Simply Smart Travel

By Jeffrey R. Orenstein | jorenstein@SimplySmartTravel.com

Have you ever been to a dude ranch? In Florida?

Yep, Florida. The state is 16th in the nation in cattle production and has a rich history of ranching. The Sunshine State was home to the first American cowboys, who became known as “crackers” because they cracked whips to communicate as they herded Spanish cattle and horses across the marshes and woodlands from the 17th century onward.

A singing cowboy entertains during a hayride across the back country.

A singing cowboy entertains during a hayride across the back country.

Their legacy lives on in many working ranches and a tourist-oriented ranch, the Westgate River Ranch in River Ranch, part of a 7,000-acre wildlife management area surrounded by 400,000 acres of federal and state preserves.

It is a great place for families, including grandparents and grandchildren, and for corporate events. The Westgate River Ranch attracts a diverse crowd because of its abundance of activities, including a Saturday night rodeo, horseback riding, swamp buggy rides, swimming, miniature golf, archery, horseshoes, tennis, a rock climbing wall, a zip line, a mechanical bull, bungee jumping, nine holes of golf, a petting farm, nature hikes, trap and skeet shooting, hayrides with a singing cowboy and cookouts, and a full-service marina on the Kissimmee River with boating, fishing and airboats.

The ranch, built in the 1960s, is the largest dude ranch east of the Mississippi. A herd of longhorn Watusi cattle grazes there, along with rodeo bulls and typical Florida wildlife.

Before You Go

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Getting There
River Ranch is accessible by private plane, train, ship or car.

  • The ranch has a noncommercial airport with a 5,000-foot runway. Orlando International Airport is 91 miles away, and Tampa International is 97 miles distant.
  • The nearest major cruise port is Cape Canaveral 121 miles away.
  • The closest Amtrak stations are Lakeland at 56 miles and Kissimmee at 80 miles. Each is served by two trains daily. A rental car to the ranch is recommended.
  • The ranch is on Florida Route 60, 57 miles from Vero Beach and 89 miles from Tampa.

When You Are There

Dine at the onsite Smokehouse Grill, and tour the wildlife management area by swamp buggy or hayride.

Bull riding is a feature of the Westgate River Ranch Rodeo.

Bull riding is a feature of the Westgate River Ranch Rodeo.

The must-dos for a short stay:

  • The Saturday night rodeo and line dancing afterward.
  • The hayride and dinner.
  • As many other activities as you have time and taste for.

If you more than three days, enjoy:

  • Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral.
  • Orlando and its theme parks, about an hour away.
  • The Atlantic beaches, about an hour away.

What to Wear

Western-style casual dress is the order of the day. Take a cowboy hat and bug spray. Start with comfortable shoes or cowboy boots if you like to wear them, and bring casual daytime outfits. Shorts for men and women are fine. Bring your dancing shoes for the line dancing and western music. Bring a big hat and sunblock — this is Florida.

River Ranch at a Glance

Mobility: Low to average. Golf carts are available as rentals (reserve in advance), and most of the walks are short. The two-story lodge does not have elevators.

When to go: Year-round. Expect hot, sticky summers. Occasional frost is possible in January or February, but mostly the winter and spring are great with cooler weather.

Where to stay: At the ranch. No other lodging is nearby. The ranch offers a wide range of accommodations, including glamping (glamorous camping with air conditioning), western-themed lodge guest rooms with a microwave and refrigerator, lodge suites, studios, one- and two-bedroom cabins, one- and two-bedroom cottages, railcars, RV camping, and tent camping.

Special interests: The ranch life, natural Florida and rodeo.

Jewish Cowboys and Cowgirls

There is no significant Jewish history associated with the Westgate River Ranch or the surrounding area. Those seeking Jewish services will find them in Orlando and either coast.

Nevertheless, Jews have played a significant role among cowboys and cowgirls on and off the screen, including:

  • Famed Cheyenne photographer Penny Wolin documented Jewish cowgirls in a photo essay at the National Museum of American History.
  • The first Jewish governor in the United States was Moses Alexander of Idaho.
  • The first female rabbi, Rachel Franks, was a Westerner.
  • Max Aronson, a.k.a. Bronco Billy, the son of a rabbi, hailed from Little Rock, Ark., and was one of the originators and popularizers of what we now refer to as movie westerns.
  • On TV, Lorne Greene (born in Ottawa as Lyon Himan Green), who played Ben Cartwright on “Bonanza,” was Jewish, as was one of his sons on the show, Little Joe, played by Michael Landon, who was born Eugene Maurice Orowitz in New York.

Jeffrey R. Orenstein is a syndicated travel writer who lives on Florida’s West Coast. He and his wife, Virginia, enjoy simply smart travel. Check out their travel ideas, articles and blog at www.SimplySmartTravel.com.

All Photos by Jeffrey R. Orenstein