PORT MANATEE -- The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is coming to Port Manatee six weeks a year for at least the next decade. But don't expect to see a big top spring up dockside.
Nearly 90 years after John Ringling established winter quarters for his world-famous circus in Sarasota in 1927, acrobats, clowns and other performers will make Manatee their holiday port of call when their live-aboard train parks on a mile
of track alongside U.S. 41 just before Thanksgiving.
Think of it as a vacation home for the circus set with a peek-a-boo view of the Manatee County Jail and just clown-car commuting distance from the circus' new headquarters in Palmetto. This week, the circus' parent company, Palmetto-based Feld Entertainment, will sign a lease under which the port will host dozens of live-aboard train cars full of its performers as they take time off the road for the holidays and to prep for their upcoming biennial tour.
Starting Nov. 17, the circus will park up to 61 train cars on a railroad spur that is otherwise used for storing freight cars involved in transport operations to and from the port. About 36 circus cars will house up to 250 performers for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday season. For the past 20 years, Feld wintered its performers in the Tampa area.
Philip Misiura, Feld's director of real estate, said the circus performers come off the road to prepare for their next national tour. Feld operates two units of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus, each performing for two years across about 90 cities. Those units alternate their winter stays in Florida.
During the six-week break, Feld rebuilds the circus show, then sends it out with a new theme. In mid-November, the circus' "red unit" will take its "Built to Amaze" show off the road. It will embark for its first January dates in Tampa under the new title "Circus Xtreme."
While at the port, the performers will live in the residential train units as they do year-round. Most will commute daily to Feld's nearly 600,000-square-foot facility in Palmetto.
"This is our window to get everyone down here and get costumes, props and choreography," Misiura said.
Feld will pay the port $22,000 this year to use the spur and an adjacent lot. The lease term runs through 2024 and can be renewed after that in five-year increments. The lease payment will increase by 2.25 percent each year. Feld will improve parking and turnaround areas at the property to give it better vehicle access. Circus personnel will have room to park about 40 vehicles beside the train.
The cars will occupy about 5,400 feet of track at the north end of the port near Harlee Road, just south of the county jail.
On site, the Feld train will operate much like an RV park. It has its own electric generator for power, while water will come from a nearby hydrant. Sewage will be pumped out of the train cars and trucked away for off-site disposal.
Accommodations inside the trains resemble a cross between a cruise ship cabin and an RV. Some of the living units can span half the length of a 90-foot train car. Other cars may contain up to 10 living units.
While Feld's nearby facility does have rail access, it lacks enough track to park its entire circus train. Cars carrying animals or that are in need of repair will detach from the locomotive at Feld headquarters before the majority of the train parks at the port.
Carlos Buqueras, the port's executive director, said the arrangement is an example of synergy between the port and local business. The port started working with Feld before the company relocated to Palmetto in 2013, in hopes of attracting some of the company's overseas shipping. Feld sends its Disney on Ice, Disney theatrical and motorsports shows to international destinations via seaports.
Buqueras and Misiura say they are hopeful this business will come to Port Manatee.
"They would save thousands of dollars by shipping through Port Manatee for their foreign acts," Buqueras said.
The circus train cars will be located outside of Port Manatee's security perimeter. However, port security staff will monitor the site to make sure its new circus clients remain safe.
According to an online history kept by Ringling Museum docent Willem van Osnabrugge, Ringling Bros. Circus owner John Ringling first established winter quarters for his circus near the Beneva-Fruitville intersection in Sarasota. Those quarters moved to a site fronting U.S. 41 in Venice in 1960.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.