Image: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey
The venerable Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey has embraced interactivity, urging audience members to be part of the show and offering a pre-show meeting with members of the Clown College.
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updated 9/17/2009 12:33:40 PM ET 2009-09-17T16:33:40

When John Bill Rickets introduced America to the circus in 1793, it was just an equestrian act, but soon he added acrobats, a ropewalker and a clown. Since Rickets’ day, the circus in America has had countless iterations. Some developed more spectacular acrobatics, others their talented animals, and yet others expanded the repertoire of their clowns. Not all are alike, of course: Each of the many circuses performing this year has its own claim to fame.

Entertaining families since the 19th century, The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's Circus has cast off its old-fashioned image to become, so to speak, interactive. For an additional cost, audience members can be considered part of the show, acting as Circus Celebrities. Then there's the free All Access Pre-Show held an hour before each performance.

Nicole Feld, the Executive Vice President and Producer of Feld Entertainment (which runs The Ringling Bros.), says the pre-show sets their circuses apart from the rest.

“Audience members have the chance to get to know our performers. Nearly all the cast members are a part of the pre-show, and their ability to connect with the audience is remarkable,” Feld says.

Attendees can learn to juggle and try on circus attire. Each show also features the Animal Open House, which allows guests to meet the animals and their trainers.

At the Coney Island Boom-a-Ring — a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey production — audience members can meet the white Bengal tigers and Asian elephants and their trainers before seeing them perform in the show. Trainer Vicenta Pages has worked with her six white-striped Bengal tigers for nearly five years, and she has taught them to roll over, lie down, jump hurdles and even give high fives.

If you’re not into large animals but still want to experience a classic circus, your best bet is the Big Apple Circus, where the four-legged performers are all horses and small dogs. This not-for-profit circus began 32 years ago in Battery Park, New York City. This year’s show, “Bello is Back!” features Bello Nock, the playful clown with gravity-defying hair.

Image: Cirque du Soleil
Phillip Dixon  /  Copyright Cirque du Soleil Inc
Cirque du Soleil is for adults only, as it combines acrobatics and aerial performances with sexy versions of the tango and flamenco. Seating options range from a romantic sofa for two to a cabaret stool or a traditional theatre seat.
The most important change in circuses took place 25 years ago, when Cirque du Soleil began its modern interpretations of the circus, minus rings and animals. With unique artistic flair, Cirque du Soleil featured state-of-the-art costumes, sets and acrobatics set to music. Today 19 shows are running worldwide, and many of them are resident shows in Las Vegas like Zumanity, which plays at the New York-New York Hotel & Casino.

Open to only those 18 years and older, Zumanity, an adult-themed circus, features contortionists, acrobats and aerialists. The host of the show, the Mistress of Seduction, says there are no bad seats in the 1,261-seat theater. “It is the only Cirque du Soleil show that talks to the audience. They are very much a part of the show,” says the Mistress.

One of the most popular Cirque du Soleil shows, LOVE, is also playing in Las Vegas. Apple Corps Ltd. and Cirque du Soleil partnered to create a circus inspired by the music of the Beatles, and since its opening in June of 2006, more than two million viewers have enjoyed watching characters like Eleanor Rigby and Sergeant Pepper come to life in this one-of-a-kind production.

Cirque du Soleil also has eight touring shows. Kooza, which makes stops throughout the West Coast this fall, tells the story of The Innocent and his search for his place in the world. The name comes from the Sanskrit word for box, “koza,” chosen because of an underlying concept for the show — the idea of a “circus in a box.” The show uses the tradition of clowning and acrobatics along with edgy slapstick humor. Be amazed or amused at any one of the 10 best circuses that wow crowds year after year.

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