Florida Ranches - A Trip to the Westgate River Ranch Resort & Rodeo
By Saundra Amrhein
They spotted the white quarter horse they’d fallen in love with the year before at the same time.
“Guess who’s here?” Jill Alongi told her group’s organizer, running up and hugging her. “Shorty!”
“Hi, Shorty!” Jill called to the horse as he was slowly led to the platform with other horses for the group’s scheduled horseback ride. “I missed you!”
Jill and her fellow group members were at the Westgate River Ranch Resort & Rodeo, about an hour south of Orlando in Lake Wales, decked out in cowboy boots and hats, some bought for them by their parents, who had sent them traveling with Laurel Hickey and her business, Razzle Dazzle Special Travel, outside of Boston.
The 15 group members – basking in the sun and green grass, which they hadn’t seen in months – were in their 20s, 30s and 40s, part of a special needs traveling group, most with Down syndrome, several with autism.
In returning to Florida, they joined countless other special needs families – many of whom plan vacations around medications, and dietary and equipment needs – who seek out the Sunshine State for the easy access to attractions and destinations provided for children and adults with special needs.
“It’s great to find a place so accepting,” Laurel, 52, said about River Ranch. “They stay right with them. The wranglers are wonderful with our group.”
The year before, Laurel had brought her group to the ranch for just a few days, also squeezing in trips to a Spring Training game of the Baltimore Orioles in Sarasota and to theme parks.
This year, she wanted to slow down the pace for her members – many of whom she has known and worked with for most of their lives – and booked a whole week at the ranch. It offered both a calm setting on its 1,700 acres and the structure they needed, with options including hay rides, a petting farm, zip lines, line dancing and the rodeo. And of course, the horses.
Laurel flashed a thumbs-up to Bobby Glynn, who is nonverbal, and offered frequent encouragement.
“Nice job, Bobby! You’re next,” she said. Once ranch employees helped Bobby into his saddle, he turned with a big smile to pose for Laurel’s camera.
“Hold on!” called Laurel’s niece, Whitney Duncan, one of the group’s four volunteer chaperones and who was applying the trip experience to a college internship. She raced over and helped Bobby take the reins.
Jay Nothnagle, a champion rider and athlete for the Special Olympics, paced the platform while sliding on his gloves with expert authority, also wearing his equestrian helmet, pants and boots.
Others needed a bit more assistance, including Nick Sida, who also is nonverbal. Two volunteer chaperones and the wranglers helped him into his saddle.
Laurel described Nick, who loves hugs, as her muse and the reason she went back to college as an adult. She met him when he was five (he was now 28) and she was a school aide and wanted to work with him but lacked the experience. She worked her way up through social service agencies for people with developmental disabilities, and eventually obtained a bachelor’s degree in business administration and a master’s degree in nonprofit leadership and management.
"I knew I couldn’t quit – because of them,” she said. “They got me through it. They took me to the Taylor Swift concert for my graduation gift.” She knew she wanted to do a respite travel business, both to provide fun day trips and vacations for people with special needs and to offer a break for the parents and families who care for them.
"The special part of what happens is what happens between them,” Laurel said.
The horses and riders set out at a slow walk down the trail.
"I’m Shannon by the way, stylin’ Shannon,” said Shannon Driscoll, wearing a pink cowgirl hat dappled with sequins and with white fringes around the brim. She was waiting for the horse, Bo, to be brought from the barn.
"Most horses are high functioning and they eat a lot,” she said. “Of course, everyone eats. But some go off the trail. When I’m on Bo, he’s nice and slow."
This was Shannon’s second time at the ranch.
"I love the therapeutic horseback riding, the petting farm and the rodeo. We do line dancing, too. Oh, my God, that’s the best. This is Bo right here. Hi, Bo, remember me? I’m Shannon. You were always the best horse I’ve ever ridden."
While the group went out, Laurel stayed back with Carol Kelly – a longtime friend and past coworker at service agencies and now one of her volunteer chaperones – and several other travelers who headed into the petting farm.
"These two are donkeys," said Kevin Riordan, wearing a black cowboy hat and mustard-colored boots. “I have to say this but it’s not a swear word. These two are asses."
Later, after the horseback ride and on the way to lunch, Lilly Sestito, another longtime friend of Hickey’s and a volunteer chaperone, teased Shannon about what she was going to order.
"Shannon, liver and unions?" Lilly said.
"Funny," Shannon said.
"Frog legs?" Lilly asked.
Shannon pointed to Lilly’s legs: "I’m looking at ‘em."
At lunch on the ranch restaurant’s back deck overlooking canals and airboats, the group moved tables together while Laurel told the waiter which diners were gluten intolerant.
Jill showed off her engagement ring from Kevin. It was actually her second engagement ring. The first one Kevin gave her when he proposed at a Cracker Barrel during one of the group’s day trips got lost in the brownies at Jill’s job in a grocery store bakery. Her girlfriends in the group pitched in and got her this second one.
Jill, Kevin and Shannon are especially close, having grown up together since they were toddlers. All of them have supported each other, particularly after Kevin’s father recently died.
“He took it a little hard,” Shannon said. “But we were all there for him. This should be called the Friends Forever Club.”
During a lunch of burgers, sandwiches and sodas, they talked and laughed among themselves. Another diner let some of them pet his English bulldog.
Cameron Smith passed his onions to Chelsea Perez, the talented photographer in the group. “Ketchup, please,” said Cameron, who has autism. When Lilly put the bottle by his plate, group member Mary Bradley explained that Cameron wanted it back in line on the table between the mayonnaise and mustard bottles.
Later in the afternoon, they went shopping at the General Store and the Country Store, where Laurel had them make their own purchases with their cash or credit cards, encouraging independence.
Kevin bought a cowgirl hat for his niece; Nick some fruit and yogurt snacks and postcards; Shannon a poetry book; and Julieann O’Connell an engagement ring to give to her fiancé to give to her when she got home.
Some of them went back to the petting farm – where Shannon and Mary each held baby goats that were 12 days old.
“This is Adam and Eve,” Shannon said. When it was time to hand them off, she added: “I don’t want to give you away, precious, but I’ll see you another time.” She kissed the baby goat on the forehead. “I love you.”
After showers and changes of clothes, the group members were ready for the hayride, the barbecue, the rodeo and the line dancing they had practiced for before the trip at a hoedown fundraiser.
The tractor-pulled hayride took them and other ranch guests through part of a 7,000-acre wildlife management area and past pastures full of cows and bulls. Chelsea had her Nikon ready, strapped around her neck. Julieann sang along to the guitar player; Jill and Shannon sat together on the bench, waving their arms to the music.
Finally, came the rodeo. The group settled in on bleachers facing the red-dirt corral and a smoldering sunset glowing pink, soft yellow and blue across a broad sky. Throughout the evening they clapped and cheered as one bull after another bucked off a cowboy, who promptly scrambled away to safety.
“Seeing them have a great time,” Laurel said in a quieter moment, “it’s the best thing in the world.”
For more information:
The Florida Disabled Outdoors Association (FDOA) works to enrich lives through accessible inclusive recreation. Since its inception in 1990, the FDOA has promoted accessible recreation to persons with disabilities and the general public through its hands-on recreation programs, newsletters and community outreach and education. Find out more at http://www.fdoa.org
For this and other Florida travel ideas, go to VISIT FLORIDA's official travelers guide.