Circus World Museum Brings Circus History to Life

By on August 23, 2013

Immerse yourself in circus history at Circus World Museum in Baraboo, WI.
PT Barnum sideshow banner at Circus World Museum in Baraboo, WI

Ringling Bros. Circus was founded in Baraboo, Wisconsin in 1884. For thirty-four years it was the location of their winter quarters, where they returned at the end of the season. They relocated to warmer climates in 1918 due to the effects of the harsh Wisconsin winters on the animals.

Those grounds are now home to the Circus World Museum, where the old buildings are now filled with calliope music and relics from the golden age of circus history such as sideshow banners, clown mallets, circus fliers and more.

Related: Adopt a Circus Wagon at Circus World

During the Summer season Circus World puts on two big top shows a day. A variety of other acts fill in throughout the day, including the wheel of death act, hands-on circus skills training for kids, an elephant show and performances by resident illusionist Tristan Crist.

You are immersed in the wonder and opulence of circus history from the moment you step through the front doors. The walls are adorned with huge illustrated posters that once heralded the arrival of the circus, depicting animals and performers in lavish costumes and daring acts. Sprawling dioramas with cut-away tents reveal the excitement of the circus experience in detailed miniature.

Circus Wagons

Vintage circus wagons at Circus World
When the circus rolled into town, the ornate wagons extravagantly carved with mythological creatures and fairy tale scenes in gold and silver paraded through the streets with performers and animals to entice the locals.

Of particular interest is the Snake Den, a glass-sided wagon built in 1902 which would carry the snake charmer with a huge, writhing python.

Circus World is home to two-thirds of the world’s remaining circus wagons, some of which were used in the 2011 film Water for Elephants. The on-site restoration center continually works to preserve the wagons and return them to their former glory.

Big Top

During the Summer season the spectacular main event happens in the red-and-white stripped Hippodrome building. The one-ring circus includes a variety of acts from dogs and monkeys performing tricks to the hilarious antics of Roger the Clown as he strives unsuccessfully to fill in for the trapeze act.


While Baraboo’s International Clown Hall of Fame and Research Center is not located at Circus World, there is plenty of clown history to be had in the historic barns, including a collection of over-sized clown mallets, a pair of huge antique clown shoes and a collection of what appears to be castings of famous clowns painted with their signature makeup.

Coulrophobes beware.


Tristan Crist’s magic theater is filled wall-to-wall with mystifying prints of vintage magic posters from the great illusionists of the late 19th and early 20th century – Kellar, Thurston, Alexander and Houdini.

Crist performs an entertaining selection of traditional stage illusions such as walking through a plate glass mirror and compacting his lovely assistant into a one-foot square box. He also calls up kids from the crowd to help out, lending humor to some of the otherwise mundane tricks.

The magic shop includes a signature Tristan Crist magic wand and magic trick kit if you are having a mid-life crisis and looking for a career change.

Crist’s performances runs all year. He guarantees you’ll see something new each time.


Sideshow banner at Circus World Museum in Baraboo, WIThe Circus World sideshow lies beyond the towering banners painted with irresistibly lurid acts. The red-and-white stripped tent contains life-size statues of freak show staples such as the fat lady, bearded lady, snake charmer, sword swallower, tattooed woman, dog boy and Siamese twins Chang and Eng.

A replica of the infamous Cardiff Giant pays tribute to the sideshow’s long history of gaffs, hoaxes and controversy.

If you are bringing the kids, don’t worry – this Cardiff Giant has been castrated.

Run Off to Join the Circus

Circus World is about 20 minutes from Wisconsin Dells, the weird oasis in the middle of Wisconsin’s desolate rural wastelands.

For up-to-date info and schedules check out the Circus World website right here.

Charlie Hintz

About Charlie Hintz

Charlie is the creator and curator of the bizarre for Cult of Weird. When he's not writing or rotting away at his mind-numbing day job, he can be found working on graphic design projects for horror media and hunting down local legends around his home state of Wisconsin. Though he prefers more tangible oddities, he maintains a skeptical interest in the paranormal. Probably as an excuse to explore beyond the no trespassing signs.

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