The Westgate River Ranch Resort in south central Florida allows guests to get away from the hustle and bustle and revel in the Old Florida feel of vast open spaces where grand live oak trees spread their heavy limbs and rest them on the dewy ground and cattle roam like they did at the turn of the century.
It’s easy to envision Florida Cracker history at River Ranch. Florida’s early frontiersmen rounded up cattle with cow whips and dog. Today, traditions of cowboy life live on through a weekly rodeo, campfires, and dancing at the saloon. But modern offerings make the ranch enjoyable as well, such as a spacious pool, miniature golf and marina leading to the Kissimmee River. So, if a romantic or family getaway is in your future, know there are fun things to do while you escape from everyday demands.
Here are the top 10 outdoor things to do at Westgate River Ranch.
1. Go for a hayride. Pulled by a tractor, an amble among ranchland via a wagon equipped with benches and a hay-lined floor, accompanied by a singing cowboy with guitar, is a great way to enjoy quality time with significant others. The slow easy ride in the fresh air among scenic lands brings riders face to face with oak hammock, scrub and pine-palmetto flatwoods as well as birds, cows and bulls. Singing along is allowed.
2. Go for a swim. A large rectangular warm pool allows lap-swimming, water aerobics or fun and games. Numerous lawn chairs enable comfort in or out of the water. A bathhouse and outdoor shower take care of little necessities.
3. Take a hike. The KICCO Wildlife Management Area offers about 13 miles of hiking along the Florida Trail. Among the wildlife a walker might spy are white-tailed deer, alligators, feral hogs, bald eagles, wild turkeys, hawks, wading birds, sandhill cranes and the threatened crested caracara perhaps flying overhead. KICCO, which stands for Kissimmee Island Cattle Company, consists of more than 7,000 acres along the channelized Kissimmee River. The 9-mile shell KICCO road also offers an excellent biking opportunity atop hybrids and mountain bikes.
4. Ride a horse. When at a ranch, do like the locals. Saddle up. Although it will set you back about a dollar a minute, be prepared for a relaxing jaunt atop a horse, perhaps one that is ridden in the rodeo. A slow 40-45minute amble through pastureland and wet grasslands and occasionally beneath live oaks draped in Spanish moss, the horseback ride is a chance to chat with the cowboys and girls who ride and care for the horses and the bull riders for a living.
5. Attend a rodeo. Each Saturday at 7:30 p.m. for 90 minutes, the area’s horseback riders, bull riders and calf ropers exhibit their dexterity and bravery to appreciative fans. Some rodeo performers are cutting their teeth to see if the wrangling life is in their future, and if they can earn some money doing it. During a brief break for the riders, kids are given the chance to compete against other kids their age-in a “calf chase” where they pull a scarf from the scampering animal’s tail in the quest for a small prize and boasting rights.
6. Catch a fish. From chain pickerel to bass and crappies, anglers can hook ‘em up in the Kissimmee River and nearby waters. The River Ranch Marina features boats and fishing guides that can be chartered for a price through advance reservations. Airboat rides and swamp buggy rides are available for wildlife viewing at a cost of $25 for adults, $15 for children. A 20-foot pontoon boat rental is $65 per hour plus tax. The Catch and Release Pond near the full-service marina also allows fishing aficionados to wet a line.
7. Kayak the Kissimmee. While you have to bring your own kayak or canoe, there’s a launch ramp at the marina. This is a great, inexpensive way to get out on the Kissimmee River and look for alligators and birds. Virtually no development can be seen along the Kissimmee River canal that leads eventually to Lake Okeechobee, so miles of solitude await. Pedaling and paddling a Hobie Mirage Sport enables easy access to an hour or longer adventure.
8. Shoot ‘em up. It’s not the O.K. Corral but it’s close enough. The trap and skeet range allow shotgun and BB blasters to take aim. Cost is $30 per 25 rounds. Eight stations on the skeet course with saucers flying from two locations offer variety and challenge.
9. Play golf or miniature golf. Opened in 2005, the 9-hole course designed by Joseph L. Lee at the Westgate resort features 3,321 yards of golf from the longest tees for a par of 36. The miniature golf course is near the Western-themed shopping area.
10. Ride the bull. Outside the lively River Ranch Saloon, little tykes up to adults can pay $5 and ride the rubber-sided bucking, twirling bull that is controlled for speed by a resort employee. Whether falling off gracefully or being whirled off like a flat pancake onto the padded bounce house-like floor, spectators enjoy the bronco rides as much if not more than the fearless riders.
While outdoor adventures abound, indoor pleasures await as well. Country-Western foot-stompin’ entertainment Friday and Saturday nights at the River Ranch Saloon adjacent to the Westgate River Ranch Rodeo is a must. Line dancing lessons are offered on Friday evenings. An outside dance area also appeals and all ages show their boot-scootin’ skills under the twinkling lights with music supplied by a DJ.
If you have younger ones in your group, a free petting farm with baby goats, lambs, horses, calves and other barnyard animals are near the stables. Roasting marshmallows at campfires near the East Corral and outside the Saloon are sure to please as well.
Would-be wranglers probably will have built up an appetite with the many activities at the ranch. Barbecue at the on-premise Westgate Smokehouse Grill, with dining options indoor or outdoor along the river, is certain to sate your palate.
To get to Westgate River Ranch from Lake Wales, take Highway 60 east for 21.1 miles to the resort entrance. From Yeehaw Junction (junction of 441 and 60), go west 19 miles on Hwy. 60 and look for the Westgate River Ranch sign on the south side of the road.
There are various resort packages and discounts available, such as for Florida residents or AAA members. Additionally, conferences are welcome, such as the recent one I attended for the Florida Outdoor Writers Association (www.fowa.org) which 100 people attended.
Call 863-692-1321 or visit http://www.wgriverranch.com/ to learn more, and let the fun begin.
To learn more about things to do in the surrounding area, visit http://www.visitcentralflorida.org or see my stories and slide shows on hiking the KICCO Trail and visiting the Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales (in the suggested readings below).