By Tyler H. Jones
PINE MOUNTAIN — There are no lions, tigers or bears — but oh my, it is a circus.
For decades, the Florida State University Flying High Circus has been a summer fixture of Callaway Gardens. At every performance, acrobats and tumblers dazzle spectators as they swing from dizzying heights, balance on tight ropes and show off their gymnastic skills.
But it’s more than yearly entertainment for the gardens’ guests. For the show’s 2015 ring master, Justin Mehlich, a 21-year-old FSU senior from Palm Bay, Florida, the show is as much a treat for him as it is his guests.
“It’s probably one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had in my life,” he said. “The people in the circus are people that I hang out with and I’ve made some of the best friends I’ve ever had here. I’ve gotten very close to them.”
Mehlich is one of nearly two dozen FSU undergraduate students that were selected after auditions to spend the summer at Callaway crafting and performing a show. He said he decided to get involved with the FSU Flying High Circus because he didn’t feel like he was taking advantage of the extracurricular activities the university offers in Tallahassee, Florida.
“I was mostly bored in my dorm,” he said of his time before the circus. “I wasn’t doing anything extracurricular, and I’d been in college for a month. I just felt like I was doing anything. One of my friends just reminded me we had a circus and I decided to audition. I’m glad that I did.”
Originally, Mehlich, who is a social science education major, said he auditioned for two circus roles. He tried out to be a performer, but also for the coveted ring leader position.
“I did theater in high school, and my first year there was a ring master audition, as well as the general audition, so I did both of them,” he said. “I always had friends who said, ‘Hey you should try out for the circus. You sound like you could be a ring master.’”
Dozens of other FSU students all perform in the circus — most of them back in Tallahassee, Mehlich said. In fact, it’s one of only two college circus programs in the country, according to Chad Mathews, director of the FSU Flying High Circus.
“We have 120 students with us in our program in Tallahassee, and we invite 24 to 28 students to come here in the summer,” Mathews said. “As unique as the circus itself is, this is unique part inside of that. It’s a very interesting summer job, that’s for sure. Our official job in the context of the university is to be a student development activity. We do see the students develop and grow as people, it’s very rewarding and satisfying.”
Developing is part of the process each year at the FSU Flying High Circus. When the two dozen or so students arrive in Pine Mountain in May of each year, they put together their show from scratch. They’re responsible for setting up all the stage lights, choosing the music and choreographing their routines, Mathews said.
In addition to learning new skills, stepping outside their comfort zones and making new friends, the performers also act as day-camp counselors for children vacationing at the gardens, said Rachel Crumbley, director of marketing and public relations for Callaway Gardens.
“This is their summer job, but it’s not only performing, which is their passion … but they are also camp counselors for our Summer Family Adventure program,” Crumbley said. “On a normal vacation you have to pick where you’re going, where you’re staying and what you’re going to do. But when they come (to Callaway Gardens), they have an entire program for them. It’s kind of like a cruise on land.”
The Summer Family Adventure program divides youngsters by age group and gives them supervised, age-appropriate activities to do while mom and dad go golfing, take cooking lessons or relax.
“(The kids) can make friends and do activities they want to do, and they’re not stuck together with their older siblings,” Crumbley said. “The kids love it.”
The FSU Flying High Circus performs through July 31 on every Monday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday at 3:30 p.m., with additional shows Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. Due to special events, this Saturday will have performances at 3:30 p.m. and 6 p.m., and on July 18 the show will be at 6 p.m.
The act includes trapeze artists, cyclists, stilt walkers, balancing acts and much more.
All shows take place at the Robin Lake Beach Dome, located just off U.S. Highway 27 in Pine Mountain. General admission to the gardens is $20 for adults, $10 for children ages 6 to 12 and children 5 years and younger are free.
On Friday and Saturday nights, admission is $5 after 5 p.m.
All admission prices include the circus.
For more information on Callaway Gardens, or the FSU Flying High Circus, visit www.callawaygardens.com.
Tyler H. Jones is a reporter for LaGrange Daily News. He may be reached at 706-884-7311, ext. 2155.