In central Florida, there’s a place where live oak trees meet the blue sky and Spanish moss drips from each limb. About an hour south of Orlando, the tall towers and lights disappear, and travelers get a glimpse into what some call “Old Florida,” home to the American cowboys.
But it’s really known as Westgate River Ranch Resort and Rodeo, the biggest dude ranch east of the Mississippi.
If the thought of “Old Florida” or “ranch life” sounds a little foreign to you, don’t worry, there's still running water and WiFi. But you won’t want to do much scrolling when there are 1,700 acres of land to check out where beautiful horses and cattle roam and the Kissimmee River runs. And of course, there is fine dining to experience, line dancing to get into, and rodeos that will wow you. As things cool down in the fall, it becomes the best time to visit the ranch and spend time outdoors. It's all about relaxing and getting a little rowdy, somehow, all at once. How do you do that? Don’t worry, the ranch will teach you.
The History of River Ranch and Cracker Cowboys
So, how did the River Ranch come to be? And did the history of American cowboys really begin in sunny Florida? It all started when Spanish explorers arrived on the Florida coast during the 1500s. By the 1600s, more and more settlers arrived and began herding cattle and horses. Eventually, clashes broke out between ranchers or “cowboys” and the native Florida Indians. The West didn’t become wild until hundreds of years later, making Florida the place where American cowboys, or “cracker cowboys,” got their humble beginnings. The unusual name, cracker cowboys, comes from the cracking sound their loud leather whips would make.
On the east side of Polk County ran the Kissimmee River where the swampy area ran wild with these rowdy cowboys. It stayed very rural over the next hundred years or so, unlike many of the surrounding cities. To keep the traditions of the real-life cowboys, saloons, and wildlife alive, the area known as River Ranch became official when it was established in the 1960s. By 1971, the property had a motel, Western-style saloon and café, a swimming pool, rodeo, and a trap and skeet range. Over the years, Westgate Resorts has turned it into the travel destination it’s known as today. You’ll still find real cowboys on site and even some appearances from the descendants of the original cracker cowboys who roamed the area hundreds of years ago.
Stay and Play at River Ranch
Where To Stay
When it comes to the 21st century, travelers can wind down and relax for a weekend of glamping (aka, glamorous camping). The ranch offers an array of ways to stay. If you're looking for a weekend of real camping, grab a tent under the stars or book a cozy cabin. However, if you're looking to really elevate your trip, spend the evening in a luxe teepee inspired by the original Native American tribes from the area. History buffs will especially love this space! While it is rustic, each tepee comes with a king bed, full bathrooms, and walk-in showers, a kitchenette, and a fire pit that can be lit each night by Westgate staff. Arguably the best part of choosing one of the luxe glamping options on the ranch is the personal glamping concierge who is ready to tend to your every need. That also includes coffee and breakfast delivered to your door each morning and a golf cart to ride around the resort on. All these amenities plus more also come with the Luxe Conestoga Wagons. The wagons sleep up to six people and will make anyone feel like a cowboy king or cowgirl queen. After a day on the ranch, wind down on the front porch of the wagon and watch the sun set over the river.
If you're looking to fill your days with some Florida entertainment, the ranch has more opportunities than you’ll know what to do with. For starters, cowboys and cowgirls can try their hand at horseback riding, trap and skeet shooting, golfing, visit the petting farm, head out on a hike, or experience the Kicco wildlife on a hayride. And for all you water bugs, there is a swimming pool and a full-service marina complete with boating and fishing. That's where you can also take part in an airboat ride or a swamp buggy ride. You haven’t experienced the Florida swamps until you’ve ridden in a giant, and slightly scary, swamp buggy.
Swamp Buggy Rides
I'm sure you're dying to know, what in the world is a swamp buggy? Step away from your camp site and hop on a buggy for another kind of wild ride. Sitting atop large tractor tires is a safe and sturdy buggy that allows you to see Westgate’s 1,700 acres from a higher view. Take a rugged ride through the brush, mud, and swamps of Florida and search for alligators, deer, and all kinds of wildlife on the ranch. And keep in mind, you'll want to buckle that seat belt on this ride. It's honestly good practice for the mechanical bull.
Ranch life simply isn’t complete without a horseback ride. If you’ve never been, a ride at the ranch is the perfect beginner’s ride. There’s no pressure to gallop off into the sunset full speed ahead. Instead, experience 45 minutes of serenity and exploration through Florida wildlife. Ride along open fields and see cattle up close, float under the Spanish moss while a cowboy or cowgirl leads the way. And your horse may be a real star as many of them participate in the famous River Ranch Rodeo.
Saturday Night Rodeo
The rodeo is where things really get wild on the ranch. Every Saturday night, folks come from near and far to experience the Westgate Rodeo. Athletes compete in trick riding, barrel racing, and of course, bull riding. So, pull your boots on and get ready to hoot and holler while cowboys and cowgirls take off on their best rides.
Line Dancing at the Saloon
Get ready to kick, stomp, and do-si-do at the River Ranch Saloon and Dance Hall! Line dancing lessons take place every Friday night followed by hours of dancing. And on Saturday, after the rodeo, get ready for the weekend street party. Visitors and locals come out to play and show off their dancing skills. Grab a drink at the bar or hop on the mechanical bull to see if you have what it takes to ride like a real rancher.
Feast and Fixin's at the Ranch
And what better thing to do on vacation than eat? Don't worry, no one is going hungry at the Ranch. With multiple restaurants and even a fresh deli on site, there are options for even the pickiest of eaters. Arguably the most popular place to dine on the ranch is the Cattle Company Chophouse & Bar which is located in the main lodge.
There, guests will find the freshest cuts of beef, along with southern-style entrées and an expansive wine and cocktail menu. The restaurant is known for its bone-in braised short ribs, tender ribeye, and roasted chicken. And don't forget those fixin's like Loaded Rodeo Fries, Crispy Deviled Eggs, table-side s'mores and much more. At the bar, you'll find a creative menu with favorites like a Smoked Old Fashion and the Ranch Mule (my personal favorite).
Regardless of what you get into, you're sure to have a good time at the River Ranch. Whether you prefer to stay up late line dancing or turn in early for an evening by the fire and star gazing, the Ranch has a little something for everyone.
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