You Can Go Glamping in a Covered Wagon at This Western-Style Florida Ranch
Go glamping at Westgate River Ranch Resort & Rodeo in central Florida for a unique experience in the great outdoors.
We all know Florida as a place where dreams come true, but few realize that can include dreams of being a cowgirl — or a pioneer — for the weekend.
Draped in oaks and sprinkled with cattle, Westgate River Ranch Resort & Rodeo is a longstanding Central Florida institution, but it's always flown under the radar, at least compared to the Disney parks an hour north. However, it's arguably equally thrilling: at the 1,700-acre River Ranch, geared toward families and groups, you can participate in all the outdoorsy activities you've ever dreamed of (horseback riding, fishing, hay rides, skeet shooting, archery, petting farm) and some you haven't (swamp buggy and airboat rides, bungee jumping, riding a mechanical bull).
Located on land once used by cracker cowboys on cattle drives, River Ranch was built in the 1960s, then changed hands a few times before Westgate Resorts purchased it in 2001. Over the years, it's grown into the largest dude ranch east of the Mississippi, complete with a full-service marina, adventure park, restaurant, saloon, airstrip, chapel, pool, and even the longest-running rodeo in Florida — a highlight of the River Ranch experience every Saturday night.
The ranch is undeniably out in the middle of nowhere (the closest tiny town, Lake Wales, is about half an hour away), but everything you need for an adventure in the Florida wilderness is on property: Village Shops, a town center of sorts, has a general store, post office, fitness center, and even a Western boutique where you can buy cowboy boots and hats to dress the part.
With all the available activities, your visit can be as action-packed as you want, but leave time to relax into the serene outdoor setting — especially at sunset, when the whole countryside seems to glow. (Hint: Best enjoyed by campfire, s'mores in hand.) Level of access to creature comforts is also yours for the choosing: accommodations range from full immersion into nature — primitive or platform tent camping — to RV sites, lodge rooms and suites, cabins, and cottages.
The real draw, however, is glamping. River Ranch has several glamping options, including one that just debuted: as of March 2021, visitors can try a modern take on pioneer life by booking a Luxe Conestoga Wagon, essentially a standalone rustic-chic room built to resemble the covered wagons used during the 1700s and 1800s to transport heavy loads by horse.
The wagons are comfortable enough to appease today's traveler yet offer a dose of prairie life with unobstructed views of wide-open spaces and ceaseless sunshine. Still, the difference between the pioneer experience and yours is important: the travelers of yore may not have been treated to morning coffee and pastry deliveries or an outdoor ice trough refilled daily (to say nothing of the luxury linens and walk-in shower), but you will be. Close enough, I'd say.
Other unique glamping options include glamping tents (the comforts of a basic hotel room but under a permanent canvas tent and with shared bathrooms nearby), luxury glamping tents (with a private ensuite bathroom), and Luxe Teepees, beautiful Native-American style structures inspired by the traditional dwelling places of groups indigenous to the Great Plains.
Basic camping at River Ranch has its charms, but going Luxe comes with lots of perks, including an assigned golf cart (everyone else gets a golf cart on a first-come, first-served basis), VIP rodeo tickets, all resort activities included, and even a campfire lit nightly by the staff, complete with a s'mores kit containing everything you need to roast a mouthwatering dessert.
Whether you visit River Ranch for full-out adventure, peaceful sleep under the stars, or to reconnect with family and friends in a well appointed version of the great outdoors — or all of the above — you'll depart with fond memories and a newfound urge to tip your hat and say, "Howdy."