The nation’s first cowboys were in Florida and Westgate River Ranch & Rodeo in Central Florida is located on one of the old cattle trails where they herded wild cattle in the 1700s. The award-winning ranch sits on 1,700 acres of land surrounded by 400,000 acres of protected wetlands…with dozens of opportunities for families to unplug and reconnect.
When I first learned about Westgate River Ranch Resort’s amazing glamping tents a few years ago, I was captivated. I knew I wanted to bring the boys. My expectations were high, and they were exceeded on our recent visit. We had a BLAST. Here are 17 tips and tricks we learned while there, with more information about the ranch and why you should make a visit with your family a priority!
Forget the myth about cowboys originating in the “wild west!” The very first American cowboys roamed the state of Florida. In fact, the ranch sits on a portion of the 1,300-mile Florida National Scenic Trail where the first cowboys met and joined together small herds of wild cattle before moving them to market.
It is one of 11 National Scenic Trails in the US, stretching from Big Cypress National Preserve in the southwest corner of the state to Gulf Islands National Seashores in the northwest corner of the Florida panhandle.
Glamping In Style
While staying at Westgate River Ranch Resort, you can bring your own camping tent or RV. You can pick a Lodge Guestroom or Suite (even a Deluxe Suite!) or indulge the family in a Cottage, Cabin or Rail Car with bunk beds the kids will enjoy…but for us, there was no choice except a glamping tent.
The glamping tents underwent a multi-million dollar renovation in 2013, and they are unlike any other glamping experience I’ve seen out there.
All the glamping tents are identical, with a queen and two twin beds, night stands and dressers, and a front porch with rocking chairs and a table.
You’ll also find a mini fridge, microwave and safe. Outside the tent is a grill (more on that later) and a picnic table.
The tent includes mosquito netting for the porch, and a second layer for the sleeping area, as well as heavy privacy coverage for sleeping.
It was also equipped with a ceiling fan, air-conditioning, and heating…and yes, there are outlets and wifi should you need to venture back into civilization for a moment (or maybe just upload a photo for the grandparents!)
One other important note – those mattresses you see in the video on our beds…they are REAL mattresses. Super comfy! That’s real glamping!
So how secure is everything? Good question! I mentioned the safe in the room; we used that for wallets and cash. As for leaving our clothes and food in our tent (without a lock) we personally felt very safe.
The glamping tents are in a section of the resort that is gated off from the public area, with a necessary key code for entry. That eased worries, as well. It also made me feel better about giving the boys more freedom to roam the campsites and do some local exploring on their own.
The glamping tents do not include a restroom, but there are still some perks over the typical bathroom camping experience.
Each family is assigned their own private bathroom, with a lock and key. The bathrooms are located near the tents and they include a full shower, toilet and sink as well as other amenities like soaps, shampoos and towels.
Knowing that we had a private bathroom where we could easily stash our toiletries, jammies, etc – as well as a full private shower – made a huge difference for us. Again – it’s that upgrade from camping to glamping!
Also, don’t worry. You don’t have to return to your camping location for restroom breaks during the day. There are public restrooms scattered all around the resort that you can use as your adventuring.
The Family Feast
I’d like to say we didn’t prepare traditional camping grub because we were traveling from Atlanta, but the truth is that I just didn’t think about it! If you are traveling far (or you have MomBrain like I did) then the nearest place to stock up on camping fare is the WalMart about 30 miles from the resort. (It;s 30 minutes on the other side of the resort from the Turnpike, so this is indeed out of the way.)
If you can do it, I highly recommend packing food, coolers and drinks from home. It will make the experience much more authentic. The gas grills at each tent are regularly maintained, turn on easily, and do a bang-up job cooking everything from steak to chicken to morning toast. We know because our glamping neighbors took their meals to the edge, with some fancy eats (of which we sampled. wow!)
Don’t feel like cooking? No worries. You can enjoy meals at the Smokehouse Grill on the resort. We tried the BBQ, salads, burger and more. There are also kid’s menus and alcoholic beverages available…and a great view of the airboat rides coming and going.
Another alternative is the Deli at the resort’s General Store. You can try a made-to-order salad, sandwich, pizza…even Starbucks. Try the shrimp salad – delish! You’ll also find candy, firewood, chips, drinks and various grocery items. Prices are reasonable, too.
Every night about 7pm a staff member comes to build a fire in the community firepit (in the center of the glamping tents area.) The resort provides this firewood, and they come by several times during the night to stoke the fire and add more wood.
I’ll admit that initially I was a little disappointed that we didn’t have our own personal campfire, but in the end…it was one of my favorite parts of the trip. It brings everyone – kids and adults – out of their tents and into a group setting where we laugh and learn about each other.
Our circle of glamping tents included at least 20 kids (maybe more) who soon became the best of friends. They played hide-and-seek, climbed trees, learned stick ball, roasted marshmallows together….it was everything childhood is supposed to be!
The adults watched from rocking chairs around the fire, drinking wine and telling stories of our own childhoods.
See our video? Notice the “cameo” from Film Man Matt? We befriended he and his wife Stephanie at the tent site. Their two kids were older than the boys, but they basically took them under their wing. It was incredible. And Melvin and his family made amazing charred wings. Another family was from Brazil, and told us this was their very first camping experience. Indeed, meeting people while traveling is the best part – and the families at Westgate River Ranch were no exception!
OH! Back to the fire. If you want the fire to go beyond 10pm (we did!) or you want a fire for lunch or breakfast, that is no problem! You just need to use your own wood (or purchase some at the general store.)
I should also mention that this area was extremely boisterous from about 8pm until near midnight, with the kids running around having a blast. We loved!! it, but if you’re looking for a quiet couple experience then you might opt away from the family-centric campground, and if you have a young baby that you want to get to sleep early then consider bringing a noise machine to help them sleep.
Another glamping perk? Breakfast and coffee delivery to your tent at 8am each morning. We chowed on cinnamon rolls, fresh fruit, warm meat pies and more.
I would be remiss to not mention the ultimate glamping option…luxury teepees. They were introduced in 2016 and include 5-star amenities in 650+ square feet.
Teepees can accommodate up to 4 people, with a living area with a double-sided stone rock hearth fireplace, bedroom and bath. Get this..the bathroom includes a gorgeous porcelain cast iron claw bathtub and shower!
I should also mention that the price reflects the luxury…but if you are looking to spoil someone you love or celebrate a special occasion, this is how to do it in style!
Golf Cart Get-Around
The resort offers golf carts for making your way around the property while you stay. When we visited the carts were $60 per day or $100 for 2 days.
I highly recommend doing this! First…it’s just plain fun for everyone! But it also makes it easier to navigate the resort, jump on and off for activities (or petting a goat you see on the side of the road…)
Weekends Are Best
I hate that we were not able to stay for the weekend because there are two weekend-only events that should not be missed!
The first is the Rodeo!
Westgate River Ranch Resort & Rodeo is home to a 1,200-seat rodeo arena, which offers guests a true cowboy experience each week. Tourists and locals gather each week for the longest-running Saturday night championship rodeo in the state, featuring bull riding, trick riding, barrel racing and a patriotic tribute to America’s troops.
The second is the Dinner Hayride!
Guests take an old-fashioned tractor-pulled hayride to the cattle-based WMA behind the ranch, where they are treated to cowboy tunes and more.
Afterward, there is a family style buffet with chicken and hamburgers, corn and slaw…and more!
The Adventure Park
When we visited, the Adventure Park was open from noon – 4pm. It included a mechanical bull, zip line, bungie jump, mini golf, and rock climbing wall.
You can purchase the fun a la cart, or with an all-inclusive wrist band that lets your kids enjoy the fun as much as they want. This worked well for us because Cooper wanted to ride the bull a dozen times, and loved running back and forth between the bungie jump and the rock climbing.
He didn’t weigh enough for the zip line, but mom and dad tried it. Good fun! Elliot was tall enough for the rock climbing wall at 42″ (almost everything else was 48″ and taller) but didn’t weigh enough so we stuck to the golf alone. Even so, he loved watching all the kids zip and ride.
The dates and times change seasonally, so check before you go!
Biking and Swimming
The other activity that we enjoyed, generally after the Adventure Park closed (but before the camp fire started) was bike riding and swimming in the pool.
Bike rentals are available for $15 per day. They housed all sizes of bikes – and plenty of them – including small bikes with training wheels. Helmets are required for kids, and are available with your rental.
There is also a pool, which the boys loved. It was warm and very clean…with a shallow end and a deep end of 8-feet – great for diving. A hot tub is there as well, with pool towels and a bathroom inside the fence. No lifeguard is on duty, so be sure to head over with the kids.
Plenty of Additional Activities
There were so many activities that we didn’t have a chance to do everything during our 2-night adventure…but you may be able to stay longer.
Try skeet and trap, archery, fishing, 9-hole golf, horseshoes, basketball, tennis…and more.
There is also a fun excursion available called a Swamp Buggy Ride. We went during the “dry season” so opted out…but if you are visiting the wet season then give this a try. It’s an elevated ride on a “buggy” with gigantic wheels. You travel through the brush and mud – sitting high in the air – for views of alligators and other wildlife on land and in the swamp.
Air Boat Action
We did get to experience the air boat, and boy was it fun!
The outing lasts about 40 minutes, and takes you out onto the Kissimmee River. We saw turtles and alligators galore; we even stumbled upon a 12-foot gator – 12 FEET!! Our guide told us he was the “big one” out in that swamp and we were lucky to see him.
Ear protection is available to everyone, and my kids said it was their favorite activity. Spots fill up fast, so call ahead to reserve your spot.
If you didn’t see the video above, check it out. It includes footage from our ride…and a surprising animal we saw in the water. Moooo.
Don’t forget, you’re at a ranch! One of the best things you can do for fun here is to saddle up.
Guests can take lessons for basic horseback riding skills, and advanced riders can take the horses on a 2-hour trail ride.
Kiddos must be 8yo and 51+ inches to ride…but young broncos might enjoy the pony rides.
More Than Horses
You’ll find more than horses and alligators here. Elliot fell in love with the goats – including baby goats…and they fell in love with him.
Guests can also get up close to ranch animals, including longhorn cattle, goats, llamas and buffalo (or tatanka, as my boys insist on calling them.)
You want to visit now, right? I felt the same way the first time I learned about Westgate River Ranch Resort!
Before you book, be sure to check out the discounts online. For example, purchase in advance and stay two nights to save 15%…other discounts available as well.
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Disclosure: Thank you to Westgate River Ranch and Resort for hosting my family and me. As always, opinions here are my own…we loved it there. We hope you’ll visit soon and fall in love, too.
After 18 years in software development, Lesli bailed on the corporate scene. When she’s not traveling, she’s hiking in the mountains or checking out Atlanta’s culinary scene, whiskey in hand.
Lesli has two kiddos -Cooper and Elliot- plus two bonus kids currently at UGA, and she’s happily married to her soul mate.