Home, home on the saw palmetto range

  • Article by: MARJIE LAMBERT , Miami Herald
  • Updated: May 2, 2014 - 9:49 AM

A central Florida ranch honors the state’s cowboy history amid a host of entertainment options, including bull and buggy rides.

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A guide led a horseback ride at Westgate River Ranch, a resort that pays homage to the little-known fact that Florida was home to this continent’s first cowboys.

Photo: MARJIE LAMBERT •Miami Herald,

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The announcer mounted a horse named Gus, said “go,” and dozens of young boys and girls ran across the rodeo arena in pursuit of a calf and the red ribbon on his tail. The first child to get a piece of the ribbon would win a prize. A giggling wedge of children turned and came running back, the now ribbon-less calf loping behind them.

Then the bull riders took over, each cowboy trying to stay on the back of an angry, bucking bull for eight seconds. Most fell off in a second or two and rolled clear of the beast as rodeo clowns waved the bull through a gate.

The rodeo was the signature event of the weekend for hundreds of people staying at Westgate River Ranch, a Western-themed resort an hour or so south of Orlando, where cattle have grazed since Ponce de León brought Andalusian cattle to Florida on his second trip, nearly 500 years ago.

The event, like most everything at the resort, was family-oriented — less hard-core rodeo-skills contest than entertainment with corny jokes, trick riding, a tribute to the military and a recording of John Wayne talking about why he loved America.

But the bull riding was real, performed by professionals in a sanctioned rodeo. There were a few long moments when riderless bulls refused to be corralled, and people held their breath until the clowns, alternately coaxing and teasing the bull, drove him away from the fallen cowboy and back through the gate.

For me, a weekend at the resort was a chance to play at being a cowgirl, a childhood dream. In the intervening years, I had ridden horses, been to rodeos and learned the Cotton Eyed Joe. But the cowgirl thing never quite took, and I had neither a cowboy hat nor boots to pack for this trip.

The resort, which its operators call a dude ranch, sits along an old route where herds once were driven to market. Mark Waltrip, chief operating officer of Westgate Resorts, likes to point out that, thanks to Ponce de León, Florida was the first state to have cowboys.

“We have a rich cowboy heritage,” he said.

From zip line to air boat rides

The resort isn’t a dude ranch in the usual sense. Although cattle and buffalo graze on the property, there are no livestock-related chores for guests to observe or help with. Horseback riding is a short, slow-paced trek through flat pasture and thickets of live oak.

And unlike most dude ranches, Westgate is not an all-inclusive resort. Meals, horseback riding, swamp buggy and airboat rides, use of a bicycle, skeet shooting, archery practice, the zip line, rodeo, hayrides and golf all cost extra.

The resort is a fun, outdoor-themed, family-oriented getaway, and the costs are spelled out on the website.

My cowgirl adventure started on a weekend when a friend and I planned to go to the rodeo, take a hayride and ride horses. As we drove onto the property, we spotted a nine-hole golf course, “glamping” tents, buffalo grazing behind a fence and a small zip line.

We passed a horse-drawn carriage decked in garlands of flowers, a bride and a man we assumed to be her father riding in it. At check-in, the clerk told us that, yes, a wedding was going on; there’s a chapel on the premises.

Golf carts buzzed about. People were milling everywhere — and kids, I hadn’t expected so many kids. We stopped in our room, then looked at the activities schedule we got at check-in.

That’s when we learned that there was only one hayride a week, and it was happening right then. One bit of cowgirl fun bit the dust. We immediately made reservations for a Sunday horseback ride.

Then I went out to explore the grounds before the rodeo.

On the big lawn in front of the lodge, several dads and young sons were playing catch. The adventure park was next door, and the air was filled with shrieks and laughter from kids on the zip line or the bungee trampoline.

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