announcer, mounted on a horse named Gus, said
"go," and dozens of young boys and girls ran
across the rodeo arena, in pursuit of a calf and the red
ribbon on his tail. The first child to get a piece of the
ribbon would win a prize. A giggling wedge of children
turned and came running back, the now ribbon-less calf
loping behind them.
the bull riders took over, each cowboy trying to stay on
the back of an angry, bucking bull for eight seconds. But
most fell off in a second or two and rolled clear of the
beast as rodeo clowns waved the bull through a gate.
rodeo was the signature event of the weekend for hundreds
of people staying at Westgate River Ranch, a
western-themed resort in Central Florida — where cattle
have grazed since Ponce de Leon brought Andalusian cattle
here on his second trip, nearly 500 years ago.
event, like most everything at the resort, was family
oriented — less hard-core rodeo skills contest than
entertainment with corny jokes, trick riding, calf
scrambles, a tribute to the military and a recording of
John Wayne talking about why he loved America.
the bull riding and barrel racing were real, performed by
professionals in a sanctioned rodeo. There were a few long
moments when riderless bulls refused to be corralled, and
people held their breath until the clowns, alternately
coaxing and teasing the bull to keep him away from a
fallen cowboy, drove him back through the gate.
me, a weekend at a Western-themed resort was a chance to
play at being a cowgirl, a dream of mine back when I was 5
or 6 years old, when I wasn’t yearning to be a ballerina
or a firefighter. In the intervening years, I had ridden
horses, been to rodeos and learned the Cotton Eyed Joe.
But the cowgirl thing never quite took, and I had neither
cowboy hat nor boots to pack for this trip.
resort, which its operators call a dude ranch, is about an
hour south of Orlando. It sits along an old route where
herds were once driven to market. Mark Waltrip, chief
operating officer of Westgate Resorts, likes to point out
that thanks to Ponce de Leon, Florida was the first state
to have cowboys.
have a rich cowboy heritage," he said.
the biggest herds are gone now and much of the surrounding
land is government owned or protected, the area still
supports cattle ranches — and rodeos.
resort isn’t a dude ranch in the usual sense. Although
cattle and buffalo graze on the property, there are no
livestock-related chores for guests to observe or help
with. Horseback riding is a short, slow-paced ride through
flat pasture and thickets of Live oak.
unlike most dude ranches, Westgate is not an all-inclusive
resort. Meals, horseback riding, swamp buggy and airboat
rides, use of a bicycle, skeet shooting, archery practice,
the zip line, rodeo, hayride and golf all cost extra. But
if you’re aware of the costs, which are spelled out
under "activities" on the website, the resort is
a fun, outdoor-themed, family-oriented getaway.
River Ranch started out in 1971 as the centerpiece of a
development by Gulf American Corp. It changed hands
several times before Westgate Resorts, a big time-share
company, bought it 2001 and reopened it the following
previous owner had let the property deteriorate, and the
saloon was known in the community for its bar fights,
has gradually cleaned up, modernized and expanded the
facilities. Last year it added 10 "glamping"
tents and an adventure park with zip line, mechanical
bull, bungee trampoline, rock-climbing wall and other
resort has hosted music festivals and other events. Hoping
to attract more large groups, they’ve added a ropes
course and banquet and convention facilities for corporate
outings, and Waltrip said they’ve seen an increase in
bookings as a result. A gym is under construction and
there are plans for a mini-spa, more glamping tents, a
restaurant in the saloon.
own cowgirl adventure started on Martin Luther King Day
weekend, when a friend and I planned to go to the rodeo,
take a hayride and ride horses. Loaded up with fixings for
breakfast and lunch — we knew our room had a kitchenette
— we set out late on Saturday morning along the slow but
scenic route up U.S. 27, then along the north and east
sides of Lake Okeechobee, passing sugar cane fields,
pastures and rodeo grounds. The drive up Florida’s
Turnpike is faster but not as interesting.
we drove onto the property, we spotted a nine-hole golf
course, the glamping tents, buffalo grazing behind a fence
and a small zip line.
passed a horse-drawn carriage decked in garlands of
flowers, a bride and a man we assumed to be her father
riding in it. At check-in, the clerk told us that yes, a
wedding was going on — there’s a chapel on the
carts buzzed about. People were milling everywhere — and
kids, I hadn’t expected so many kids. Scores of tents
were pitched in the camping area. We later learned that a
large number of scouts and members of other youth groups
had come for the three-day weekend.
room in the lodge was a standard hotel room but with
western décor — buffalos on lampshades, cowboy boots on
light-switch plates, wood floor, faux brick wall, and
stowed our food in the mini-fridge, then looked at the
activities schedule we got at check-in. That’s when we
learned that there was only one hayride a week, and it was
happening right then. One bit of cowgirl fun bit the dust.
We immediately made reservations for a Sunday horseback
ride. Then I went out to explore the grounds before the
the big lawn in front of the lodge, several dads and young
sons were playing catch. The adventure park was next door,
and the air was filled with shouts, shrieks and laughter
from kids on the zip line or the bungee trampoline.
$5 a ride, kids and adults alike tried to stay on a
mechanical bull, operating over giant air mattresses that
looked like an oversized conversation pit. The bull
started slowly but right away tilted to the side,
challenging riders to stay balanced. As its motion sped
up, spectators called out advice ("put your feet up
by his head") and a few people tried to raise one
hand like a professional rider, but most clung to the
handhold with both hands before sliding off onto the air
the rodeo we bought beer and pulled-pork sandwiches from
the snack bar and found seats on the metal bleachers. The
arena, which holds 1,200 people and is open to the public
— not just resort guests — was almost full. When we
stood for the Star-Spangled Banner, the cowboys on the far
side of the arena stood on fence rails and chutes, their
hats over their hearts.
after another, men riding bucking bulls burst through
gates and tried to stay on the bull for eight seconds,
allowed to use only one hand to hold on, the other high in
the air. Only five or six succeeded, and these were scored
on the basis of their form and control. Women raced horses
around strategically placed barrels, going for the fastest
time without knocking over any barrels. One of the rodeo
clowns rode while standing on two horses running side by
side, one foot on the back of each horse.
people lingered outdoors for the fun, even though
temperatures were in the 40s. They stood around a fire,
attempted to ride the mechanical bull. Inside the saloon
and on an outdoor dance floor, youngsters and their
parents kicked, stomped, wriggled and spun to a mix of
country music, rock and hip-hop. It seemed everyone knew
the Macarena, crossing their arms, flipping their palms
and rolling their hips to the beat.
10 p.m., a live band took the floor inside the saloon, and
everyone under 18 was asked to leave, temporarily
bolstering the ranks of the line dancers outside.
Eventually they retired to tents pitched in the meadow,
campers and RVs, Westgate’s new "glamping"
tents with heat and air-conditioning, cabins with
wrap-around porches or rooms in the lodge.
the morning, we heard church bells from the chapel nearby
and went out to ride horses. A sign warned there would be
no trotting, galloping or any other fast movement.
Instead, we took a sedate stroll amid grazing cattle,
while guides at the head and tail of the line talked about
the property, which has a mix of oak hammock, scrub and
saw a small alligator sunning next to a pond, heard the
tale of a bull we passed, named Lucky for the time he fell
out of a trailer on the road and was found unharmed about
two weeks later, grazing in someone else’s pasture. And
I learned that I was riding Gus, the rodeo announcer’s
we rented bicycles and saw the rest of the resort.
Although it was Sunday afternoon and many people were
clearing out, some were taking advantage of the three-day
weekend and were shooting skeet, taking archery practice,
going for swamp buggy rides.
we came to the pasture where buffalo grazed behind a fence
topped with barbed wire, I got off my bicycle for a closer
of the buffalo came to the fence to get a closer look at
me, too. He glared through the barbed wire. I never knew
exactly what baleful meant, had never taken the time to
look it up in the dictionary. But his look was the
definition of baleful, which I now know means threatening
harm or evil. I got back on my bicycle and pedaled away. I
never would have made it as a cowgirl.
THERE: The resort is at 3200 River Ranch Blvd., River
Ranch, which is east of Lake Wales and about an hour south
of Orlando. The resort also has a private, lighted
The resort has several hundred units — hotel rooms and
suites in the newly renovated lodge, cabins, and "glamping"
tents with portable heat/AC units, some owner-occupied
units, RV sites plus space for tent camping. Standard
rooms start around $170, depending on the date, glamping
around $150, a tent campsite around $20. Watch for deals
— I got my room for $109 Saturday, $99 Sunday through
Smokehouse Grill usually serves breakfast (buffet), lunch
and dinner, but service is seasonal — call ahead. The
General Store has a deli and offers pizza. The River Ranch
Saloon, which opens at 6 p.m., does not serve food. There
are no nearby stores or restaurants; you’d be wise to
bring snacks and maybe breakfast and lunch fixings. Rooms
have a mini-fridge, tiny microwave, toaster, coffeemaker
and a sink.
Rodeo, dinner hayride and Adventure Park (mechanical bull,
zip line, etc.) are available only on Saturdays and all
carry an extra fee. Available weekends and by advance
reservation some other days are horseback riding, airboat
and swamp buggy rides, trap and skeet range, mini golf,
9-hole executive golf course, and archery range. You can
rent bicycles, tennis equipment, fishing tackle and more.
Free activities include hiking, the petting zoo, use of
the tennis courts, swimming pool and hot tub, birdwatching,
fishing and horseshoes. A sampling of fees: rodeo $15.50
adults, $8 ages 5-12; horseback riding $40 for 45 minutes;
airboat and swamp buggy rides, $25 adults, $15 children;
mechanical bull $5, mini golf $5.