Photography courtesy of Westgate River Ranch
Florida tourism isn’t all beaches and theme parks. It’s fresh citrus, natural wildlife, and cattle ranches, too. The rich history Central Florida offers often goes unknown. Westgate River Ranch Resort & Rodeo welcomes guests into a glimpse of this untold story.
Did you know that old Central Florida was home to the United States’ first cowboys? Back when the famous Chain of Lakes served as a trade route for steam-powered paddle boats, cowboys paved a cattle-driving route. This route winds straight through our home, Polk County, and its history is preserved by one ranch just outside Lake Wales.
At Westgate River Ranch Resort & Rodeo, visitors experience true old Florida frozen in time. Right outside campers’ rooms, cattle roam, horses neigh, and cows graze.
Just an hour south of Orlando, Westgate lies on 1,700 sprawling acres on the cusp of the Kissimmee River. The ranch is surrounded by 400,000 acres of government-protected wetlands; so, if you’re an annual Westgate camper, you can rest assured the land will always remain a quiet and undeveloped space to disconnect.
While the pandemic took a toll on many tourist destinations here in Florida, Westgate thrived. Since reopening last summer, it’s been breaking personal records weekly. When the ranch’s General Manager, Ray Duncan, took me on a tour of the resort, he explained just why visitors can’t stay away.
The vibrant and ongoing success of Westgate can be attributed to a careful balance it holds between its adaptability to change and its commitment to honor historical traditions. The business’ approach to innovation is simple: keep doing what works, and adapt what doesn’t. Westgate holds true to its mission: to provide a space for individuals, couples and families to connect with one another and nature in a day, a weekend, or longer stay.
The accommodations at Westgate range greatly, from luxury glamping suites to simply plots of land for guests to pitch their own tents. It is a perfect place for families that desire to camp but don’t want to invest in outdoor gear. Guests experience ranch life without “roughing it.”
Westgate is community-minded. After every Saturday night rodeo, visitors can grab a drink at the old-style saloon and go line dancing at the communal street party. Guests that stay in glamping suites, luxe teepees, or regular campsites enjoy communal fire pits. “We have families that have met at the fire pit and become lifelong friends,” says Duncan. “They come from all over the U.S. and reconnect here every year.”
Most units at Westgate don’t have TVs; the ranch is focused on family bonding. In the luxury suites, staff place complimentary coffee and danishes on the porch each morning. Hammocks are scattered under canopy trees for those staying to relax, read a book, and reconnect with nature. At night, guests take their golf carts to drive-in movie nights under the stars. It is an unhurried and relaxing environment designed for families to retreat.
One of the most coveted experiences at the ranch is the 45-minute-long horseback ride where kids and adults alike enjoy a leisurely ride along an undeveloped trail. Experienced guides ride alongside each group as they pass by ponds of sparkling water and fields of buffalo. After the ride, guests are welcomed by an exotic petting zoo with calves, peacocks, emus, and more.
The experiences provided at Westgate shape children’s lives. “It’s neat to see kids come to Westgate and ride a horse for the first time, or go to the rodeo, and come back years later as trained horseback riders,” says Duncan. “Their parents tell me, ‘You got them hooked.’” According to Duncan, one little girl rode her first horse at Westgate and went on to compete in the Olympic qualifiers.
Duncan deeply values the ability to shape the experience of Westgate visitors and intentionally trains his staff to do the same. “I always tell my team, never take it for granted. You hold their experience in your hands. Guests come in the front gate like visitors, and when my team does their job, they leave feeling like family.”
After the challenging year and long quarantine we’ve all experienced, people want to get out and explore. We’re no longer taking our outdoor surroundings for granted. We’re getting out, breathing the fresh air, and appreciating the world around us with a hopeful mindset. Large-scale theme parks nearby like Disney World and Universal Studios offer a sense of adventure, but many guests are looking elsewhere for distanced fun.
The nature of what people want out of their vacations is changing: in 2020, even amidst travel restrictions, RV and camping material purchases soared. People are wary of crowded resorts, but they still want to travel, thus making a place like Westgate the perfect middle-ground vacation destination.
If you’re interested in checking out the resort, head over on a Saturday night to the 1,200-seat rodeo to watch some barrel racing and bull riding. Each rodeo is announced by Duncan himself and is a treat for both guests staying at the resort or just visiting for the evening. Get your tickets early, though, because the limited capacity means the stadium fills up quickly.
Westgate looks forward to offering more event space, dining options, and accommodations for guests. The resort has seen major growth even during the pandemic, and there is no doubt it will continue to expand as vacationers look for more natural and historic opportunities to experience Florida.
As we seek open-air experiences, let’s look first toward the natural beauty that Central Florida has to offer in our very own back yards. Wildlife thrives in the sunshine, blue skies, and wide-open spaces; most often, we do, too.