Wednesday, February 17, 2010

....Circus World People Gather to Remember the Park....

By Gary White

Published: Tuesday, February 16, 2010 at 11:54 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, February 16, 2010 at 11:54 p.m.

A shopping center occupies the southeast corner of the intersection of Interstate 4 and U.S. 27, housing a collection of chain stores - Target, Best Buy, PetSmart - that could be in Dayton or Dubuque as easily as Davenport.

There isn't a trace of the distinctive presence the location once held, a short-lived theme park called Circus World.

But Dan Stapleton remembers the place, and he's not alone. Stapleton, who worked as a magician at the defunct attraction from 1978 to 1981, has organized a reunion of former Circus World employees. They will gather Friday, not under a big top but in the ballroom of a resort in Kissimmee.

Stapleton said the idea of a reunion has been germinating almost since Circus World folded its tent 24 years ago.

"Every year I hear from someone who worked at Circus World, and every one of them said the same thing over the last 20 years - 'We ought to have a reunion,'" said Stapleton, an Orlando resident. "So six months ago I came home and said, 'Guess what? ... I'm going to do it.' So I just started contacting people who I knew (worked at Circus World), which weren't very many. Then I put it on Facebook, and it just took off."

Stapleton expects more than 100 former Circus World workers at the reunion, with attendees coming from as far away as California, Washington state and New York. The reunion will take place at the Radisson Resort Orlando-Celebration, where Stapleton works as director of entertainment.

Stapleton, 57, said the gathering will include a former ringmaster, trapeze artists and clowns, along with people who worked on the technical crew and in food service, security, park operations and administration.

Circus World, originally known by the unwieldy name of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus World Showcase, opened in 1974 and last until 1986, experiencing two changes of owners. The original admission fee was $1.95 for adults. Attendance peaked at 1.3 million in 1975, and the attraction had about 450 employees.

The centerpiece at Circus World was the Showcase, a 27,000-square-foot building designed as a big top and painted in white and red stripes. It housed a 600-seat IMAX theater, promoted at the time as the world's largest indoor theater, which showed a circus-oriented film.

The Showcase featured trapeze acts, elephant performances and other typical circus fare.

Stapleton performed in the James A. Bailey Theater of Illusion, which held about 200 people. He said at one point he was doing nine shows a day.

The attraction had many rides, including a wooden roller coaster, the Florida Hurricane, that Stapleton said was a favorite of the late Michael Jackson. A 150-foot-high Ferris wheel offered views over acres of citrus groves.

Jerry Darkey worked as a clown at Circus World in the early 1980s, when he was fresh out of Clown College, then located in Venice but no longer in existence. His companion, Paula Large, worked as a caricature artist and later as a lighting and sound technician from 1980 to 1984. Now living in Orlando, they still work in entertainment and plan to attend the reunion.

"We thought, 'Well, what a great idea, and it's probably long overdue,' " Darkey said. "Just being in the show was always fun - keeping my eyes open for the elephants."

The Circus World site was later reconfigured as Boardwalk and Baseball, which lasted only a few years. The last remnants of that attraction were eventually razed for the construction of the Posner Commons shopping center.

"People ask me, 'Why did Circus World not make it?'" Stapleton said. "Back then it seemed like a long way from Orlando or the other parks. It really wasn't."

Stapleton said the high cost of employing live entertainment was one reason the park didn't survive.

Friday's reunion will recreate some of that entertainment. Stapleton said he will revive some of his magic tricks, and jugglers and clowns are also expected to perform.

Stapleton will also be showing a medley of home movies shot at Circus World that capture performers in action. He said memorabilia from the park will be on display, with one former employee pledging to bring enough to cover three tables. A meal will be served as well.

Based on the responses he has received so far, Stapleton said only a small percentage of former Circus World employees remain employed in similar jobs. He said members of the Flying Robins, a trapeze act, still do circus work, and some of the technical crew now work for rock bands.

The reunion will pay tribute to those Stapleton called "circus angels," former employees who are no longer alive. Stapleton said he knows of at least 40 of them.

Stapleton asks anyone interested in attending to notify him in advance at 407-491-3287 or

[ Gary White can be reached at or at 863-802-7518.
This story appeared in print on page B7

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IF YOU GO What: Reunion of Circus World employees

Where: Radisson Resort Orlando-Celebration, 2900 Parkway Blvd, Kissimmee

When: 6:30 p.m. Friday

How much: $35

Phone: 407-291-3287