An hour’s drive south of the bustling theme parks and excitement of Orlando, hundreds of thousands of acres of untouched wilderness are the home to protected wetlands, the Florida National Scenic Trail, and – most importantly – Westgate River Ranch, an authentic dude ranch that will see you packing your Stetson.
The Wild West may be famous for the likes of Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, Butch Cassidy and Jesse James, but these famous names were more flamboyant showmen and outlaws than genuine cattle wranglers. The first real cowboys actually roamed the wild plains of Florida herding their cattle in the early 1700s, long before the late 19th century heyday out West. How do I know this? Well, I heard it straight from the horse’s mouth. Or to be more exact, the cowboy’s mouth.
Yes siree. Ray – decked out in his checked shirt, scuffed boots with shiny spurs and a strong whiff of manly cowboy cologne (or perhaps it was Hugo Boss) – gave us a quick potted history of the original American cowboys, and – surprise, surprise – they did indeed hail from Florida.
Of course, before the cowboys, it was the cattle and horses that arrived first aboard the ship of Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon in 1521. Within hours of unloading the ship, the cattle and horses were scattered into the swamplands of Florida when native Calusa Indians attacked (and mortally wounding de Leon with a poisoned arrow). From these 25 horses and 50 cattle the wild herds grew into thousands by the mid-1600s. In the early 1700s, settlers migrating from the Carolinas and Georgia took advantage of the wild cattle roaming the state. These first American cowboys became known as “cracker cowboys” from the crack of the 10- to 12-foot-long leather bullwhips they used to drive the herds across the marshes and woodlands of Florida (a point of distinction from the Wild West cowboys who used lassoes). And guess where the cracker cowboys stopped off during their cattle drives across the state. River Ranch of course!
With our history lesson under our belts (which sadly were not of the same big-buckle cowboy calibre as Ray’s), our adventure began. The resort, the largest dude ranch east of the Mississippi, occupies 1,700 acres and is surrounded by 400,000 acres of protected wetlands that deliver breathtaking views and plenty of open space. The ranch has a charming olde-worlde feel where passers-by, mostly wearing the uniform of denims and checked shirts, give a friendly nod or a tip of a Stetson with a “Howdy”.
There are wooden fences, open fields with horses and cattle grazing and a pristeen white clapboard chapel that would look perfectly at home on Little House On The Prairie
Outside the main reception area, there’s an old-fashioned wagon, which Joe immediately hopped aboard, pulling his imaginary reins (under my direction: he obviously isn’t as au fait with Pa Ingalls horsemanship skills as I am) to gee up his invisible steed.
Horses galore Now brimming with cowboy confidence, Joe was ready for the real thing. Well, ready to saddle up on a slow-trotting mule on the Pony Sweep, a mini “merry-go-round” where he was led round and round in a manner so leisurely he rode one-handed and waved to the crowd. Perhaps there’s a job for him yet at Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show! Meanwhile, Grace was saddling up for her own trot about the paddock on a considerably larger horse. As rookies of the rodeo, these short tasters were perfect for Joe and Grace. But for more experienced riders, there are one- or two-hour trails across the rugged landscape where riders can try their hand at some cowboy tricks, plus lessons for ages 7+.
The Petting Zoo Next stop was the petting zoo, where Joe and Grace fed some frisky goats, who boldly leapt up to gobble the little pellets of food. There were giant turkeys, with their signature wobbly wattles and fabulous fantails, strutting around like they owned the place, and leggy Emus you wouldn’t want to argue with (the signpost pointed out that their nails are as sharp as knives). On the cuter side, Joe found a soft black bunny who was happy to be cuddled, and fed the sweetest little Bambi deer, still wobbly on her spindly baby legs. There were also the graceful Watusi cattle, the showstoppers of the bovine kingdom, with their magnificent curly horns (we’d seen large herds of them earlier at the Safari Wilderness, a working game ranch in Lakeland, Florida).
Water activities The scenic Kissimmee River provides plenty of outdoor recreational activities, whether that’s fishing, hunting for alligators, enjoying wildlife or simply relaxing in the great outdoors. On our Airboat Ride we were bemused at being handed headphones, until the large propeller whirred into noisy action and the boat whizzed among the swamplands, stopping here and there, our guide pointing out birds and wildlife. There’s alligator spotting too, though unfortunately none the day we visited, leaving us to instead imagine what slimy reptile bodies might be slinking beneath the dark, swampy waters…
Hayride No ranch excursion would be complete without a hayride. Our amiable white-bearded driver had a touch of Burl Ives about him, with a softly husky voice like Lotso from Toy Story 3 (minus the mean streak). This is where we got to see real cowboy country as we jiggled through the 7,000-acre KICCO Wildlife Management Area (KICCO stands for “Kissimmee Island Cattle Company”). On a good day, there’s plenty of wildlife to spot, such as white-tailed deer, bald eagles, wild hogs, hawks, sandhill cranes, wading birds, cows, bulls, alligators and wild turkeys. The main attraction, however, has to be the serenading cowboys belting out classic country ballads from the back of their beautiful steeds. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, a cowboy feast was being prepared with a cook-out buffet of barbecue chicken, hotdogs, corn on the cob, fries and plenty of baked beans.
Westgate Rodeo Show As the early evening sky took on a soft pink tinge, it was time for the spectacle of the Rodeo. Joe had been looking forward to the show, but the combination of an active day and jetlag was taking its toll and he was starting to snooze. Not even the sparkling whip-cracking antics of the rodeo stars could stir him, nor the big clock clicking as each rider took his turn on the bucking bull: how many seconds could they last? 10, 11, 12… before being hurled spectacularly into the dust.
We’d heard a lot about the Calf Scramble, where hordes of tiddler cowpokes are invited into the ring to play chase with a calf and claim the ribbon from off its butt as their prize. As the eager children were summoned into the arena, we poked our own little cowboy into action and Joe, still sleepy, jolted into action. It is truly the most hilarious spectacle! You might not fancy the poor calf’s chances against a gaggle of excitable children – until you see how swift and sprightly the little critter is, outwitting the children by standing still for a moment to entice the kids in, then nimbly darting between them in a flash. It took Joe a little while to wake up, then – to Grace’s and my amazement – he was suddenly stroking the calf. The next thing we knew, another little cowboy had whisked the ribbon off and was brandishing his prize. We were heartily congratulating and commiserating with Joe, saying “Well, you nearly got the ribbon, didn’t you?” “What?” he said, looking at us quizzically. “I could have got the ribbon? But I thought pulling it off would be mean.” And we realised that, in the hurry to send him (half asleep) into the ring, we hadn’t actually told him what he needed to do.
After the show, the party was just beginning in the Saloon with country music and line dancing, but it was time for us to take our sleepyhead home. Still wearing his cowboy hat, Joe soon fell asleep in the car. Upon waking the next morning, the first thing he said was, “When I grow up, I’m going to move to River Ranch and be a cowboy.”
Overnighter If you fancy extending your visit, you can choose from luxury lodges and Saddle Club cabins that are furnished with dark wood and plenty of cowboy-inspired artefacts and that offer a porch for that all-important cowboy chitchat. Or there’s glamping for an authentic sleeping-under-the-stars experience.
Why go For a taste of authentic ranch life in the birthplace of the first American cowboys.
Who is it best for There’s plenty for all ages from toddlers up to enjoy; great for animal lovers and adventurers who yearn for the romance of the Great Outdoors.
Our Favourite Bit The spectacle of the Calf Scramble will have you in fits of giggles.
Top Tip Visit the shop to stock up on cowboy boots, hats and cowboy-related memorabilia.
Don’t Go Midweek if you want to see The Rodeo Show and Calf Scramble; they only take place on Saturdays.
While You’re Here Take in some of the other sights in Polk County, including The Fantasy of Flight, a stunning Art Deco building housing more than 40 rare and vintage aircraft. Design lovers should head to the Florida Southern College campus in Lakeland to admire the largest one-site collection of Frank Lloyd Wright architecture in the world.
Top tip Don’t forget to pack your hand sanitiser for cleaning up after all the hands-on activities at the petting farm (although there are, of course, also facilities there).