Home on the saw palmetto range

The announcer, mounted on a horse named Gus, said “go,” and dozens of young boys and girls ran across the rodeo arena, in pursuit of a calf and the red ribbon on his tail. The first child to get a piece of the ribbon would win a prize. A giggling wedge of children turned and came running back, the now ribbon-less calf loping behind them.

Then the bull riders took over, each cowboy trying to stay on the back of an angry, bucking bull for eight seconds. But most fell off in a second or two and rolled clear of the beast as rodeo clowns waved the bull through a gate.

The rodeo was the signature event of the weekend for hundreds of people staying at Westgate River Ranch, a western-themed resort in Central Florida — where cattle have grazed since Ponce de Leon brought Andalusian cattle here on his second trip, nearly 500 years ago.

The event, like most everything at the resort, was family oriented — less hard-core rodeo skills contest than entertainment with corny jokes, trick riding, calf scrambles, a tribute to the military and a recording of John Wayne talking about why he loved America.

But the bull riding and barrel racing were real, performed by professionals in a sanctioned rodeo. There were a few long moments when riderless bulls refused to be corralled, and people held their breath until the clowns, alternately coaxing and teasing the bull to keep him away from a fallen cowboy, drove him back through the gate.

For me, a weekend at a western-themed resort was a chance to play at being a cowgirl, a dream of mine back when I was 5 or 6 years old, when I wasn’t yearning to be a ballerina or a firefighter. In the intervening years, I had ridden horses, been to rodeos and learned the Cotton Eyed Joe. But the cowgirl thing never quite took, and I had neither cowboy hat nor boots to pack for this trip.

The resort, which its operators call a dude ranch, is about an hour south of Orlando. It sits along an old route where herds were once driven to market. Mark Waltrip, chief operating officer of Westgate Resorts, likes to point out that thanks to Ponce de Leon, Florida was the first state to have cowboys.

“We have a rich cowboy heritage,” he said.

Although the biggest herds are gone now and much of the surrounding land is government owned or protected, the area still supports cattle ranches — and rodeos.

The resort isn’t a dude ranch in the usual sense. Although cattle and buffalo graze on the property, there are no livestock-related chores for guests to observe or help with. Horseback riding is a short, slow-paced ride through flat pasture and thickets of Live oak.

And unlike most dude ranches, Westgate is not an all-inclusive resort. Meals, horseback riding, swamp buggy and airboat rides, use of a bicycle, skeet shooting, archery practice, the zip line, rodeo, hayride and golf all cost extra. But if you’re aware of the costs, which are spelled out under “activities” on the website, the resort is a fun, outdoor-themed, family-oriented getaway.

Westgate River Ranch started out in 1971 as the centerpiece of a development by Gulf American Corp. It changed hands several times before Westgate Resorts, a big time-share company, bought it 2001 and reopened it the following year.

The previous owner had let the property deteriorate, and the saloon was known in the community for its bar fights, Waltrip said.

Westgate has gradually cleaned up, modernized and expanded the facilities. Last year it added 10 “glamping” tents and an adventure park with zip line, mechanical bull, bungee trampoline, rock-climbing wall and other recreational amenities.

The resort has hosted music festivals and other events. Hoping to attract more large groups, they’ve added a ropes course and banquet and convention facilities for corporate outings, and Waltrip said they’ve seen an increase in bookings as a result. A gym is under construction and there are plans for a mini-spa, more glamping tents, a restaurant in the saloon.

My own cowgirl adventure started on Martin Luther King Day weekend, when a friend and I planned to go to the rodeo, take a hayride and ride horses. Loaded up with fixings for breakfast and lunch — we knew our room had a kitchenette — we set out late on Saturday morning along the slow but scenic route up U.S. 27, then along the north and east sides of Lake Okeechobee, passing sugar cane fields, pastures and rodeo grounds. The drive up Florida’s Turnpike is faster but not as interesting.

As we drove onto the property, we spotted a nine-hole golf course, the glamping tents, buffalo grazing behind a fence and a small zip line.

We passed a horse-drawn carriage decked in garlands of flowers, a bride and a man we assumed to be her father riding in it. At check-in, the clerk told us that yes, a wedding was going on — there’s a chapel on the premises.

Golf carts buzzed about. People were milling everywhere — and kids, I hadn’t expected so many kids. Scores of tents were pitched in the camping area. We later learned that a large number of scouts and members of other youth groups had come for the three-day weekend.

Our room in the lodge was a standard hotel room but with western décor — buffalos on lampshades, cowboy boots on light-switch plates, wood floor, faux brick wall, and cowboy art.

We stowed our food in the mini-fridge, then looked at the activities schedule we got at check-in. That’s when we learned that there was only one hayride a week, and it was happening right then. One bit of cowgirl fun bit the dust. We immediately made reservations for a Sunday horseback ride. Then I went out to explore the grounds before the rodeo.

On the big lawn in front of the lodge, several dads and young sons were playing catch. The adventure park was next door, and the air was filled with shouts, shrieks and laughter from kids on the zip line or the bungee trampoline.

For $5 a ride, kids and adults alike tried to stay on a mechanical bull, operating over giant air mattresses that looked like an oversized conversation pit. The bull started slowly but right away tilted to the side, challenging riders to stay balanced. As its motion sped up, spectators called out advice (“put your feet up by his head”) and a few people tried to raise one hand like a professional rider, but most clung to the handhold with both hands before sliding off onto the air mattress.

At the rodeo we bought beer and pulled-pork sandwiches from the snack bar and found seats on the metal bleachers. The arena, which holds 1,200 people and is open to the public — not just resort guests — was almost full. When we stood for the Star-Spangled Banner, the cowboys on the far side of the arena stood on fence rails and chutes, their hats over their hearts.

One after another, men riding bucking bulls burst through gates and tried to stay on the bull for eight seconds, allowed to use only one hand to hold on, the other high in the air. Only five or six succeeded, and these were scored on the basis of their form and control. Women raced horses around strategically placed barrels, going for the fastest time without knocking over any barrels. One of the rodeo clowns rode while standing on two horses running side by side, one foot on the back of each horse.

Afterwards, people lingered outdoors for the fun, even though temperatures were in the 40s. They stood around a fire, attempted to ride the mechanical bull. Inside the saloon and on an outdoor dance floor, youngsters and their parents kicked, stomped, wriggled and spun to a mix of country music, rock and hip-hop. It seemed everyone knew the Macarena, crossing their arms, flipping their palms and rolling their hips to the beat.

Around 10 p.m., a live band took the floor inside the saloon, and everyone under 18 was asked to leave, temporarily bolstering the ranks of the line dancers outside. Eventually they retired to tents pitched in the meadow, campers and RVs, Westgate’s new “glamping” tents with heat and air-conditioning, cabins with wrap-around porches or rooms in the lodge.

In the morning, we heard church bells from the chapel nearby and went out to ride horses. A sign warned there would be no trotting, galloping or any other fast movement. Instead, we took a sedate stroll amid grazing cattle, while guides at the head and tail of the line talked about the property, which has a mix of oak hammock, scrub and pine-palmetto flatwoods.

We saw a small alligator sunning next to a pond, heard the tale of a bull we passed, named Lucky for the time he fell out of a trailer on the road and was found unharmed about two weeks later, grazing in someone else’s pasture. And I learned that I was riding Gus, the rodeo announcer’s mount.

Later we rented bicycles and saw the rest of the resort. Although it was Sunday afternoon and many people were clearing out, some were taking advantage of the three-day weekend and were shooting skeet, taking archery practice, going for swamp buggy rides.

When we came to the pasture where buffalo grazed behind a fence topped with barbed wire, I got off my bicycle for a closer look.

One of the buffalo came to the fence to get a closer look at me, too. He glared through the barbed wire. I never knew exactly what baleful meant, had never taken the time to look it up in the dictionary. But his look was the definition of baleful, which I now know means threatening harm or evil. I got back on my bicycle and pedaled away. I never would have made it as a cowgirl.