AMAZING FUN EAST OF THE MISSISSIPPI!
WESTGATE RIVER RANCH RESORT & RODEO IS AUTHENTIC OLD FLORIDA RIGHT HERE IN OUR BACK YARD.
photo courtesy Westgate River Ranch
Somewhere west of Florida’s crowded coastline lies a place that takes you back. Back to the days of cracker cowboys, horses, and rodeos.
Of swamp buggies, airboats, and hayrides.
Of camping, bonfires, and s’mores.
All in the cool central Florida woods.
Westgate River Ranch Resort & Rodeo is that place … and so much more. It positions itself as the largest authentic dude ranch east of the Mississippi.
And for good reason.
Horses meander along secluded trails, bison roam the open fields, and a herd of grazing Watusi cattle - known for their long, distinctive horns – lines the fences of the expansive campgrounds.
It is authentic Old Florida right here in our back yard.
We decided to take a long weekend trip to The Ranch and immerse ourselves in the traditions of our ancestors. While researching onsite accommodations, we found a dizzying array of possibilities.
As you might expect, the property features many rustic traditional options. Primitive tent camping is encouraged, whether on the ground or on raised platform sites that can keep you high and dry during the wetter times of the year. RV sites with full hookups are available along a shaded lane or on full-service campsites. There are also cottages, a lodge with rooms and suites, traditional cabins, and even their stand-alone Saddle Club Rail Cars with kitchenette and bunk beds.
But where The Ranch really hits its stride is with its unique, upscale glamping offerings. Glamping –luxury camping that is a combination of easing off the beaten path of typical accommodations while still enjoying modern amenities and facilities – offers the opportunity for guests to slide out of their comfort zones and connect with nature and their culture in a new and unconventional way.
THERE IS EVEN MORE TO DO AT WESTGATE RIVER RANCH RESORT & RODEO THAT WE NEVER COULD GET AROUND TO
The Ranch’s glamping accommodations range from the simple - such as a tent with all the amenities of an air-conditioned hotel room and access to a private lockable group bath house - to the magnificent luxe teepee, which sleeps up to four in air-conditioned comfort, is themed in Native American style, and offers a fireplace, cowhide furniture, porch rocking chairs, and a private patio deck with grill.
Our family group opted for the Luxe Conestoga Wagon experience and stayed in a replica of the heavy covered wagons pulled by oxen that were used in the early 19th century to transfer cargo across the country.
In addition to lavish comfort, we enjoyed a world of extraordinary benefits that included a personal luxe concierge, all resort activities, VIP tickets and seating at the Saturday night rodeo (more to come on that), a personal oversized resort golfcart for expedited mobility, morning coffee service and pastry delivery, and much more.
It was the perfect choice as a base to explore The Ranch’s 1700 acres of fresh air and fun.
Photo Courtesy Westgate River Ranch
Was it the bourbon?
After checking in and getting settled, we headed out to the resort’s fine-dining steakhouse at the River Ranch Cattle Company Chophouse and Bar.
Central to everything on the property, this high-end yet laidback restaurant showcases the best of the Old Florida dining experience. Their classic menu features only the tenderest cuts of beef, including southern traditions like chicken fried steak and pan-fried steak Palomilla, as well as standards such as their colossal black angus ribeye.
Add in southern-style entrees, an expansive wine list and a creative cocktail menu, and our long weekend was off to the perfect start.
Dinner timing was excellent, as afterward we headed over to the River Ranch Saloon next door just in time for line dancing lessons. Although many of us had never attempted any boot-scootin’ boogie ourselves, line-dance instructors doled out patient instructions and we were off and dancing with the best of them.
Of course, it may have just been the Buffalo Trace Bourbon …
The dancing led right into the monthly Nashville Singer Songwriter Series musicians’ showcase. Artists Eric Van Houten and Tracielynn joined host Chris Weaver on stage for an unforgettable 90 minutes of pure country that included dozens of original songs and cover tunes.
Afterwards, we shared drinks and laughs at the River Ranch Saloon bar, where Eric and Chris offered to continue the show for us at our private firepit next to our Conestoga Wagon, singing, creating, and laughing all the while.
It was an unforgettable experience.
Although the Nashville Singer Songwriter Series is over for 2023, its success all but ensures another round of talented performers in 2024.
Up and at ‘em
We were all up early the next morning, eager to explore The Ranch even more. First on the list of activities was an airboat tour on the Kissimmee River. Captain Scott loaded a dozen of us onto his sleek, flat-bottomed boat at their full-service marina and we headed out in search of Florida wildlife.
The trip did not disappoint – during our 60-minute ride under azure skies, we caught sight of dozens of different types of native birds, including herons, ibis, egrets, and spoonbills. Alternating between slow quiet searching and all-out speed, we traversed the river and its tributaries, searching for more wildlife. We even eased up slowly near wild gators, thrilled to see these great beasts in their natural habitat.
Still wet and smiling from our airboat ride, we headed out to discover the area from a different vantage point. Westgate River Ranch Resort & Rodeo is home to three monster swamp buggies, hardy vehicles built with individual seats on tall platforms fitted with huge tires to conquer the sticky Florida mud.
We boarded our buggy, Swamp Thing, and headed out into the countryside. Our driver and local guide Alan took us through all the challenges that a muddy Florida landscape could throw at us, all the while filling us in on local information and traditions. During the ride, we saw wild deer, a gigantic herd of bison … and muddy conditions as far as the eye could see.
But Swamp Thing was fearless – we traversed mud holes that were a football field long and over six feet deep in places, yet we came out the other end all smiles.
It was a uniquely Florida experience.
We grabbed some quick early dinner options from the Deli at the General Store, then spent the evening around the campfire, indulging in a S’mores & Pours experience that featured two deluxe s’mores packages and a bottle of classic bourbon delivered to our doorstep. It was an amazing way to finish the day as we watched the spectacular sunset.
Ex-Marine Corp sharpshooter Mike
Up and out the next morning with a full day’s worth of plans. Westgate River Ranch Resort & Rodeo offers a huge assortment of options for its guests. We spent the morning at the trap and skeet shooting ranges, where our ex-Marine Corps sharpshooter Mike put us through the paces with our shotguns.
Then it was off to the archery range, the Kissimmee River Cruise, and horseback riding through the lush trails of the property. After riding, we got up close and personal with the wide variety of animals that are denizens of the on-site petting farm. In addition to the resident horses and cows, exotic creatures such as pot-bellied pigs, llamas, and emus roam the grounds, no doubt anxious for a photo with the guests.
We had time for one more activity before the sun went down, so we opted to participate in the nightly hayride. We joined dozens of other guests on benches in the hay on a huge flatbed trailer, serenaded by a guitarist who had us all singing along to good ol’ country songs. It was the perfect lead-in to the night’s upcoming excitement.
We freshened up and dressed to impress for the highlight of the weekend – the weekly Saturday Night Rodeo. It is famous for being the longest running weekly rodeo in America, and it is no surprise why after you take in the electrifying action. Athletes from across the region line up to compete in barrel racing, bull riding and more, all in front of avid fans in the state-of-the-art 1,200-seat outdoor arena.
In between the competitions, we were treated to incredible displays of trick riding and whip-cracking (hey, that is where the term “Florida cracker” comes from!), all topped off by a patriotic tribute on horseback to our armed forces.
After learning that the goal of the bull-riders was to stay on for an “8-second ride” to qualify for the prize money, we decided to have a little fun of our own. The River Ranch Saloon features mechanical bull riding every Saturday night, so friends and family headed over for a little spirited competition. Let’s just say that it is a lot harder to hang on to a bucking bull, even a mechanical one, for as long as you might think! Yeehaw!
There is even more to do at Westgate River Ranch & Rodeo that we never could get around to. And a quaint downtown features a general store, post office, shops, an escape room, and the Coffee Corral.
An Adventure Park for kids boasts a bounce house, game room, rock climbing tower and gift shop. You can indulge your inner Arnold Palmer at the mini-golf course or play gel tag with your friends. The property also has a private air strip and an onsite chapel for Sunday morning services.
The Ranch also holds dozens of weddings, customized to include resort activities and more. Group meetings and corporate retreats offer an atypical and exhilarating business getaway. Additionally, there are plans in place for a new water park.
With so much to do and so much space to do it on, it's no surprise that Westgate River Ranch Resort & Rodeo was voted 2023’s Number One Glamping Resort in the Country by USA Today.
We chose The Ranch with the hopes of getting back to our country roots while enjoying a one-of-a-kind vacation experience. Our expectations were exceeded, and we cannot wait to get back to the rootinest, tootinest vacation spot we have ever visited!
There are almost two dozen Westgate resorts countrywide, including Westgate Smoky Mountain Resort & Water Park in Gatlinburg, Tenn., and Westgate Park City Resort & Spa in Utah.