When fans came to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus last January, they didn't realize it was the last time anyone would see elephants perform in Tampa.
When fans come to the circus this time, it will be the last time audiences will see anyone perform in Tampa under the Ringling banner. And the performers say they feel the weight of history in this last tour.
The circus will close forever in May after a 146-year run, parent company Feld Entertainment announced this week. That means the five-day run starting Jan. 25 is the final local display of the "Greatest Show on Earth."
"This is your last opportunity to see the circus, and it's important for people to know this is really going to be it," said Melinda Hartline, a spokeswoman for Ellenton-based Feld. "You are still going to get a first-class show. Our performers are all professional and continue to smile, interact and meet with the crowds."
In discussing the closure, CEO Kenneth Feld cited high operating costs and declining ticket sales made worse by the removal of elephants from the show, which Ringling announced as the circus left Amalie Arena in 2016. The circus has spent years fielding pressure from animal rights organizations, which officials deny caused the shutdown.
For guests who haven't been to the circus in awhile, the show will feel distant from the Ringling of a generation ago. Circus managers have attempted to keep up with modern tastes by playing up extreme action sports and stunts like the kind you'd see in the X Games. Called Circus Xtreme, the show has BMX trick riders, trampoline daredevils, parkour acrobatics, a bungee aerial skydiving display and traditional human circus performers like trapeze artists and clowns.
The show also has its first female ringmaster, 35-year-old Florida native Kristen Wilson. The closing of the circus creates yet another distinction for Wilson.
"I will also be the only female ringmaster for Ringling, and furthermore the very last ringmaster in the history of Ringling," she said. "It really is so bittersweet. … I'm the 39th ringmaster. There's been more presidents than there have been ringmasters. So I want to make sure I do my best to represent the incredible history of ringmasters. We want to go out swinging."
Knowing that the end is near has made performers aware of their role in history, said Ivan Vargas, 26, a Tampa native who is a star of Clown Alley and a sixth generation circus performer.
"The news hit us hard," he said. "I can't lie about that. But it still is the circus, and we are still very fortunate that we have four months left and we get to show everybody who goes to those shows how special this show is."
Tabayara "Taba" Maluenda, the Ringling's popular Chilean tiger trainer, said the circus of today is "completely different" than the one the sixth-generation circus performer grew up in.
"With the TV and the media, people forget this beautiful profession," he said in an interview before the announcement was made that the circus was ending.
The show still has his tigers and camels and trained dogs — almost 50 animals overall. But unlike the circus productions a generation ago, this one has shorter acts and a quicker pacing to keep up with today's attention spans.
Maluenda, 45, is Ringling's first Latino tiger trainer, coming from a long line of circus people in Chile. His grandfather was a circus animal trainer, and Maluenda has been getting into cages with lions and tigers since he was 13. He travels with 16 Bengal tigers in a range of colors, raising them since they were cubs. The highlight of his act is when he asks a 350-pound tiger for a kiss, and the huge striped head meets his for a peck on the lips.
You can meet the last of the circus performers in the free pre-show held before every performance. Come an hour early to interact, see animals up close, try on costumes and learn circus skills like juggling.
"It's one of my favorite parts, actually, the pre-show," said Vargas, who has worked as a clown for nine years. "I like how as performers, clowns get to break that fourth wall and interact with the audience."
The shows since the closure announcement Saturday have been packed, both Vargas and Wilson said, though Feld declined to disclose sales figures. The show in Orlando on Sunday after the announcement was a tough one to get ready for.
"I felt like I weighed 1,000 pounds," Vargas said, "like I couldn't move my feet walking into the arena."
But then he saw the audience, the sea of smiling faces. The roar of response when he called out, "Are you ready Orlando?" took him back.
"The energy was just amazing. I'll never forget that feeling of thousands of people cheering and feeling that energy as long as I live."
Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at [email protected] Follow @SharonKWn.