COVENTRY TWP.  The cars kept coming up the drive as the Tadmor Shrine Center kept filling up with hundreds of guests who came to the first meet and greet with the Hamid Circus performers and elephants.

Tadmor Shrine officials decided to offer the chance for circus fans to see the performers, dogs and the elephants up close and personal before the circus opens this weekend at the Canton Memorial Civic Center. The Tadmor Shrine has been bringing the circus to Canton every March for more than 72 years.

"We decided to add something new this year by hosting a meet and greet a couple of days before the circus starts," said Bruce Wilkinson, director of the Tadmor Shrine. "The circus is always held in Canton, so many people from Akron don’t get a chance to visit the elephants or meet the performers. We thought this event would give them a chance to do that."

Wilkinson said they weren’t sure what to expect for attendance since this was the first year. It was originally scheduled to be a two-hour event, but he said people had been stopping by all day long.

"The circus usually sets up at the Stark County Fairgrounds, but this year we offered to let them stay here so we could do the meet and greet. The response has been a big surprise. We’ll definitely do this again next year," Wilkinson said.

The highlight of the event was the "elephant salad bar" where three of the circus elephants came out of their heated tents to share their dinner with a few hundred kids and their families.

Nick Wladyczak, public relations for the Tadmor Shrine Circus, said, "The Center purchased 800 pounds of apples, lettuce, carrots and cannon ball watermelons for the evening feeding."

In addition to the elephant feeding, visitors were able to take photos with Johnny Rocket, the trapeze performers, meet the ring master, have fun with the circus clowns and watch a juggling performance.

The Hamid Circus performs for Shriners across the country. Wilkinson said holding the circus every year has become part of the Shriner’s culture.

The Tadmor Shrine Circus is the only fundraiser the group holds each year. Wladyczak said the proceeds are used to help maintain the Center and the organization’s mission of transporting local kids and families to Shriner hospitals around the country. The transportation and the hospital stay is free to patients in need.

"The Tadmor Shrine Circus has always been an important part of our organization but even more so now that membership has declined at least 50 percent since 2008. The average age of members is in the mid 70s," Wladyczak said.

Another addition to this year’s Tadmor Shrine Circus is a school day where more than 1,100 kids from local school districts will be attending an abbreviated show performed just for them. Wilkinson said Canton’s Mayor Thomas Bernabei will give a presentation on the history of the Shriner Circus and Canton City Schools Superintendent Adrian E. Allison will be a guest ring master for the special show.

"The kids will have a chance to learn about the care of the circus animals and they will be able to talk with performers and animal handlers," Wilkinson said.

The meet and greet event ended with the three female elephants making kids laugh and watch in amazement while they ate a healthy evening dinner of fresh fruits and vegetables. Two days before the Tadmor Shrine Circus opened, the giant mammals (the largest on land mammals) were already playing to a full house.