You might not expect to find a dude ranch in the middle of Florida, but Westgate River Ranch Resort near Lake Wales has been celebrating the Florida Cracker Cowboy for more than 50 years—and is growing into the ultimate outdoor adventure.


By Dalia Colón

If you had asked Matthew Flicker a couple of years ago how he’d be spending his bachelor party, fat chance he would have said on a hayride.

But that’s right where he was on a recent Saturday night, singing Bon Jovi songs with a guest guitarist, his best buddies and 50 other guests at Westgate River Ranch Resort near Lake Wales.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” said Flicker, who lives about 90 miles away in Tampa and made a weekend getaway with his buddies before tying the knot.

The just-before-sunset tractor-pulled hayride is a relaxing once-a-week tradition at Westgate River Ranch Resort & Rodeo, a Florida Cracker dude ranch of sorts, that culminates in a family-friendly barbecue dinner of hot dogs, macaroni and cheese, cole slaw and chicken.

The ranch resort has been around for decades, celebrating Florida Cracker life of the 1700s, when cowboys would herd Spanish cattle across the marshlands of the state. Westgate River Ranch in Florida was built in the 1960s and came to feature a saloon, cafe, airstrip, swimming pool, rodeo and shooting range. Since then, the site has changed ownership several times and briefly closed on occasion.

Westgate, the hotel chain with sites in Vegas, South Beach and Gatlinburg, Tenn., bought River Ranch Resort in 2001, reopened it and brought it out of bankruptcy. All those years since were spent getting the facility functional and profitable again, but the company now spicing things up.

“We’ve been sitting on this asset for quite a while,” said Mark Waltrip, chief operating officer for Westgate Resorts. “The ranch has sort of been one-dimensional. We got it to where it broke even, but we needed to take it to the next step.”

A renewed emphasis on families, corporate guests and outdoors lovers has kicked the resort up a notch—or two.

It always offered a gorgeous one-hour horseback ride through the Florida.

Trail and an animal-spotting airboat ride (think alligators, deer and wild turkeys) along Lake Okeechobee, Lake Kissimmee and the Kissimmee River.

But now children -- and adults -- can enjoy a new Adventure Park featuring a rock-climbing wall, miniature golf, bungee jumping, child-friendly mechanical bull riding (don’t think that means you’ll stay on) and ziplining.

Resort guests -- 50 percent of whom come from outside of Florida -- now have five options for accommodations: RVs, hotel room, camping, luxurious cabins or glamping. Glamping, the newest option, means a furnished three-walled cabin with ceiling fans, electricity and air conditioning but no Wi-Fi or television sets.

Glamping guests have access to board games and gas grills and a key to community showers and bathrooms. On the glamping grounds, staff members will start a campfire -- a glampfire, if you will -- in a central firepit.

“There’s a fairly strong trend with glamping as a new and exciting travel product,” said Paul Robertson, general manager at Westgate River Ranch in Florida. “We wanted to put our guests closer to nature.”

The glamping opportunity seems perfect for either guests who make an unplanned or quickly planned trip to River Ranch and don’t have all their camping gear or someone new to camping.

“It’s a great way to introduce someone who’s maybe a little hesitant,” Robertson said.

Regardless of where you sleep, the resort is easily a multi-night stay, which is exactly what the Lipscombs of Virginia had in mind when they booked a week at the resort. Noelle and Reggie Lipscomb brought their 1 1/2-year-old son, 3-year-old daughter and mother to River Ranch.

“My husband always wanted to be a cowboy,” Noelle said, noting they enjoyed time around Lake Wales and at nearby Manny’s Chophouse. The following days they planned a trip to Legoland in Winter Haven and ZooTampa, but mostly they enjoyed the amenities of the ranch.

The resort offers Westgate Smokehouse Grill, a full-service restaurant. A buffet at the restaurant, offered on Saturday nights, offers corn on the cob, baked beans, ribs, a pasta station, beef carving station and baked apples.

Part of a multi-day stay also can include the resort’s nine-hole golf course; a driving range; fishing; skeet and trap shooting range; petting farm with a donkey, goats, sheep, llamas and horses; archery and the much-anticipated Saturday-night rodeo that brings in locals as well as guests. Some weeks, the rodeo will draw as many as 1,200 people.

“It’s the longest-running weekly rodeo in the country,” said Robertson. “Maybe other places will have one just as grand but a few times a year. Ours is every Saturday night all year long. It’s been that way for 40 years.”

The rodeo, which begins with a color guard, national anthem, invocation (the announcer is also the pastor of an on-site chapel) and an inspiring speech about America courtesy of John Wayne, features bronco riding, a kids calf scramble, barrel racing and stunt horseback demos.

“The other thing that’s special about the rodeo,” Robertson said, “is a lot of the participants work here.”

All the activities are a la carte, starting at $5 for the mechanical bull ride and going to $40 for horseback trail rides.

Another renewed focus of the ranch is on group events. Nearly 40 couples a year wed on River Ranch grounds, and a new ropes course and refurbished meeting and banquet rooms beckon to corporate clients and organizations.

They also want to grab outdoor enthusiasts.

“We want to become the ultimate outdoor adventure venue,” said Waltrip.

In addition to the guest activities, River Ranch is playing host to several national events, such as the Tough Mudder, one of several muddy obstacle course challenges taking place around the country. More than 13,000 competitors will be descending on River Ranch to participate the event. Several other similar events are set for 2014.

“This is a place for people who like people, like community,” said Robertson, “and they like the outdoors.”

When you go…

Westgate River Ranch Resort
200 River Ranch Blvd., near Lake Wales.