Hittin’ the dusty trail, roundin’ up cattle, and saying ridiculous things like, “Yee-haw” and “Ya’ll come back now, ya hear?” are surely the domain of Arizona, New Mexico and larger-than-life Texas. But the original cowboys were roamin’ the range in Florida long before the Wild West had even been discovered.
Known as “crackers” for the sound their whips made as they cracked them above the cattle during round-ups, these hearty settlers faded into the background when tourism arrived in the form of a big-eared mouse and his fantastical attractions. But that doesn’t mean the cowboy culture ended. You just have to know where to find it.
And the place to find it is Westgate River Ranch. Located in (appropriately) River Ranch, Florida, an hour and a half south of Walt Disney World, this massive property comes in at 400,000 acres (161,874 hectares), with so much immersion in the cowboy lifestyle you can easily spend several days here and not run out of things to do.
First, there’s the accommodation. Standard motel-style rooms are outfitted in Western themes throughout, giving guests all of the dude ranch atmosphere and none of the discomfort. With a mini-kitchen, small fridge, Wi-Fi and clean bathrooms, it’s ranch-handing in style.
Luxury cabins, comfy rail car cabins, and two-bedroom cottages add even more refinement, but the real highlights here are the super-smart Glamping tents and the incredible Luxe Teepees, both in pretty woodland settings, and both with mod-cons and air conditioning. Teepees even include two working fireplaces.
Remember we said this place was big? Fear not. One of the most enjoyable parts of a stay at the ranch is the chance to drive around in a golf cart, some large enough to seat six. Tooling around in one of these things is so much fun the kids will put down their iGadgets and beg to get out into nature.
With accommodation and transportation sorted out, it’s on to the activities, and here you’re absolutely spoilt for choice. Families are a big part of the ranch’s clientele, and even the smallest buckaroos are well catered for. Youngsters can enjoy pony rides, bounce houses, and a superb Petting Farm with miniature goats, geese, peacocks, deer, calves, emu (stroke them; they’re soft!) chickens, parakeets, llamas, and a gigantic pot-bellied pig named Pearl.
There are airboat rides, boat rentals, and even fishing gear. Don’t have a fishing license? No problem. You can use the Marina bait shop’s phone and order one. Or, simply pick up one of the complimentary fishing rods and cast a line in from shore. You’re not likely to haul in a lunker, but there are loads of little pan fish who hang out around the docks. It’s strictly catch-and-release in that case, but fun to pull in a little wriggler!
Sports-minded guest can try their hand at archery, take part in a horseshoes tournament, play a few rounds of mini-golf, or join a game of pick-up basketball. If tennis is more your thing, there are two sets of courts around the resort. You’re allowed to relax, too, in which case one of the many fire-pits are ideal for sittin’ a spell.
You’ll even find trap and skeet shooting here, geared toward both novices and experts. There is a minimum age limit of 13 to use the trap and skeet range, but it comes with equipment and a thorough lesson on safety and technique.
Make a day of it on the nine-hole, regulation-length golf course, designed by Joseph L. Lee. It’s a par 36 course, suitable for all skill levels, and it might just be the only golf course in Florida that’s flanked by a field of buffalo!
Thrill seekers should try the zipline, rock climbing and (small scale) bungee jumping, or get out into the wilderness aboard a giant Swamp Buggy for a view of Florida’s flora and fauna. And since this is truly the boondocks (translation: extremely rural), you may see gators, wild turkeys, wild hogs, raccoons, armadillos, deer, eagles and more.
Ages 7 and up can also participate in trail rides, from a 45 minute ride to an extended 2-hour ride. Convinced you’ve got what it takes to be a real live cowpoke? Sign up for a half-day round-up and learn the skills you’ll need to ride the range. Never been on a horse before? Take a riding lesson, and find out how enjoyable it really is!
You’ll need some fuel to keep you going, and the Smokehouse Grill has a buffet breakfast, plus steaks, ribs, burgers and more at lunch and dinner. Grab a fresh pizza or sandwich at the Deli, or choose from a huge selection of items you can prepare in your own kitchen. Want the full-on cookout experience? Book the Dinner Hayride, with plenty of good ol’ American chow at the buffet after your ride.
Of course, there is a swimming pool as well, for a cool-off during the hottest part of the day, or to sooth tired muscles at the end of the day. And you’ll want plenty of stamina as the day winds down, because the ranch doesn’t stop just because the sun is low on the horizon. No, siree Bob! You can’t have a dude ranch without some dudes, and Westgate River Ranch brings out the local cowboys and cowgirls every Saturday night, for the fabulous Saturday Night Rodeo.
Unlike the make-believe of a dinner show in Orlando, this here is the real deal! The athletes are real, the danger is real, and the prize money handed over to the winner is real, too! Watch trick riding, barrel racing, bull riding, and the absolutely hilarious calf scramble, where youngsters from the audience can try their luck at pulling a ribbon from a calf’s tail. Remember, those calves are running free in the arena, and while it’s perfectly safe for the kids and the calves, it’s MUCH harder than it looks!
And when the last horse has been cooled down, brushed, and put away, and the ice packs have started their work on the bull-rider’s bruises, the Street Party begins. Grab a cowboy hat and some boots at the General Store in the Village Shops area (where you’ll also find a laundry, kid’s crafts centre, and a post office) and party like it’s 1895!
Themed River Ranch Saloon keeps the boot-scootin’ fun going, with live entertainment, line-dancing lessons, and beer in glasses shaped like a boot, even when it isn’t Saturday night.
And if all that buckin’ and bronchin’ inspires you to take on the wrangler lifestyle, see if you have what it takes by going bareback on a bull. A mechanical bull, that is. Can you stay on for the full .08 seconds necessary for a score? If not, don’t worry; you’ll land far more softly than the real bull riders do. With city slickers in mind, the mechanical bull area is fully padded.
There’s more (I know, right?!), but we’ll let you discover it on your own, because that’s half the fun.
Channel your inner range rider, brush up on your boot-scootin’, and get over to Westgate River Ranch, for a wild-west experience in the heart of the Sunshine State. Need more convincing? Check out our Westgate River Ranch Facebook album, with a full range of photos.
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