The following article appeared recently in the Biscayne Times, highlighting life at Westgate River Ranch Resort.
Two Tanks of Gas
By Karen-Janine Cohen, BT Contributor
Forget the European vacation or the cross-country road trip. With a little driving, you can have big fun.
Eight pretty cool staycation spots you can drive to without spending a fortune.
You know you're going to do it. Sure, times might be tough, airlines have raised fares, and there's no knowing when gas prices will spike again. But the Constitution guarantees Floridians - like all Americans - the right to a summer vacation.
Okay, it's not exactly squeezed between Freedom of Speech and the right to stockpile an arsenal, though it might as well be. Come war, famine, or pestilence, the American family will, in June or July or August, take time to frolic and bond.
Yet in these days of austerity, that vacation could be shorter, cheaper, and closer to home than before. In that spirit, Biscayne Times has come up with a few getaway suggestions, all within Florida, from the Keys to the Georgia border. We even included one right in our own backyard.
Many of these destinations offer discounts to Florida residents, along with summertime specials. All can be reached with two tanks of gas or less. (Our highly scientific calculations were based on how far a 2012 Chevy Tahoe SUV can take you with two fill-ups.)
An intrepid BT correspondent ventured in person to several locations, while the information on others was gathered by phone, Internet, and email. Most were referred by people who have been there and done that, or who have special knowledge of the Florida hospitality landscape.
WESTGATE RIVER RANCH - COWBOY THEME PARK RESORT
If you feel South Florida isn't fulfilling your whoopin' and hollerin' needs, head up the turnpike to River Ranch. It's roughly 175 miles northwest of Miami and 25 miles from anything else. This is about as close to the classic dude ranch as you'll find in these here parts. River Ranch motto: "Unleash your inner cowboy."
With pet-friendly accommodations that range from standard inn rooms to 1,400-square-foot, one-bedroom cabins with wrap-around porches, the ranch offers horseback riding, skeet shooting, archery, airboat rides, dinner hay rides, a petting zoo, a big swimming pool, a full-service marina, and most impressive, a Saturday night rodeo that features acrobatic horseback tricks, barrel racing, and bull riding.
During a recent trip to the ranch, it's clear that Ray Duncan, rodeo master of ceremonies, takes his job seriously, urging the hundreds of eager people in the stands to cheer for the riders - be they girls racing nimble pintos around a series of barrels or young men trying to stay on the back of a bucking bull.
"This is not a funeral! This is not the opera!" Duncan shouts to the audience from atop his own mount. "You have the ability to make electricity in the arena. If there's any red in your neck, you can show it tonight!" And that just about sets the tone.
As the sun sets and the moon rises, the audience claps and yahoos when one of the bull riders stays on for more than a few seconds; groans when he is thrown off; and everyone laughs when the bulls, with names like Banana, Old School, and Gangster, decline to return to their pens, taking star turns around the grounds, snorting at the audience, charging and feinting at the attendant horsemen. Kids are especially entranced by it all.
The rodeo bleachers are filled with River Ranch guests - many from Tampa or Miami, others from as far away as South Africa - but also with quite a few area residents. One telling observation: No one, not a single person, was seen yakking on a cell phone or texting obliviously.
River Ranch is clean and well-kept, the grounds nicely landscaped under a canopy of majestic oak trees draped in Spanish moss, where you might glimpse a crested caracara, also known as a Mexican eagle. In fact wildlife abounds, thanks largely to a neighboring 7000-acre wildlife management area. A 13-mile stretch of the rustic Florida Trail is accessible as it winds through nearby wilderness. Oh yes, there's also an airfield on the property - for the pilots among us.
The ranch animals seem relaxed, even in the petting zoo, with its little goats, donkeys, and other creatures to delight eager young children.
Sunday morning calls for riding, and the horses are also low-key during two hours on the trail. In pastures you can see grazing horses and their foals, cows, calves, and bulls, some of which had starred in the Saturday show. A thrilling airboat ride down the Kissimmee River tops off the trip.
Many of the accommodations are timeshares, so the décor varies, though they are always spotless and well-equipped. You can dine at one of three on-site eateries or prepare your own meals at your cabin, a nice option for those who like to cook.
River Ranch has been around since the 1960s. Westgate Resorts bought it out of bankruptcy, about a decade ago, says Mark Waltrip, COO of the company, which operates a number of other resorts. "We dumped a ton of money into it and rebuilt the whole thing."