Gunpowder & Glamping: Face-to-Face with Old Florida at Westgate River Ranch
On a dude ranch in Central Florida, one writer discovers that sometimes the best travel experiences take place outside your comfort zone.
My bedroom looked like it had been ransacked. Clothes hung from half-open drawers, the carpet was buried beneath piles of dresses and denim, my bed blanketed by a thick layer of laundry.
“What am I supposed to wear to a rodeo?” I hollered to my sister Kristina, who was packing in the other room. I had sifted through every stitch of clothing I owned—some I swear I’d never seen before—and found nothing suitable for the Southern odyssey I was about to embark on.
We were taking a trip to Westgate River Ranch Resort & Rodeo down in Lake Wales, and it promised to be four days of rootin’-tootin’ revelry. The only problem was, I didn’t have anything to wear for said rootin’-tootin’ revelry. I beckoned my sister into the living room.
“Show me what you’re wearing to the rodeo,” I demanded. Kristina loves all things luxury and athleisure, so unless Lululemon had a cowboy boot line I didn’t know about, I was skeptical she had anything fit for the occasion.
It wasn’t just my lack of Western attire that made me nervous about our trip, in all honesty, almost the whole itinerary made me jittery. Our days were slated to be filled with skeet shooting, horseback riding, swamp buggy tours and a host of other activities suitable for a wild wild west woman, but definitely not me, the girl who was so scared that a bear would eat her marshmallow-covered hands on a camping trip that she slept with them stuffed inside her sweatpants. My sisters and I grew up going to demolition derbies, four-wheeling with our dad and whitewater rafting down the Ocoee River, so we were no strangers to adventure. It was the unfamiliarity of these particular Western escapades that gave me heart palpitations.
Our 3-and-a-half-hour car ride from Jacksonville to the sticks of Central Florida gave me plenty of time to mull over all the things that could go wrong. What if my horse goes rogue, and I disappear into the Kissimmee wilderness? What if I put a bullet in my foot while I’m trying to shoot skeet? What if I awake to find a snake has slithered under the covers with me? I’ve always been a worrier, but my thoughts were hurdling at me faster than the dotted white lines on the asphalt disappeared beneath my tires. Maybe I should stop and buy some cowboy boots, I thought to myself.
Girls Gone … Wild?
I was soothed by the fact that this wouldn’t be typical tent camping, this was glamping. Our luxury air-conditioned tents were outfitted with two sinks, a spacious walk-in shower, electrical outlets aplenty and a king-size bed so comfortable you’d be tempted to never set foot in the nature that awaits outside your door. The moment we stepped inside our extravagant digs, I let out a breath I didn’t know I had been holding.
Now this kind of camping we could do. Coffee and breakfast delivered to our tent each morning, an ice chest filled to the brim with water bottles every day, and a personal golf cart we could use to explore some of the 1,700 acres of sprawling ranch land that unfurled around us.
My sister surveyed our luxury glamping tent with scrutiny, both admiring the details and searching for creepy crawlies that could be hiding beneath our sleeper sofa. “Wow, it’s really nice in here,” she said, seemingly satisfied. I agreed. This certainly wasn’t roughing it. Vacation is all about comfort, and maybe this Sunshine State dude ranch would be more comfortable than I thought.
We grabbed the keys to our golf cart off the dining table and climbed in. My sister took the driver’s seat, and we careened around the ranch like we were two kids who had just hijacked some wheels from a country club. These were gas powered runabouts, so we flew over divots in the grass and laughed until we nearly fell out the sides. At one point Kristina almost ejected me when she abruptly stomped on the brake.
“Spider!” she screamed. I looked up above her head where an eight-legged friend was clinging to the roof for dear life. She demanded I go fetch a stick to smash it. I think it’s safe to say we weren’t wild wild west girls.
We spent the afternoon getting our bearings around the ranch and saying hello to some of the other guests, namely the ones with big humps and horns. When you first arrive at Westgate River Ranch, the herd of bison roaming just off the road makes it seem like you’ve traveled to the heart of Yellowstone. You’d be forgiven if you didn’t realize that Florida was home to bison. In fact, the only place you’ll ever really spot them in the Sunshine State is Payne’s Prairie State Park just south of Gainesville. We noticed them on our way into the ranch and had been itching for a closer look ever since.
Pulling off on the side, we dodged piles of horse dung like a high-stakes game of hopscotch as we made our way over to the fence separating us from these prehistoric-looking animals. A herd of tourists gathered on the side of the fence, phones out, hoping to snap the perfect bison Boomerang for Instagram. The animals’ tails swished lazily behind them as they stooped down to graze on the mushy grass. One had moseyed right over to the fence, his horns nearly brushing the barbed wire. A man in baggy jeans and a backward baseball hat inched closer, holding his phone out in front of him. The bison didn’t care much for the paparazzi and charged toward the fence where he stood, sending the man scurrying backward so quickly he almost tripped over his drooping pants. I thought twice about laughing at him, knowing good and well that could be me the next day running away from my horse.
That evening I slid beneath the fluffy white comforter of our king-sized bed exhausted, stuffed with barbecue but still ruminating on the “what if’s.” I picked up the itinerary on the bedside table and thumbed through the pages. First up tomorrow: skeet shooting. Orientation was over, no more dipping my toes into the Western world; tomorrow we would plunge headfirst.
Just Call Me Annie Oakley
We woke to the sound of employees placing a steaming pot of coffee on our front porch and a picnic basket brimming with quiche, pastries, fruit and yogurt. I only nibbled on the quiche and blamed it on our army-sized dinner the night before when truly my stomach was already flipping at the thought of our 10 a.m. activity.
My father has offered to take me to the shooting range more times than I can count. I grew up knowing that he had an assortment of pistols, shotguns and rifles but I never cared to know more, and I certainly never wanted to shoot them. He never pushed. Meanwhile, both of my older sisters would load up in his truck and go to the range. They’d return holding their targets proudly and laughing about what a terrible shot Kristina was. I envied the time they got to spend with our dad, but it wasn’t enough to overshadow the anxiety that welled up inside me anytime I thought about tagging along. Even seeing him clean the gun on our kitchen counter was enough to relegate me to my room until he was done.
Sitting out of skeet shooting wasn’t an option to me. For one thing, I wanted to get the total experience while I was there. And part of me was still battling little sister syndrome. If Kristina was going to do it, then I was, too. I couldn’t have her showing me up.
We wrapped up our breakfast and made the two-minute drive past the tent camping and RV sites to get to the shooting range. I silently cursed that it wasn’t farther away. I needed just a few more minutes to give myself a pep talk. As we filled out our waivers, I sized up Alton Clark, the man who would be guiding me through my own personal hell. He wore a pale blue plaid shirt tucked into his scuffed jeans and sunglasses, even when he was inside. He instantly reminded me of my dad.
He led our small group into the screened-in patio where he walked through all of the rules. First rule: treat every gun as if it’s loaded. My dad had said that to me once, but I didn’t give it much thought. I had always sworn I’d never be the one holding it. I felt a few bites of quiche gurgle in my stomach.
I assumed we’d be using some kind of rubber bullet, so I was taken aback when he handed me a bag full of live ammo and instructed me to clip it on my hip. We geared up in earplugs and eyeglasses, then, he passed out the shotguns. I held mine like a bomb that might detonate at any second. He ushered us all out onto the range and asked us each to stand on a square numbered one through four. I pushed Kristina toward the number one. I sure as hell wasn’t going first, and after all, she is the big sister.
By the end of this you all are going to ask for a shotgun for Christmas
— Alton Clark
Alton guided her through each step: loading the bullet, placing the stock in the crook of her shoulder so as not to bruise and tracking the clay as it arced through the sky.
“Take a deep breath,” He said. “Ready?” She nodded. I inched further away from the gun and tried to prepare myself for the blast. I jumped regardless.
“Close one!” he said reassuringly. I couldn’t tell if he was lying or not because I had instinctively squeezed my eyes shut when she pulled the trigger. “By the end of this you all are going to ask for a shotgun for Christmas,” he chuckled. I seriously doubted that. When I opened my eyes, Alton was walking toward me.
He ran through the same checklist he had with Kristina. Load the ammo with the shiny side facing you. Lean forward and place the butt of the gun in the crook of your shoulder, not your bicep, that’ll leave a nasty bruise. Take a deep breath. Close one eye, and follow the clay. Pull the trigger at the highest point. In theory, I knew exactly what to do and yet, when he asked if I was ready, I hesitated.
I tightened my vice-like grip on the barrel to the point that the color in my knuckles began to vanish.
“Ready,” I said.
I didn’t even realize I pulled the trigger when I heard the shot echo.
“Just under!” he exclaimed. I couldn’t care less how close I was to the clay. I just shot a gun.
I glanced around to make sure I hadn’t maimed anyone, and to my surprise, everything appeared just as it had before I pulled the trigger. This is what I had been scared of for so long?
For the next 45 minutes, we took turns busting clays. Kristina seemed to have outgrown her reputation as a bad shot, and I hit quite a few myself. Not bad for the girl who could hardly keep down her breakfast an hour earlier.
We only stopped when we ran out of ammo—and when we realized we were 15 minutes late for our next activity. Before we took off, Alton asked if we wanted to take a picture with the “Girls with guns have more fun” sign. I wasn’t sure I was ready to make that kind of statement on my Instagram yet, after all, I hadn’t even held the gun for an hour. Instead, I drafted up a text to my dad: “I think I want a 20-gauge for Christmas.”
Home on the Range
Serendipitously, the other activity I had nightmares about was queued up right after skeet shooting. I never understood why people would climb atop a 1,000-pound animal and call it relaxing but supposedly, the rhythm of horseback riding can be calming for some people. I’m not some people.
For a moment, I considered trying to convince Kristina to just go back to the cabin. I mean, we were 15 minutes late, and I had already faced one fear that morning. Two seemed like a tall order. But before I had a chance to suggest it she was speeding us toward the barn on the other side of the ranch.
My sister, being 6 feet tall and all legs, was assigned the biggest horse in the line, Patrick. “He’s one of the stars of the rodeo tomorrow night,” said the woman helping her saddle up.
“Oh, he must be really well behaved then!” Kristina said, thankful she got the good horse.
“Not really,” the woman chuckled back. Kristina threw a worried look my way.
Just behind her, I swung my leg over Tank, a muscular brown steed with a seahorse-shaped white patch between his eyes. Why did I have to get the one named Tank? Patrick sounded like an old friend you’d invite to a dinner party. Tank? Not so much.
The trail was beginner-friendly and offered sweeping views of the prairie and farmland that surrounded us. The new luxe Conestoga wagon accommodations stood in a line along the pond, their reflections shimmering on the surface.
The guides had told us this was a walking trail, no galloping allowed. They didn’t need to tell Tank and I twice. We were both happy to go at a leisurely pace, one that would force the rest of the group to stop and wait for us every few minutes. Tank was unbothered. If he was going to be forced to parade me around the ranch he was going to do it on his own schedule.
Patrick, on the other hand, was showing Kristina his true colors. The stud was much more interested in flirting with the horses grazing out in the field than listening to her. The tranquil sounds of Tank’s hooves clopping on the ground like a metronome and the wind rustling the nearby tree branches were interrupted by Kristina’s pleading. “Come on, Patrick. Let’s go, Patrick. Please Patrick.” Who did this city slicker think she was bossing around the rodeo star?
Watching her negotiate with Patrick made me all the more grateful for Tank. Some scientists say that horses can sense humans’ emotions. Tank must have sensed that I was shaking in my boots because he seemed to do everything he could to put me at ease. A gentle pull on his reins made him come to a halt, and a slight squeeze to the sides sent him back to his casual stroll.
Who did this city slicker think she was bossing around the rodeo star?
— Jessica Giles
Lulled into a state of calm, my thoughts wondered about the land around me. What was now spacious fenced in prairies for the ranch’s cattle, horses and bison used to be home to America’s first cowboys. When English and American settlers began moving into Florida in the 1700s, they quickly took advantage of the vast herds of roaming cattle left behind by the Spanish. These settlers would use 10- to 12-foot braided ropes to herd the cattle, which let out a sharp “crack” when snapped in the air. Thus, the terms “cracker cattle” and “cracker cowboys” were born.
The land where River Ranch sits, just about an hour south of Orlando, used to serve as a meeting place of sorts for the early cowboys. There, they’d merge their herds of wild cows into one large group to bring them to market. Some cattle drives were 2,000 strong.
River Ranch, built in the 1960s, was originally meant to be the centerpiece of a massive residential development project called River Ranch Acres, but instead, it transformed into the largest dude ranch east of the Mississippi.
Some of the amenities are less than authentic. Glampers can choose to sleep in a luxury “teepee,” and a stoic Native American statue guards the mini golf course at the adventure park. But while elements of the resort can feel a bit gimmicky at times (the shop sells bedazzled belt buckles the size of your head), it’s a far cry from the theme parks and arcades down the street in Orlando. The land the ranch sits on is undeniably storied, and if you spend more time exploring it on horseback or embarking on a swamp buggy out into the prairie than you do on the mechanical bull at the saloon, then you’re awarded a glimpse of real Old Florida, with its cracker cattle sloshing through waterlogged prairies, oak trees dripping Spanish moss and alligators gliding lazily on the surface of the Kissimmee River.
This is the Florida I see as Tank trots beneath the dense branches of oak trees. A Florida I wouldn’t have had the chance to see if I’d given into my apprehension and gone back to the cabin. By the end of the ride I was cooing to Tank like I do my puppy. “Good boy, Tank. Nice job!”
10-Feet Tall and Bulletproof
Westgate’s biggest claim to fame is its Saturday night rodeo. By then, I had already dirtied most of my clothes thanks to the swamp buggy, an airboat ride, archery and the unforgiving Florida heat. I settled on a pair of clean jeans and my “Pretty as a Peach” T-shirt. (Peaches are Southern, right?) I even made a trip to the onsite Westerm Store to snag my own cowboy hat, hoping it would give me a little street cred.
The 1,200-seat arena reminded me of the old speedway my dad used to take us to for demolition derbies. Nothing glitzy about it, just sturdy metal bleachers that rumbled like thunder when the crowd stomped their feet in anticipation. Beside us, a whole gang of little cowgirls no older than 10 squealed with excitement. One of them stomped on Kristina’s fingers so hard with her sparkly pink boots that my sister teared up.
What little I knew about rodeos I learned from a Nicholas Sparks movie, so I wasn’t sure reality would live up to the Hollywood picture in my head. The general manager of the ranch, Ray Duncan, welcomed the crowd to the longest-running Saturday night rodeo in the United States, his thick Southern drawl echoing through the loudspeakers. Whichever bull rider could hang on to his bucking bovine the longest would walk away with a sizable purse and major bragging rights.
The Westgate rodeo doesn’t make you wait for the exhilarating stuff. The first event is the main event: Bull riding.
“You’ve gotta be 10 feet tall and bulletproof to do this folks,” Duncan said. No kidding. The first athlete out of the gate is tall, thin and writhing on top of a white bull splattered with black. He’s tossed from his perch after only 3 seconds, scampering away before he gets a chestful of hooves.
What struck me more than the death-defying stunts unfolding in front of me were the young faces of those risking it all on the back of a bull. Most of the competitors are no older than 25, Duncan tells us later. Even some of the cowboys responsible for roping the bulls after they ejected their riders looked fresh out of high school.
Kristina and I didn’t know enough about the rules of a rodeo to have a favorite rider, but when Duncan announced that the next contestant was from Deltona, not far from our hometown of DeLand, we cheered extra loud.
The poor guy got thrown off before the 8 seconds ticked by.
The night was filled with close calls. Competitors getting tossed off only for the bull to whip around and go at them with its horns, rodeo clowns narrowly escaping a bodyslam from the bull by jumping up onto the fence and athletes just inches away from being pummeled by their bovines.
After two rounds of riding, no one managed to hang on for the 8-second minimum. The bulls walked away with a win, and my blood pressure began to make it’s way back to normal. My emotions teetered between fear, excitement, dread and exhilaration all night. Once I thought about it, I realized that had been going on the whole trip.
I had spent much of my time at Westgate River Ranch feeling uncomfortable. Some might argue that is the very antithesis of what vacation should be, and yet, it was that discomfort (dare I say excitement) that made up the most memorable parts of my stay.
The temptation to hurl when I first held the shotgun was replaced with pride when I saw the orange clay shatter. My white-knuckled grip on Tank’s reigns gave way to a sense of awe of the landscape around me. In fact, the River Ranch had been such a rewarding escape not in spite of these fear-conquering moments, but because of them. Not only did every experience bring me face-to-face with Old Florida, but it taught me something new about myself.
Perhaps the best trip is not always the most laidback or luxurious. Sometimes it’s the ones that make us queasy—the ones that demand we hold on for eight seconds of pure adrenaline that truly change and recharge us.