Last weekend the whole family (me, my wife and two kids ages 7 and 9) woke up early, packed up the car and headed to Westgate River Ranch, an incredible destination that took us about as far from the Orlando area theme parks like Disney World, Universal Studios and SeaWorld as imaginable. An authentic dude ranch nestled on 1,700 beautiful acres, Westgate River Ranch gave us the unique opportunity to return to the days of “Old Florida” when the state was home to cowboys and cattle ranchers.
Just about an hour’s drive South of Orlando, Westgate River Ranch lies in Polk County, Florida, and is centrally located between the Atlantic and Gulf beaches. We sped South on State Road 429 (normally the back road we take to Disney World) to Interstate 4 West and then past a myriad of small towns along U.S. 27 – Haines City, Lake Hamilton, Dundee and Lake Wales (billed as “The Friendliest Small Town in Florida”) – before heading East on State Road 60. We noticed few signs of civilization for the next 25 miles and then we glimpsed an immense horse statue and sign welcoming us to Westgate River Ranch, “The World’s Largest Dude Ranch.” We had arrived!
As we drove past the main gate to Westgate River Ranch, we noticed a small airfield and golf pro shop on the left and a 9-hole golf course on the right. The excitement built as we continued down the road and viewed the horse stables, petting farm and rodeo arena, as well as some horses grazing in a pasture. We also noticed many guests riding around in golf carts (rentals are available), which we soon discovered would prove to be the easiest and most fun way to make our way around the ranch. We passed a beautiful white chapel and the River Ranch Saloon before parking at the impressive Lodge and Conference Center.
After we checked in around 10 AM, we dropped off our luggage in the Western-themed Inn room, which overlooked some tennis courts. We found the accommodations to be very comfortable with a variety of amenities such as a fully equipped kitchen, table and chairs, screen-in porch and cable TV. Perfect for us! The kids wanted to totally immerse themselves in the Western feel of the ranch, so we then stopped by the Western Store and picked them up some cowboy hats. The Western Store was stock full of hats, boots, shirts, jeans, belts and cowboy souvenirs.
We then explored the adjacent game room, Kid’s Corral Arcade, and played a quick game of air hockey, as well as some other classic games such as Boppin’ Bugs! Finally, we checked out the nearby General Store, which sold everything from groceries, beverages and gifts to sandwiches, pizza and salads. In addition to the Western Store, Kid’s Corral Arcade and General Store, the Town Square at Westgate River Ranch features an old-timey Post Office.
We were registered for an Airboat Ride at 11:10 AM so we then headed to Westgate River Ranch’s full-service Marina, which consisted of a dock, Bait and Tackle Shop, and Westgate Smokehouse Grill. In addition to airboat rides, a variety of rentals and excursions were also available at the Marina such as boat rentals, guided fishing trips and swamp buggy rides.
Just to the left of the Marina, we spotted a Catch & Release Pond and a herd of grazing Watusi cattle, which are known for their long, distinctive horns. The Airboat Ride itself took us on a thrilling adventure along the scenic Kissimmee River (which flows from Osceola County to Lake Okeechobee) where we viewed alligators, turtles, hawks, eagles and other rare birds.
After departing from the airboat we headed up the dock to the Westgate Smokehouse Grill, a charming waterfront eatery that features a family-style menu and large screen-in porch. We started off with gator bites as an appetizer, which was a real treat for the kids since they had never tasted alligator before and could now boast of it to their friends. My wife ordered the chicken salad sandwich and the kids chose salad and fries from the children’s menu, while I opted for the blackened grouper sandwich, a generous portion that was piled high with onions and peppers. Absolutely delicious!
After lunch we had some time to kill before the Swamp Buggy Ride so we decided to check out the complimentary Petting Farm. My kids agreed it was the best petting farm they’ve ever visited – full of ponies, horses, goats, pot-bellied pigs, llamas, emus and peacocks. The kids also enjoyed the Pony Ride. We also got a chance to visit the adjacent Horse Stables and view a group getting ready for a Horseback Riding adventure along the miles of bridle trails that wind through Westgate River Ranch.
We returned to the Marina at 2:15 PM for the Swamp Buggy Ride, which consisted of a thriling one-hour journey through Westgate River Ranch’s wooded trail. These swamp buggies have huge tires and can travel just about anywhere, allowing for an amazing (and bumpy!) journey through the brush. The kids got to sit next to the driver and they were thrilled by it all! After departing the Swamp Buggy Ride, we relaxed by taking a dip in the outdoor pool and hot tub.
At 4:45 PM, we met at the East Corral for the old-fashioned, tractor-pulled Hayride, which was to be followed by a Country Cookout. The Hayride actually took us outside the boundaries of Westgate River Ranch into the beautiful 7,000-acre KICCO Wildlife Management Area, which runs along the Kissimmee River. In addition to the incredible scenery, the hour-long Hayride featured the talents of a singing cowboy who entertained the crowd with such classics as Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville” and Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee,” as well as providing us with interesting trivia about the KICCO Wildlife Management Area along the way.
We learned that KICCO stands for “Kissimmee Island Cattle Company,” which operated here from 1915 through the late 1920s and that a 13-mile portion of the 1,400-mile Florida Trail (officially known as the Florida National Scenic Trail) winds its way through the area. In addition, KICCO is home to abundant wildlife such as white-tailed deer, bald eagles, wild hogs, hawks, sandhill cranes, wading birds, alligators and wild turkeys. After departing the Hayride around 6 PM, we headed to the East Corral for the Country Cookout, which featured a delicious buffet that consisted of barbecue chicken, hotdogs, corn on the cob, baked potatoes, baked beans and iced tea.
By 7 PM, crowds of rodeo fans started to descend upon Westgate River Ranch for the immensely popular rodeo, which takes place every Saturday night at 7:30 PM. We grabbed a few cocktails at the River Ranch Saloon (where patrons can enjoy “live country-western foot-stompin’ entertainment and line dancing” Friday and Saturday nights!) and then strolled over to the 1,200-seat Rodeo Arena.
Officially known as the Americom Championship Rodeo, this amazing event boasted everything from bull riding, barrel racing, calf roping and trick riding to rodeo clown antics and a patriotic tribute to our armed forces that was accompanied by uplifting, classic country songs such as Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue” and Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.” In addition, the kids especially enjoyed getting the opportunity to participate in a real “calf scramble.” Bottom line: The rodeo was simply incredible and all of us thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Don’t miss it!
After the rodeo, we hung around for the Rodeo Dance where dozens of kids sang, danced and competed in games while the lively DJ entertained us with tunes such as “Macarena,” “Electric Slide” and even “Cotton Eyed Joe.” It was now 10 PM and after a full day of fun and adventure, we were all exhausted and so we headed back to our room. However, things were just picking up at the adjacent River Ranch Saloon and we could hear some great live music as we rode past in our golf cart.
We slept in a little on Sunday morning and then headed over to the Westgate Smokehouse Grill for the abundant breakfast buffet that consisted of eggs, biscuits and gravy, sausage, bacon, fruit, cereal and much more. We then decided to check out the Miniature Golf course, which was located behind the General Store. The challenging, 18-hole putt-putt course winded through shady trees.
As we drove out, we stopped by the charming River Ranch Chapel, which is a very popular site for weddings. We took a right turn past the chapel and viewed the Trap and Skeet Range, and Archery Range, as well as tent and RV campsites nestled in the woods. From a distance, we could also view several planes at the Westgate River Ranch Airfield, which features a lighted 5,000-foot private runway.
As we headed onto Highway 60 back toward “civilization,” all of us agreed how refreshing it was to have such a unique, fun-filled vacation getaway as Westgate River Ranch within an hour’s drive of bustling Orlando. We vowed to definitely escape to “nature’s sanctuary” again in the near future!
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