Last week, Big Apple Circus rolled into town and hoisted its giant big-top tent in a parking lot at National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Md., with shows running through March 24. Having never been to a circus before, I admit to having fairly antiquated visions of what to expect—and it didn’t include expertly made cocktails. Apparently, circuses have changed quite a bit since I was a kid.
Speaking of change, let’s go ahead and address the elephant in the room—or, more appropriately, the elephant that’s NOT in the room. There are no wild or exotic animals at a Big Apple Circus performance. Third-generation animal trainer Jenny Vidbel works with rescued dogs, horses and ponies (and one tiny pig) that manage to put smiles on the audience’s faces even though the tricks aren’t particularly rigorous. Vidbel also started a nonprofit therapy program that “brings differently abled humans and animals together in an effort to connect, understand and heal each other,” say circus representatives.
Now that you know we are circusing responsibly, what exactly will you find at this traveling extravaganza? Clown-haters will be happy to know that there aren’t any red-wigged, sponge-nosed entertainers running around, but there is a cadre of lovely and friendly performers there to get (and keep) the crowds smiling before and after the show, including a ballerina, a mime, a stilt-walker and a magician who expertly engage with circus-goers.
Once the show starts, you’re treated to an hour and a half or so of daring feats that will probably make you wonder if their mothers could sit through this show without having a heart attack. The trampoline act, one of my favorites, brought a three-tiered structure in the center of the ring flanked by two giant trampolines and a handful of performers landing super-cool flips and flops. Another breathtaking performance came from an aerial acrobatics duo, literally making the crowd gasp as we watched them swirl and twirl overhead. And, of course, there are the trapeze artists dazzling the audience with their athleticism and fearlessness. Needless to say, we loved every minute of it.
Before you even take your seats, though, you’re probably going to want to load up on all the food and drinks you can carry. Cocktails are the handiwork of award-winning mixologist Pamela Wiznitzer, and they are legit delicious. Everything from the basic Moscow Mule to the VIP concoction with whiskey and chai were truly tasty and, thank goodness, not too sweet. Also worth the wait in line were the popcorn, which comes in flavors like caramel and Old Bay in addition to butter; the cotton candy; and the ginormous hot dog.
My kids and I didn’t love the dry chicken fingers or the saltless pretzels (others inexplicably got plenty of salt on their pretzels), and they were out of nachos, which of course is what both of my kids wanted to order. The shaved ice situation also left a lot to be desired, thanks to the off-balance ice-to-syrup ratio, the fact that they were out of mango (again, the flavor both kids wanted, because parenthood) and an incredibly sticky cup. Perhaps these were opening-night snafus, but I would still recommend a proper dinner before entering the tent.
But really, these issues seem nit-picky and negligible when weighed against the fun and wonder of the real reason you’re there: to be entertained. Watching my kids’ eyes light up and jaws drop as a performer climbed higher than we thought possible or soared across the ring on trapezes or performed crazy tricks on trampolines was 100 percent worth the trouble of fighting rush hour to get down to National Harbor. And if that’s not a ringing endorsement, I don’t know what is.
Tickets to Big Apple Circus at National Harbor range from $15–$95 and can be purchased here.