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Ringling Bros. circus shutting down due to falling ticket sales, battles with animal rights groups

By Ryan Gillespie • Updated Jan 16, 2017 at 11:24 AM

Just hours after Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus told performers it was shutting down the circus in May, parents holding hands with giddy children trickled into the Amway Center on Sunday afternoon, eager to see the spectacle and excitement that's dazzled crowds since the 1880s.

For Brooke Johnson, 13, who comes to the show every year with her family, the news of its demise was disappointing.

"It's been a part of my life every year since I was born," said Brooke, who was at the Amway Center in what would turn out to be her last time seeing the Greatest Show on Earth. "It's been something I look forward to every year."

In a written statement, Feld Entertainment, the circus' parent company based in Manatee County, said its decision to shut down was a result of high costs and plummeting public interest. Following the removal of elephants from the circuses, Feld said, the company “saw a decline in ticket sales greater than could be anticipated.”

“We are grateful to the hundreds of millions of fans who have experienced Ringling Bros. over the years,” said CEO Kenneth Feld. “Between now and May, we will give them one last chance to experience the joy and wonder of Ringling Bros.”

For generations, the circus and Central Florida have enjoyed close ties. In addition to frequent stops at area venues, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus opened a Polk County theme park dubbed Circus World in the 1970s. The Haines City attraction was planned to become the winter home of the circus, but it closed after about a dozen years.

Just Thursday, the company's first female ringmaster in its 146-year history, Kristen Michelle Wilson of Orlando, made her circus debut in front of fans from her home city.

"I am so excited to show women, to show little girls, everything that is possible by owning who you are and having the enthusiasm and passion to pursue it," Wilson told the Sentinel last month.

The show's 100-plus performers were informed of the company's decision following shows in Orlando and Miami Saturday night.

Not everyone is unhappy to see the circus go.

On sidewalks flanking the arena on Sunday, protesters with the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida celebrated Ringling Bros. impending closure. They toted signs reading "The Cruelest Show on Earth," "Circuses: No fun for animals" and "No more chains, no more beatings."

One protester, Ashley Boatright, was posted on a sidewalk just behind the line of folks streaming into the Amway Center and shouted "Enjoy your last show!"

One man flipped his middle finger at her.

Bryan Wilson, a spokesman for the foundation, was driving home from the protest following the Saturday night show when news broke. It was after 2 a.m. before he finally calmed down enough to get to sleep.

"Today is a celebration," Wilson said Sunday. "This has been over 140 years of the suffering of animals. Every animal imaginable has lost his or her life at the hands of Ringling Bros. trainers."

Ticket sales declined steeply following the company's decision to remove elephants from its shows last May. The move came on the heels of some states passing legislation banning bullhooks, which were used to train the pachyderms, and others outlawing live-animal performances.

Eleven elephants were retired last year to Ringling's Center for Elephant Conservation 45 miles south of downtown Orlando. That ended the tradition of the circus rolling into town and elephants walking from the train to the Amway Center.

Barbara Keller, who was seated outside the ticket booth on Sunday with Zechariah, 9, was excited to introduce the circus to her grandson.

Keller grew up attending the circus at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

Years ago, she attended a show in Orlando at the old Amway Arena and wanted to share the experience with Zechariah. He was most excited for the clowns.

"This is his first circus he'll see, and it will probably be his last," Keller said. "Nothing is forever."

Wayne and Diane Dicken drove down from Daytona Beach to take their two young granddaughters to the circus.

The couple read from Wayne's phone the news about the fate of the circus they'd known for years. In the future, their granddaughters "won't be able to enjoy what we're taking them to today," Diane remarked.

"Everything but the animals — hopefully someone will carry that on," Wayne Dicken said. "I'll miss the entertainment part of it with the people more than the animals."

Ringling Bros.' last show will be May 7 in Providence, R.I.

As the 1 p.m. show was about to begin, about 30 of the protesters gathered at the corner of Hughey Avenue and Church Street for a sparkling cider toast to their 20-plus years of work.

"We knew this was an inevitable reality, but we never expected it so soon," Wilson said. "These animals will no longer be touring and no longer be suffering."

The Boston Globe (TNS) compiled this reaction to news about the circus closing:

Shaquille O’Neal tweeted: “noooooo pls don’t close.” Donnie Walhberg tweeted about when New Kids on the Block played the circus: “dancing on elephant dung!” But Ingrid Newkirk of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals took a bow: “We’ve been protesting the circus vigorously for 36 years since our inception. We see this as a wonderful evolution in human awareness.”


©2017 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)

Visit The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.) at www.OrlandoSentinel.com

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