Westgate River Ranch is located on 1700 acres in Central Florida, just an hour from Orlando. Not your typical cattle-wrangling operation, Westgate provides plenty of family opportunities to enjoy the outdoors with everything from a petting corral and rodeo to swamp buggy rides and trap and skeet shooting.
We fired off some questions to the ranch to find out exactly what they have to offer.
Can you tell me a little about the history of Westgate River Ranch?
Believe it or not, Florida actually served as the original birthplace of the American cowboy. Long before cowboys became the symbol of the American West in the late 19th century, Seminole Indians, Spanish colonists and American settlers called “Crackers” herded cattle in Florida. Westgate River Ranch is located on some of the same land that those first cowboys roamed years ago.
In the early 1700s, American settlers began migrating to Florida out of the Carolinas and Georgia. These early settlers quickly took advantage of the wild cattle roaming the state. They often were called “cow catchers” because they would capture the wild cattle and build herds from them that they would drive to the seaports of Florida and sell to the Spanish that were sailing in from Cuba and Puerto Rico. The cattle would be taken back to Cuba and Puerto Rico to stock the ranches of the Spanish islands and be used as a food source.
These first American cowboys eventually became known as “cracker cowboys” and the Spanish cattle and horses that they made their living with were called “cracker horses” and “cracker cattle.”
The area that became known as River Ranch once served as a stopping point along the trail for the cracker cowboys during their cattle drives across the state. They would meet each other here at certain times of the year and bring together the small herds of wild cattle that they had caught into one large herd. By doing that they could help each other get those cattle to market.
River Ranch was originally built in the 1960s by Gulf American Corp. (GAC), then one of the largest land developers in the state, as the centerpiece of a huge proposed development in the area called “River Ranch Acres.” In 2001, Westgate Resorts purchased River Ranch and Westgate River Ranch reopened its doors the following year.
What is the area like and how do people get to you?
Westgate River Ranch, which has evolved into the largest dude ranch East of the Mississippi, lies on 1,700 beautiful acres and is surrounded on all sides by approximately 400,000 acres of state and federally protected wetlands. We are located about an hour south of Orlando – easily accessible by car and RV.
What is the lodging like – can you describe a few of the options?
- Standard and Deluxe Lodge rooms featuring queen beds and in room kitchenette.
- One and Two Bedroom Cottages, sleeping up to 6 guests. These cottages were completely renovated in 2013 and feature full kitchens.
- The Saddle Club – these feature studios, one bedroom deluxe cabins, one bedroom grand cabins and two bedroom cabins – these units were all completely renovated in 2013, and feature new dark wood furniture and luxurious lighting and linens.
- Glamping – ‘Glamorous Camping’ – set in a beautiful wooded area, each tent is set on a platform and is fully furnished, in addition they come with heating/air conditioning, features 2 rocking chairs on the deck, plus each tent has its own grill and picnic table and comes with a key to a private bathroom and shower. The Glamping site also includes a personal concierge service.
- Tent Camping - Escape to nature and relaxation at the Westgate River Ranch campsites, which are nestled in a beautiful wide-open area. We conveniently carry firewood, charcoal, and most other camping supplies in the General Store if you happen to need extra comforts you may have forgotten.
- RV Site - Each RV Site offers power and water hookups.
- As of August 2013, we now have shared bathroom facilities with showers within a short walking distance of the campsites. Enjoy camping at an award-winning resort that offers endless activities both day and night!
Who does the resort cater to and how friendly is it towards kids?
We cater to couples, families and groups. We are extremely child friendly with endless activities.
What is a typical visit like, i.e. what do people do while staying with you?
We have an abundance of activities on offer at the ranch – horse back riding, air boat rides, swamp buggy rides, archery range, basketball, boat rentals, dinner hayride, fishing, full service marina, mechanical bull, nine hole golf course, petting farm, pony rides, trap & skeet range, video arcade, horseshoes, tennis, outdoor pool.
A huge favorite among the kids in particular is our adventure park which features a bungee jumper, mini-golf, rock climbing wall and zip-line We also have a ropes course which can cater for group/corporate team building events.
I see you have a rodeo. Who’s in it and is it participatory for guests?
The live Rodeo takes place every Saturday night and is open to guests and the public alike. (Additional fee for ticket applies). It draws rodeo athletes from all over to compete in trick riding, calf roping, barrel racing and, of course, bull riding.
Plus the fun doesn’t stop once the rodeo ends! If you feel bull riding isn’t that tough, take a spin on our new Mechanical Bull. Or get your feet moving to the lively Dance Party just outside the River Ranch Saloon where you’ll hear music and games from a lively DJ to end a perfect day.
We neglected to ask about the food but, after-the-fact, found out that the Smokehouse Grill restaurant serves excellent smoked BBQ. The onsite General Store serves breakfast, salads, deli sandwiches, pizza, beverages as well as offers sundries and groceries. Future plans (sometime this year) include a renovation of the Saloon (located next to the Rodeo) to convert it to a steakhouse, bar and live music venue.
So, while this might not be the typical farm or ranch stay, there's plenty to enjoy from sunrise to sundown. In fact you can book your reservation right here right now, then head out to the ranch, jump on a horse and ride into a bit of Florida history, if only for the afternoon.
(Photo credits: Westgate River Ranch)