 5-year-old boys aren’t exactly well known for showing gratitude and appreciation, so I sometimes wonder if the kid stuff is worth it.

Over the Memorial Day weekend, we treated our boys to the one kid-focused activity we’ve never tried before: a circus. These days, many of the larger traveling circuses perform in large arenas, which hold little appeal for me. I wanted to bring my kids to an old-school circus performed under a big top, and I found what I was looking for at Circus World, in Baraboo, Wisconsin, about three hours northwest of Chicago, and just 10 minutes from the tourist trap insanity of the Wisconsin Dells.

Baraboo is ground zero for circus enthusiasts. It was here on May 19, 1884, that the five Ringling Brothers – Al, Otto, Alfred, Charles and John – staged their first circus act. There were 21 performers, a small tent, a hyena and three horses in the act. Tickets cost 15 to 35 cents and they soon took their act on the road, pulling into small towns all across the country with their hand-carved circus wagons, advertising strong men, bearded women, ferocious animals and the like.

Circus World is both museum and circus, and before the circus started, we took some time to check out the museum, which tells the story of how the Ringlings turned their little circus into a global juggernaut. The Ringlings were the offspring of August Rungeling, who emigrated from Germany to Milwaukee in 1848. He changed his name to Ringling, married and had 11 children, three of whom died in infancy. The five brothers got into the circus act, with Al, the oldest, serving as the ringleader. He married a snake handler from Iowa and could balance a huge plow on his chin unsupported.

In 1918, the brothers bought out Barnum & Bailey, their chief rival, and the business evolved into a national railway show. They got rich and used some of their money to build lavish homes and other buildings, including the gorgeous Al Ringling Cinema, which still stands today in downtown Baraboo. (The museum doesn’t mention the fact that just one Ringling heir still lives in the Baraboo area today, and he’s in prison for sexually assaulting a 10-year-old boy.)

A stroll through the museum’s collection of old circus posters and the even more interesting hall of circus wagons gives one an idea of how un-politically correct circuses were back in the day. Any sort of deformity could be turned into an attraction – a short-armed man was called “Seal Boy,” and various posters advertised bearded ladies, East Indian dwarves, “Giraffe-necked” women from Burma, sword swallowers, an Egyptian Giant and a “Man Without a Stomach,” among many others.

In the pre-television era, going to a circus was a common form of entertainment, especially for people who lived in smaller towns. Popular circus acts became household names across the nation. For example, some 40 million Americans saw a gorilla from the Belgian Congo named Gargantua the Great.

After watching a magic show, we scored front row seats under the big top, and settled in to watch the show. The first act was a woman in her 50s or 60s who was dressed up like a pop star in oversized white sunglasses, a gray wig and a revealing, open-backed shimmery, sequined costume. She brought out “the world’s only performing Persian cat” and a slew of “Afghan dogs” that performed a variety of jumps, tricks and dances. It all seemed preposterous to me, but my sons, who were devouring an industrial size portion of cotton candy, were transfixed.

The dogs were eventually replaced by a comically effeminate Columbia contortionist wearing eye makeup and a three-sizes-too-tight gymnast costume. I had to avert my eyes as he contorted his body one way and other, looking as though he was about to break a limb at any moment and resisted the urge to leave altogether when he actually fit his entire body inside a small, clear box.

The next performer was a comically buffoonish character who did a slapstick routine revolving around his supposed inability to jump on a trampoline. I thought it was ridiculous, but when I looked over at my sons, they were roaring and squealing in delight. I don’t think I have ever seen them so happy.

Next, we were introduced to Spirit, the “world’s smallest performing show pony,” as the PA system blasted the ludicrous “My Little Pony” theme song and an older woman in a garish Hungarian folk costume led Spirit around in circles.

The final act of the afternoon was easily the most preposterous. A woman wearing a feathered Indian headdress and a far-too revealing sequined costume brought out a host of little monkeys on leashes and proceeded to coax them into jumping from platform to platform, 20 feet up in the air. Her male counterpart was a Greek looking man with a unibrow who looked like Pete Sampras might if he lives to be 110. When the monkeys dawdled, he whacked them on the asses to get them to jump, and after they’d done their standard jump a few times he said, “Now we’re going to see if they can jump 12 feet. We hope they can make it!” I was rooting for the monkeys to go on strike, but it didn’t happen.

The monkeys made it and while the whole farce seemed exploitative and just plain dumb to me, I couldn’t deny how much my sons had enjoyed the spectacle. On the way out, we filed past a guy holding a huge snake, asking $10 for a photo, and my 5-year-old son, Leo, was uncharacteristically grateful.

“Dad,” he said. “Thank you so much for taking me to the circus!”

Midwest Weekend Getaway: Baraboo And Devil’s Lake State Park In Wisconsin

Chicago is a world-class city but there are many occasions when those of us that live here want out, at least for the weekend. And while the city is a terrific flight hub, quick and dirty road trip options are limited, especially if you’ve lived in the city for a long time and have exhausted most of the choice destinations. A few years ago, my wife and I took a hiking excursion to Wisconsin’s Devil’s Lake State Park, about an hour northwest of Madison, and vowed to return for a camping trip one day.

We finally got our chance the last weekend of September, and were blessed with glorious sunny weather and blue skies to complement the changing leaves. Planning a camping trip for a family of four feels like preparing for war though, and three hours into the drive with our are-we-there-yet sons, ages 3 and 5, our nerves and patience were shot.

It was about 5:30 p.m. and we were hoping to score one of the first-come-first-serve tent sites at Devil’s Lake State Park, as all their reserved spots were full. We were blindly following our GPS to the park when Julie, our friendly Australian GPS navagatrix said, “Turn right onto the Merrimac Ferry.” We were all excited to be only 10 miles away from the park and thought we’d be there in 15 minutes, but all of the sudden we were sitting in a fairly long line of cars waiting to get on a ferry.

As soon as we pulled in, more cards pulled in the line right behind us, so it wasn’t possible to back out, and the GPS indicated that any detour would be time consuming. At first, I was irate because I thought we’d have to pay for the ferry and was concerned that by the time we found a campsite, we’d have to erect our tent in the dark.

My wife asked the two cars in front of us how much the ferry cost but alas, they were also following their GPS’s as well and were just as clueless as we were. But the ferry turned out to be free, the line moved quickly and we took the opportunity to get out of our car and enjoy the fresh air and the views of the Wisconsin River. The odd thing is that almost everyone remained inside their parked cars; both in line and on the ferry itself, despite the fact that it was a beautiful early fall evening.

Tent sites at the park were all booked up but we made it to a more expensive and less salubrious campground a couple miles outside the park just before darkness fell. (Tip: book way in advance to get a $17 per night tent site at Devil’s Lake S.P.; it’s the best deal in the area by far) Nevertheless, we were still able to enjoy Devil’s Lake in all of its early fall splendor.

Devil’s Lake is huge. It’s a 360-acre lake that is flanked by 500-foot bluffs. In the late 19th century, the park was home to a number of resort hotels and a train line brought tourists in from all over the Midwest. These days, camping is your only option in the park itself but there are 29 miles of hiking trails to explore, including portions of the 1,000-plus-mile Ice Age National Scenic Trail. I’m partial to the West Bluff trail, which starts near the north entrance to the park and offers a good workout and some incredible views down over the lake.

We were prepared to love Devil’s Lake, but the very pleasant surprise of the weekend was Baraboo’s eminently loveable old-school downtown, which features two good bookstores, one new, one used, a classic, circa 1915 cinema, a free zoo and a host of enticing restaurants and shops. The Ringling Brothers put the town on the map by basing their circus there and that legacy lives on at the Circus World Museum, which is part museum, part working circus.

As we lingered at a Saturday morning farmers market outside the town’s stately courthouse, an older man in a flannel shirt noticed my camera and asked if we wanted to know more about the town. The man, who introduced himself as Gary, was hanging out with his brother Rick on a bench, and I had the distinct impression that they sit there every day.

“Do you remember JFK?” Gary asked us.

“Of course,” I said, wondering where he was going with the question.

“He walked right up those steps over there and shook our hands here when he was campaigning for president,” he said as though the event had just happened recently.

After shooting the breeze with Gary and Rick, we checked out the Al Ringling Cinema, which was built for $100,000 in 1915, during the height of the silent film era. It’s a beautifully restored old cinema that still hosts live theater, movies and a variety of other events. I ambled in for a look and a woman named Charlene, who works there, told me that only one member of the Ringling family still lives in the area, and he’s in prison for sexually assaulting a 10-year-old boy.

Nevertheless, the town still clings to the Ringling connection – there are several Ringling Brothers banners posted around town, and it’s still a great place to visit. If you want to take an alternate route back to the Chicago area, consider a stop off in New Glarus, a handsome little town founded by Swiss immigrants from the canton of Glarus in the 1840s, on your way home. The town retains its distinctive Swiss character and is situated right off of the Sugar River State Trail, a really nice bike path.

We happened to be in New Glarus for their annual Oktoberfest, which on its final day featured, oddly enough, a roots and blues band but no German music. But they did have New Glarus Oktoberfest beer, which was a sweet way to end a glorious early fall weekend in Wisconsin.

IF YOU GO: The drive to Baraboo takes about 3-1/2 hours from Chicago, depending on traffic and where you start. We stayed at a private campground near the park, which charges $28 for tent sites or $31 if you use a credit card (almost double the price of Devil’s Lake State Park). I can’t recommend the place because the tent sites are very close to each other and the owner is a bit of a crank.

Try to get a spot at Devil’s Lake State Park itself, if you can. Reservations are hard to come by on the weekend, but each day they also set aside 54 first-come-first-served spots, so get there early. For good, inexpensive Mexican food with gigantic portions, go to Los Nopales, and try Jen’s Alpine Café for a very good, if time consuming, breakfast. It’s an old-school place right downtown that’s been around since the 1930s.

[Photos and videos by Dave Seminara]