By Susan Finch, Taking the Kids Correspondent
When we got to Westgate River Ranch Resort & Rodeo and soaked up the sights of longhorn cattle and horses, I immediately forgot we were in Florida. We also saw a small herd of bison that we mistakenly called buffalo, and were corrected by a long-time vacationer who happened to be 12-years-old. I quickly understood why families keep coming back to Westgate Resorts. The modern-rustic ranch is tucked away less than a 45-minute drive from Orlando and Winter Haven’s scores of amusement and water parks and opens visitors to a refined taste of cowboy living.
Visitors step into the hospitality center to check-in, and are encouraged to use the saddles ready to climb and straddle for a quick selfie. The staff directed us to a cottage set-up, which was ideal for a family with small children, and opted to rent a golf cart to zip around the ranch. While Westgate River Ranch Resort & Rodeo is small enough to stroll through by foot and features a petting farm, general store, a few shops, dining hall, restaurant and even a rodeo; the golf cart makes it easy to get from point A to B and still enjoy the fresh air without resorting to driving your car everywhere.
Cabins, tent camping, upscale lodging and glamping are also available at Westgate River Ranch Resort & Rodeo. Glamor camping gives your family the chance to sleep under the stars in the comfort of an upscale tent complete with a platform floor, air conditioning, real beds including King-sized for Mom and Dad, and a key to your private bathroom and shower a short walk away. My kids delighted in the colorful Luxe Teepee options that looked like real, oversized teepees that also embraced the glamping mentality with heat and air conditioning, linens, real beds and sleeper sofa.
We got settled in our two-bedroom cottage that overlooked a pond when we spotted a small alligator. (Our new friend who knew all about the bison wasn’t there to tell me if it was actually a crocodile or not). Normally I’m terrified of the idea of alligators, but this one seemed unimposing and didn’t give me pause when I drove past in the golf cart. Of course, we opted not to let our kids run around outdoors or get near the pond, but still stopped to watch him swimming around with what appeared to be bass.
My family spent most of the day building legos from our trip to the nearby LEGOLAND Florida, playing at the Westgate playground, and hanging out at the petting farm. Guests can pay a nominal fee to ride a donkey or pony (members ride free), and the cowgirl on staff was patient and kind to my nearly 2-year-old who screamed while waiting for his turn. My 5 ½ year-old-daughter deemed “Red” the donkey a “total sweetie” despite being warned he’s actually the resident crackpot. My son rode the calmer pony and quickly scurried off to go torment the bunnies afterwards. An emu, horses, cattle and plenty of goats were scurrying around from my toddler’s wake and looking for outstretched hands with animal feed.
Swimming pools, an adventure course, swamp buggy rides, and hayride with live music were also family favorites. Well, the hayride was a favorite of mine once I blocked out the memory of how antsy my son was to get off and chase after the longhorns. Our trip ended with a buffet style meal of barbecue chicken, baked beans and cowboy fare.
A city girl at heart with a hunger for nature, I was also pleased that I could go grab some Starbucks from the friendly folks at the General Store. This is the only place I’ve been where you can buy coffee, pizza, sandwiches, sundries, toy rodeo gear, and Wild West souvenirs. The Westgate Smokehouse Grill Restaurant was voted the Best in Orlando by readers of Orlando Magazine and AOL City Guide offering authentic Southern Barbecue in a rustic atmosphere. Savory ribs, 21-day aged steaks, seafood and slow cooked brisket is on the menu. The restaurant is currently closed for renovations, but the General Store has plenty of pizza and sandwich options. There’s also the popular River Ranch Saloon for dinner with live “foot-stompin’ entertainment” and line dancing with a full bar for parents.
The main attraction at Westgate River Ranch Resort is its rodeo. We left the boys at our home away from home to play hide and seek and finish up LEGOS. Dad put our little one down early after a hard day of goat chasing. Meanwhile, my daughter and I headed over to the rodeo and got some lemonade and popcorn before snagging a seat on the bleachers. The stadium filled up early, and we were soon entertained by some of the bigger kids frantically chasing after a cow for a chance to grab its ribbons and win a prize. Dirt and mud flew, and I was secretly glad my daughter didn’t show much interest.
As the rodeo got underway, we were surprised by the audacity the cowboys displayed at trying to ride those wild bulls while the rodeo clown distracted the animals and ushered them back into the pin. The animated announcer kept the crowd engaged in the action, and also mentioned the bulls would likely be put down in other scenarios as their disposition makes them a liability around other cattle and people at a typical ranch. During breaks between bull riding, cowgirls came out to barrel race, and a 6-year-old competing with women nearly took the lead. There were also pint-sized entertainers ages 6 to 11 entertaining the crowd doing tricks on their horses and, admittedly, shocking the moms in the audience.
My daughter excitedly burst through the cabin doors later that night to show Dad all the “tricks” she learned, but made sure to tell us the pillows she was using as props weren’t actually included in the show. She went to bed dreaming about horses and ready for some cowgirl living the next day.