Talking with Ray Duncan, general manager at Westgate River Ranch Resort, is like taking a step back to the Wild West era. The former cowboy, who had a 16-year career on the professional rodeo circuit prior to getting into the hospitality business, is the man in charge at Florida’s largest dude ranch. Yes, Florida. “A lot of people don’t realize it, but there’s history here with American cowboys, going back to the days of Ponce de Leon,” says Duncan.
Enclosed inside 400,000 acres of federally protected state park land along the Kissimmee River and off the Yeehaw Junction exit on the Florida Turnpike, Westgate is a bit of an oasis for groups that want to really get away from it all—without going too far. The 1,700-acre property is less than a two-hour drive from three metropolitan areas: Orlando, Tampa and West Palm Beach. “We’re the outback of Florida,” says Duncan. “It feels like you’ve gone back in time.”
The authentic cowboy theme is carried out in every aspect of the ranch, from accommodations to activities to cuisine. One of the first properties in Florida to join the “glamping” trend, it has 20 canvas tents (each with private bathroom access) and will soon add teepees as well, adding to 163 guest rooms. True to its roots, the ranch serves up hearty ribs and does pig roasts for groups, as well as items like hamburgers and hot dogs for kids, Duncan says, though they can fix customized meals too. Fried gator tails even show up on menus occasionally, upon a planner’s request.
Groups get a taste of what it’s like to be a ranch hand with teambuilding activities like a real cattle drive experience (shown above) or the Saddle Up and Ride event in the on-site arena (where real rodeos are also held every Saturday night) in which teams have to saddle a horse, get a team member on the horse blindfolded and lead them through an obstacle course. An “Amazing Race”-style scavenger hunt is another popular option, and for one faith-based group, Duncan’s team created customized clues inside Bible verses.
For youth groups, the property’s Adventure Park has a zip line, a rock-climbing wall and mini golf, and a petting zoo, pony and horseback rides, and a mechanical bull are also on-site. Outside the property’s saloon, a DJ spins music for a dance party post-rodeo while adults can relax inside. “We’re very family-oriented,” says Duncan. “You can come here and be hard-pressed to do everything here in two days.”
Faith-based groups convening at the ranch often make use of the on-site chapel, where a regular church service is held every Sunday at 10 a.m. (Proving he really is a jack-of-all-trades, Duncan is the pastor!) Other meeting space includes the Grand Hall, which has a big stone fireplace and can be set up with screens to accommodate praise and worship sessions. This summer, Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale will host a large summer camp here, rotating kids over four weeks.
Let attendees try their hand with a bow and arrow at the on-site archery range. The sport has become hugely popular at the ranch thanks to the “Hunger Games” movies, says Duncan.
Photo credit: Westgate River Ranch Resort