Review of Westgate River Ranch: A Dude Ranch in Florida
Corral at the Ranch
Westgate River Ranch: A Florida Surprise
When most people think of a dude ranch, pictures of Texas cowboys or Wyoming wild mustangs immediately come to mind. Think of vacation in Florida, and what comes up? Theme parks, beaches, wild parties…dude ranch?
That’s right. A dude ranch, right in the middle of Florida. When I first heard of such a place, I was skeptical. After all, most of my family descends from the wild, Wild West, and the idea of a cowboy in Florida seemed laughable. But the laugh was on me. Recently, I was a bit over worked, plus homesick, and decided to give the Westgate River Ranch Resort a look, and I was pleasantly surprised.
Setting up a reservation for the weekend was pretty simple and the price was far more reasonable than I would have expected for a resort, but be warned…when I called back a few days later to upgrade, the receptionist informed me that the ranch was completely sold out, due to spring break. (Tip: if you plan on going during a busy tourist season, be sure to book well ahead of time.) So I happily held on to my reservation for a one bedroom suite with a full kitchenette and a screened in porch and looked forward to a fun but relaxing weekend. A few weeks later, I packed my saddlebags and drove to the middle of Florida—where I found thousands of acres of ranch land, where just a few days ago I would have expected to find only swamp or orange groves.
Driving south from Orlando, I was amazed at the number of fields populated with cattle and horses. Apparently, there was something to this “Florida cowboy” thing. When I turned in at the ranch, I was pleased to see a gate with a guard—complete with a star on his chest. The jeans and boots had an air of realism—real clothes that were worn on the ranch and not just some stage props for appearance’s sake—that was rather refreshing. They matched my memories of vacations with my grandparents in Texas. He checked my paperwork and waved me on through. The check in staff was helpful and cheerful, quick to hand out maps and point out the most popular aspects of the Florida dude ranch.
I quickly found that the friendliness was not limited to the check in counter. Everyone we met seemed happy to be there, both staff and guests alike. The drive had taken a total of 5 ½ hours, (Driving through Orlando during spring break had been a mistake. When I left, I took I95, and cut over an hour off my drive time.) so I was starving. We toted our duffel bags to the room, which was clean, comfortable, and decorated in a western motif, and headed off to dinner.
The Smokehouse Grill is the restaurant on the property, and once again, we were impressed with the friendliness of the staff. Dinner was a choice of various typical grill foods (burgers, fries, etc…) or the buffet, which featured surf and turf. The buffet was under $20 and had ribeye steaks, crab legs, mahi-mahi, mussels, and assorted vegetables (including a salad bar). I was impressed with the food. In fact, I don’t think I have ever eaten at such a good buffet in this price range—the ribeye was tender, salad was fresh, and how can you really go wrong with all-you-can-eat steamed crab legs?
One word of caution: the restaurant, as well as the country store, is not open late, so if you drive in after 8 pm, plan to eat before you get there or bring food with you. Actually, I recommend you do bring snacks with you, regardless of the time you arrive, as the snack foods available in the country store and the hotel lobby are quite expensive and the nearest grocery store is about 25 miles away. (Tip: If you drive in from Orlando, there are several grocery stores and a Wal-Mart in Lake Wales that are right on your way.)
Our room, as mentioned before, was a suite with a kitchenette and screened in balcony. The décor was not that of the Hilton, but it was quite comfortable and spotlessly clean. The kitchenette came stocked with everything one would need for cooking and dining: pots, pans, silverware, china, and even a pitcher for tea or lemonade. There was a western flare to the room, with pine furniture and a portrait of a cowboy playing a guitar.
After eating dinner and doing a bit of unpacking, we headed to the Saloon. The Saloon, which was open to children early in the evening, featured a dance floor, country music, and, of course, a bar. While alcoholic drinks were available, the atmosphere came off as more family friendly, with children in straw cowboy hats hitting the dance floor along with adults in real boots and jeans. What surprised me most was the number of authentic people in the bar, not just all city-slicker tourists. There were actually customers in real hats and boots who knew all about line dancing and two stepping. I am not sure if this was because some of the locals frequent the place or if the resort attracts a lot of people like me: transplants from areas where this kind of atmosphere is natural. But whatever the reason, I was pleased. Don’t get me wrong. There were plenty of tourists enjoying the place as well, and everyone seemed to feel quite at home, regardless of origin.
My second day on the ranch began with an excellent buffet breakfast complete with a cooked to order omelet. After breakfast, we made a beeline for the barn to let the two-year old experience the petting zoo. Actually, I think I had as much fun as he did. The petting zoo had the typical kid’s petting zoo fair: goats, ponies, potbelly pigs, calves, and sheep, but there were a few more exotic creatures as well. There was a young white tail deer that licked my hand like a puppy, a peacock showing off a magnificent tail, a turkey in full plume, and llamas with the softest coat I have ever touched. In addition, there were a couple of bison and a beautiful Arabian horse. A quarter machine for food pellets was available, and the goats and deer were quite enthusiastic to take them from my hand, but there were signs posted that requested people not feed the horses.
Several options for excursions were available on the ranch, such as airboat rides down the river and a swamp buggy (a vehicle that was about as tall as a house, it seemed) that toured the back swamp part of the property. Boat rentals were on hand, and cane fishing poles were free for use in the catch and release pond. Beginner horse riding classes were available, and trail rides went out every hour or so.
I took the trail ride and was quite pleased. If you have your own horse for galloping independently down trails or if you rent a horse on a regular basis, this is probably not for you. However, as I had not been on a horse for about 15 years, I was happy with it. You are not allowed to run the horses, and in fact, they do not even get to a trot at all, but it was a gentle, easy-going 45-minute ride with well-trained horses down the trail. There were trail guides posted at the front and rear, keeping a careful watch, and I would recommend the ride for even the most inexperienced of riders, as well as casual riders. On my ride, there was a 9-year-old boy who had never been on a horse. He was petrified at first, but the trail guide was encouraging and watched over him like a hawk. By the end of the ride, he was considerably more comfortable in the saddle, and rather proud of himself, too.
The excursion Saturday night began with a hayride through the country and culminated in a “cook out” dinner. There was a country music singer entertaining us on the ride, and he was actually quite good. He told us history of the ranch and local area, discussed the swamp and everglades, and threw in well-performed renditions of a few songs here and there. The cook out dinner was really a buffet served in a cookhouse with the option to eat on picnic tables out doors. (Tip: Sit near the back of the hayride ride to make sure you get in line for the food early, as disembarking starts from the rear. Food was starting to run a bit short by the time the last folks came through. Don’t get me wrong: no one went hungry, and there was plenty of the main foods, but they may have missed out on a couple of items.)
Following the hayride and dinner was a rodeo. It was rather small as rodeos go, but very well put together. It included bull riding, barrel racing, and roping. We participated in a little “get the ribbon off the tail of the calf to win a prize” event that got the kids into the corral. My two-year-old didn’t win, but we had fun giving it a try! As a bonus, there was a pair of trick riders who showed off some fancy riding, including standing and riding two horses at once, doing hand stands on the side of the horses, and doing stunt mounts.
There were other activities at this Florida dude ranch that we didn’t get to try: enjoying the heated outdoor pool and hot tub, trap and skeet shooting, golf, an archery range, miniature golf, and extended horse riding sessions. It gives me something to look forward to next time!
Wrapping It Up
Sunday, we had to leave, but we made another visit to the petting zoo before heading out. By the end of this trip, we knew the waitresses in the restaurant by name, were on friendly terms with the young woman who ran the gift shop and horse riding bookings, and in general felt like we were among friends. I was sorry to go and look forward to getting to go back.
For a quick overview, read here.