Dave Emison takes a sharp right, eases his foot over the gas pedal and points his tram in the direction of Cà d’Zan.
Careful to stay in a straight, predictable line, he obeys all stop signs and watches for crossing tourists as he motors past Mable Ringling’s rose garden and stops in front of a knotty banyan tree.
“The kids get a kick out of this,” he says, pointing to a statue of a stone cherub tangled up in the tree’s gray roots. “Over time, the tree just engulfed the statue.”
He putters up the long, curved drive leading up to the mansion and idles near the front door, waiting for wayward tourists to hail a ride. As an older couple nears, he calls out to them.
“Need a lift?” he asks.
They say, “Yes, to Treviso,” the swank Italian eatery inside the museum’s visitor’s center.
“The first time I came here I was scurrying around trying to hit up everything,” says Emison, a Lakewood Ranch resident. “I didn’t realize there were trams running between the buildings. I think people are pleasantly surprised when they see us.”
A retired pharmaceuticals executive from Connecticut, Emison, 57, started volunteering for The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art three years ago.
He usually works the afternoon shift, logging eight hours a week driving one of the museum’s three gas-powered trams. He loves the job, especially the part where he gets to moonlight as a tour guide.
“I think most of us tram drivers take pride in the museum,” Emison says. “It’s sort of like showing someone around your backyard — well, not my backyard, but you know what I mean.”
The first thing he did when he started running the tram was stock up on history books and horticulture guides in the museum’s souvenir shop.
“I wanted to be able to describe the different plants and the significance of the buildings and statues,” Emison says. “When I got here I didn’t have a clue what was what and I wanted to be more than just a bus driver.”
As he circles the lush grounds, identifying Royal Poinciana trees and Roman statues, it’s evident that Emison is no two-bit chauffeur.
“You know, we have one of the largest collection of Rubens in the world,” he says. “The Louvre has two and we have five.”
Emison takes his job seriously, more seriously than some people regard their paying jobs. He often drums up business for the museum by giving speeches at Kiwanis or Rotary club meetings, plugging new art exhibits, programs or events.
When asked to compare the museum’s sleek new electric trams to his loud, quivering shuttle, he whispers, “Don’t let it hear you, but it’s really just a giant golf cart.”
He never tires of taxiing sightseers around Ringling’s 66-acre estate, even if he can rattle off every hackneyed remark ever uttered from the backseat: “Where do you keep the elephants?” “Why did John Ringling build his home so close to the airport?” “I didn’t realize this place was so big!”
“It’s very relaxing,” Emison says. “Sure, I have to pay attention, but it’s not like I’m driving a Mack truck.”
He passes another tram heading in the direction of the circus museum and throws a friendly nod to the driver. Drivers like to mix up their routes as much as possible. At the height of season as many as five trams will loop the estate, sometimes towing trailers, more than doubling Emison’s seven-passenger load.
He rolls up to the visitors center. The older couple gets out and two new tourists hop in.
“Where to?” Emison asks.
“The art museum,” they reply in unison.
Emison puts his foot on the gas and the tram lurches forward.
“Good choice,” he says.
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