SADDLING UP IN THE SUNSHINE STATE

Westgate River Ranch Resort and Rodeo provides a plethora of outdoor activities without compromising on comfort


Written by Patti Bailey

Photography by Tony Bailey

A Dude Ranch? Why would I want to go to a Dude Ranch, especially one located in Florida? That was my first thought when the trip was suggested to me. I mean, doesn't that involve sleeping in tents on the hard ground and cooking over an open fire? The reason you go to Florida is to relax on the beach. A Dude Ranch sounds more like work and not relaxation. As much as I tried to resist, I eventually gave in and decided to try it. As we drove through the gates of the Westgate River Ranch Resort and Rodeo, I quickly came to realize that there was a possibility I jumped to my conclusion about this Dude Ranch much too soon. The minute we arrived, a "ranch hand" escorted us to check-in, where we were given the keys to

our golf cart and greeted by our personal concierge, who showed us to our

accommodations. I was delighted to see that we would be staying in a Luxe Conestoga Wagon rather than roughing it in a tent. I have had my share of tent camping in my younger days and prefer sleeping in a real bed. As we walked up the steps to the deck of the wagon, I turned and looked at the magnificent view of open fields, with horses and buffalo grazing beyond the lagoon. I could feel my body going into relax mode already. Walking into the wagon, I breathed a sigh of relief once I saw the king-sized bed with well-appointed linens and a full bathroom. Among the amenities in the mini kitchen were stemware for drinking a glass of wine on the deck and a s'mores kit to complement the nightly campfire lit by our concierge. We had a little time before our scheduled dinner, so we hopped into our golf cart for a tour of the resort, and I was astonished by the variety of available accommodations. To

say there is something for everyone is an understatement. Typical tent camping and lodge

rooms are available, but if you prefer a one-of-a-kind experience, book the 651 squarefoot Luxe Teepee, which sleeps four guests and contains a living room, dining area, and a fireplace that separates the living room from the bedroom. In addition to the same amenities as the Luxe Conestoga Wagon, the full bath In the Teepee boasts a porcelain cast iron clawfoot tub. When you stay in a Luxe Conestoga Wagon or a Luxe Teepee, your rate includes Adventure Park passes, airboat and swamp buggy rides, horseback riding, trap and skeet shooting, archery, and tickets to the famous Saturday night rodeo. We stopped for a quick break at the private airstrip to watch a collection of small private planes and helicopters take flight.


Our dinner the first night was at the Westgate Smokehouse Grill. It was a magnificent Southern buffet consisting of barbecue, fall-off-the-bone ribs, brisket, and a plethora of sides. I do not know how we could save room for dessert, but we did manage, and the bread pudding was amazing. After dinner, we retreated to our wagon and found the roaring campfire too inviting to resist. We joined some of the other wagon guests and had a relaxing night of conversation, wine, and, of course, toasted marshmallows for s'mores. In the morning, a breakfast basket built to our specifications awaited us in a covered barrel on our deck, along with a big pot of coffee, another perk of Luxe Conestoga Wagon lodging. It was a

perfect way to jump-start the day. Fully fueled, we were ready to start the dude ranch experience. An abundance of activities awaited us each day. Gentle horseback

rides take guests on a scenic trail through the backwoods of the resort, passing cattle, buffalo, and grazing horses. It almost felt like we were in the Old West as we passed the covered wagons, teepees, and tents. With credit to an attentive instructor, I was pleased with the number of targets I managed to hit on my first attempt at trap shooting. By the time dinner at Saddleback Pavilion rolled around, we had worked up quite an appetite. We were thrilled to see that the impressive event space was serving up a traditional Louisiana crawfish boil. Once again, the Chefs did an outstanding job. After dinner, we stopped at The Saloon for drinks and line dancing, which was a fun way to work off those dinner calories.

Our last day was full of activity, starting with a swamp buggy ride. Our host was quite the

entertainer as we drove through the wooded, scenic trails hoping to spot alligators. Next, it was on to an airboat ride, where we toured the picturesque Kissimmee River, snapping photos of more alligators, along with hawks, and rare birds. After a short break, we climbed

aboard a hay-covered wagon for a ride through the resort while serenaded by a guitar-playing cowboy. The wagon dropped us off at the East Corral, another event space, for our final dinner, which was steak and lobster prepared by a visiting chef from one of Westgate's other resorts. Grilled to perfection, the delectable dinner was fit for a king and culminated with Bananas Foster for dessert. Capping off our stay, we watched in amazement as experienced riders showed off their skills at the Saturday night rodeo. Not quite ready for the weekend to end, we strolled over to the Adventure Park, which was abuzz with activity, including bungee jumping, rock climbing, zip lining, mini golf, mechanical bull riding and a petting zoo. How could you not have a great time? The idea of having our next family reunion at the Resort was forefront in my mind. If I have not convinced you that a Dude Ranch is your next vacation, you will be delighted to know that Westgate has 29 locations across the United States offering vacation experiences ranging from sandy beaches on the Atlantic Ocean to snow covered Utah mountains.


Luxury glamping experiences at Westgate River Ranch Resort & Rodeo begin at $326/night.

For more information visit westgateresorts.com/hotels/florida/river-ranch/westgate-river-ranch-resort/

Athletes of the Westgate Rodeo, held

on Saturday nights.

slmag.net

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