Horsing Around, and Relaxing, at Grand Oaks Resort and Museum
By Michelle Bearden
For years, a 400-acre piece of paradise in Weirsdale was the Florida capital for pleasure carriage driving, drawing equine enthusiasts from all over the world.
They attended clinics and shows led by world-class drivers. Some came for extended stays in one of the resort’s charming cottages or homes; others brought their own horses to ride on the manicured trails crisscrossing the property’s verdant rolling pastures.
Patrons also could tour exhibits collected from all over the world in the Florida Carriage Museum and browse through the library at The Equine Heritage Institute, dedicated to the history of the horse.
But when new ownership took over in April 2011, simple math and a challenged economy made it necessary to a come up with a revised vision for the property. The carriage-driving community simply wasn’t big enough to support it.
Rick Loveless drives to the Front Arena at Grand Oaks Resort & Museum to participate in the Grand Oaks Classic Pleasure Driving Competition in Weirsdale. - Julie Branaman for VISIT FLORIDA
So how could it be revamped to get optimum use of its resources, without sacrificing the beauty of the land resplendent with majestic oaks and breath-taking views?
Now it’s the Grand Oaks Resort and Museum, and it apparently has done just that.
“The idea was to expand into a full-venue equine resort, open it to all disciplines of riding and make it a day or vacation destination for local to international guests,” says Tom Warriner, general manager and veteran horseman. “Then we kept taking it one step further. And the additions still keep coming.”
Think of it as an eco-friendly Disneyland for horse lovers and their equine companions.
It now boasts a multitude of new stalls and 12 arenas, including a covered one of 54,000 square feet, one of the largest in central Florida. The resort books horse shows, ranging from dressage to reining and everything in between, all open to the public. There’s a full-service bistro and bar with live entertainment on weekends, and a cigar lounge. An on-premise spa offers a hair salon, facials, massages, even an acupuncturist.
Planning a wedding? With its new outdoor chapel and serene lakeside setting, Grand Oaks has become a busy wedding destination, offering everything from elegant soirees to rustic ranch nuptials. In fact, saying “I do” at the resort is becoming so popular that it now sometimes hosts two a day.
“We’re only restricted by our imagination,” Warriner says. “What the bride wants, we will make happen.” The resort gives the same service to the meeting market, which has access to several rooms and a banquet hall.
The pet-friendly lodging got a big upgrade as well. Twenty-nine “carriage cabins” — each unique in design and size — dot the property, with a total of 44 bedrooms. Rates range from $150 a night in season and $99 a night off season. And because horse people often travel by recreational vehicles, the resort has added 45 full-service spaces in an RV park, complete with a clubhouse and laundry facilities. There are another 30 spaces with electric and water, mainly used for horse trailers on show weekends.
“It takes your breath away when you come up the driveway,” says Rick Loveless. He and his wife, Dee, brought their greyhound, two whippets and a half-dozen horses for three months, renting a cottage while waiting to close on a 12-acre farm they purchased in Ocala.
The Massachusetts transplant loves everything about Grand Oaks and its tranquil surroundings. He says he’s never been called “sir” so many times as he has here.
“We love the Southern hospitality and the laid-back atmosphere. This is such a change of pace from the Northeast, where everything is so rushed,” Loveless says.
Day visitors are encouraged as well. The carriage museum is still a big draw, with docents available for personalized tours of the four galleries, featuring an impressive collection of antique carriages and other horse-drawn transportation from all over world. Afterward, stop in the gift shop for affordable and unique horse-themed clothing, jewelry, knick-knacks and books.
One of the best bargains is the resort’s Triple Crown offer on Sundays. For $35, guests get a full buffet, admission to the museum and a horse-drawn carriage ride around the property. On weekdays, visitors are welcome to take a seat around any one of the arenas to watch some of the country’s top drivers and riders train for equestrian events. For those ready to pick up the reins, on-site trainers are available for private or group lessons.
Content to just look? Stop by the stables or take a stroll along the seven miles of biking and walking paths that weave among the multiple pastures and low wooden fences. The resort is home to 35 horses of 10 different breeds, including two Clydesdales named Bud and Weiser. But it’s a donkey that gets the most attention.
“Not just any donkey. This is a rare French Poitou,” Warriner says of Nicolette, who sports a thick and matted coat. “Think of a Rastafarian, and you get the picture.”
For Warriner, the best part of what he calls his “dream job” is seeing how guests decompress so quickly once they come onto the grounds at Grand Oaks.
“You can literally see the stress on their faces melt away. Here we slow down the tempo and give you a place of peace and contentment, surrounded by some of the most beautiful animals on earth,” he says. “You can’t help but leave here happy and relaxed. That’s when we say mission accomplished.”
If you go…
The Grand Oaks Resort & Museum
3000 Marion County Road
Lady Lake, FL 32159