Sure, you can stay in a hotel when you travel with kids. Or you can stay in a tent. Or you can stay in a tent that feels like a hotel room. High thread count sheets. Comfy king-sized bed. Air conditioning in the Florida heat. Room service breakfast. Toss in a real-life cowboy-infused, bronco-busting rodeo and you’ve got the makings of a fun Florida vacation for your family.
Glamping, Swamps and a Rodeo, Oh My!
Camping isn’t my thing. I grew up camping. We loved it as kids. We played and ran and got really, really muddy. My mom, meanwhile, did everything she did at home—cook, clean, wash dishes—but she did it over a campfire. And then, when we got home she spent a week cleaning up all of that mud.
Or at least that’s the way I remember it.
Despite those memories, I took my kids camping. Twice. They loved it. I didn’t. So the chance to try glamping—luxury camping complete with beds, air conditioning, sheets, and even room service—seemed like the perfect balance between camping and staying in a hotel room. Unfortunately, my kids were both off to college, so they weren’t with us to sleep in the two twins beds in our “tent” at Westgate River Ranch in central Florida. (Please note: If you click on that link and book a stay, TravelingMom will get a referral fee. But all opinions here are my own.)
Add in the chance to take a swamp buggy ride, airboat ride and watch some cowboys riding bucking broncos at a rodeo and it would have been a slam dunk Florida vacation success for us.
The Glories of Glamping
These luxury tents are just one type of accommodation at Westgate River Ranch in central Florida. There also are cabins and traditional hotel rooms. The “tents” often sell out quickly, so plan ahead if you want this glamping experience.
We checked in and got a golf cart escort to the tent section of the resort, accessed via a locked gate. Our guide showed how to keep the tent closed to keep the air conditioning inside and the heat outside. She pointed out where to find the mini fridge, handed us a s’mores kit (sold in the gift shop for $12) and pointed out the bathroom facilities.
The potty and shower is in a separate building, but there is a private bath for each tent so you can leave your stuff and not worry about privacy. Ours was not fancy. It appeared to be the wheelchair accessible bath, so it was very large. A bar of soap and a few towels are provided. We supplied our own shampoo. (A peek into the other baths when some fellow travelers were heading in showed some updated facilities that were more like the upscale baths of the hotel rooms at Westgate.)
Eating and Entertainment at Westgate River Ranch
The restaurant on site is the Smokehouse Grill. The dinner and breakfast buffets were yummy and quantities were plentiful enough to feed a hungry cowboy. And there were plenty of cowboys on hand for dinner. They were fueling up for the Saturday night rodeo.
The rodeo happens every Saturday, rain or shine. It rained the Saturday we visited, but the downpour didn’t start until the finale. That meant no one lined up to get autographs from the cowboys and cowgirls, but the performers dutifully sat atop their horses getting soaked, just in case anyone wanted to brave the deluge.
The rodeo featured two rounds of bucking broncos and some pretty fancy trick riding. It lasted only about an hour and left us wanting more. If you go, plan to arrive early to get a good seat under the canopy—the folks who chose the open seating got pretty soaked when the rains came.
And don’t forget to sign up your little ones for the calf chase mid-way through. It’s entertaining for kids and their adults. But a couple of kids who had signed up were turned away in disappointment.
The rodeo is supposed to be followed by a street party. We had been looking forward to that, but the rain drowned it out.
Exploring the Ranch
There are many activities available at the Ranch, all for a separate price. This is the sort of place that would be a great family retreat if there was an all-inclusive option. Without that, the costs could add up quickly.
Horseback riding: A little boring. We rode across the fields, but only at a slow-paced tail-to-nose walk in a line. If you’ve never been on horseback, definitely give it a try. But if you have any horse riding experience, skip this. The highlight for us was talking with our guide, one of the women trick riders from the rodeo. (Children must be 8 to ride and kids ages 8-11 must be accompanied by an adult.)
Swamp Buggy Ride: We loved this. The downpour of the night before assured that we would be riding through a real swamp. The home-made contraption had giant tires that proved to be up to the challenge of the deep crevasses across the 1700-acre ranch. If you go, prepare to be rocked and rolled. I kept one eye on the very small 8-year-old riding with his grandpa. I was convinced he was going to be tossed right out of his seat. It never happened, but it did make me wonder why there are no seatbelts on the Swamp Buggy. (Kids ages 2-11 must be accompanied by an adult.)
Airboat ride: Threatening skies cut our trip a little short. Again, this is worth the money if you have never been on an airboat before. But if you have, say, done an airboat ride through the Everglades, this will disappoint. No alligators.
Trap shooting. My husband, who grew up going to shooting ranges with his dad, jumped at the idea of using long guns to kill some clay pigeons. Standing around in the misty rain made it less fun than it might have been otherwise. (Ages 13 and up.)
Service On Site
Each night, the friendly staff starts a fire in the fire pit outside the tents. We had been looking forward to getting to know our neighbors while sharing some late night s’mores, but the rain drowned those plans too.
However, the staff did arrive in the morning with a continental breakfast. A welcome pot of coffee, some yummy muffins and a little fruit got us started on the day.
Disclosure: I visited Westgate River Ranch Resort as a guest of Visit Central Florida. But the opinions included here are my own. My husband and I enjoyed our visit there and would return. It would be even more fun with kids.