Travel to Horse Country USA In Ocala

The New Equestrian Hotel, Ocala, FL.

The 248-room Equestrian Hotel is a unique spot to relax or watch weekly competitions in the horse capital of the world. (Bethany Kandel)

Instead of ocean waves crashing and screams from theme park rollercoaster enthusiasts, you’ll hear the neighs and clip-clop sound of horses parading by at this one-of-a-kind Central Florida resort.

The brand-new Equestrian Hotel, a 2021 Gold Key Awards finalist for “Best Hotel Luxury,” offers much more. It’s the centerpiece of the $700-million, 378-acre World Equestrian Center (WEC) in Ocala, known as the “Horse Capital of the World.”

The multi-purpose property features dozens of indoor and outdoor rings and climate-controlled arenas hosting world-class equestrian competitions, seven restaurants, upscale shopping, stables, a veterinary clinic, and two expansive expo centers for sporting events, conventions, and trade shows.

Ocala’s rolling pastures and limestone-rich soil have been primed for breeding and training horses, including many Triple Crown and Kentucky Derby champions. Pair that with our Central Florida sunshine and mild year-round weather, and it’s a horse lover’s haven that appeals to the equestrian set and upscale travelers, and the plain curious who want a getaway that offers something different.

PHOTO COURTESY BETHANY KANDEL

The perfect blend of sport and luxury.

The Equestrian opened in May 2021 with 248 stylishly appointed rooms and suites. Many overlook the Grand Arena behind the hotel. It’s the size of two football fields, seating 2,500, and it’s like having a private skybox to all-day equine expositions on the field, with two giant LED screens providing close-ups. The hotel also has a state-of-the-art fitness center, full-service salon and day spa, outdoor swimming pool, kid’s splash pad, and walking trails.

Enter the opulent white lobby and find yourself in the world of Ralph Lauren. Gaggles of young riders saunter by in breeches, boots, and helmets. Guests dressed in country-club classics congregate on tufted leather couches around the floor-to-ceiling stone fireplace. They fill cozy sitting nooks with plaid pillows and piles of coffee table books on everything from fashion to endangered species. The 20-foot ceilings are hung with crystal chandeliers and lined with dog portraits, another beloved animal of the owners, Larry, and Mary Roberts.

The hotel is truly an equestrian experience, with custom touches, including bit handles on the nightstands, leather saddle detail on the decorative bed pillows, and bridle patterns running through the carpeting. Even the Yellow Pony Pub has custom bar stools made of English and Western-style saddles. In this playground for the one percent, the price ranges from $300 to $900. Florida residents enjoy a 15 percent discount on select dates.

The Equestrian also invites day visitors to park for free and enjoy all the grounds and activities this family-friendly destination offers. Bring your bike or rent a golf cart ($85 a day, or $20 an hour) and drive past acres of training facilities and barns. Look for a whimsical garden of elephant and sea creature topiaries or watch the majestic beasts up close in their practice rings.

No tickets are required to snag a bleacher seat in the two stadiums to watch most riding events. You may also catch a volleyball competition, dog show, or bull-riding exhibition in one of the expo centers.

Stroll the sprawling flower-filled plaza alongside the Grand Arena. Peruse the many high-end shops catering to the equestrian lifestyle. Pick up a pair of $44 spurs at the Exceptional Equestrian or a $2,000 diamond Farrier horseshoe-nail pendant at Lugano. Want to look the part? How about a pair of leather cowboy boots at Ariat for $100-$250?

Sit by the cozy fireplace, enjoy fine and casual dining, shop and stroll the grounds at this on-of-a-kind vacations spot. (BETHANY KANDEL)

Visit the rustic non-denominational stone chapel nestled among the grand Southern live oaks dripping with Spanish moss for a peaceful respite. The sun shines through the stained-glass windows as the 100-year-old bell chimes hourly, returning you to a more peaceful time.

Grab a bite at one of the casual restaurants, each named for a Robert’s family or pet member. Satisfy a sweet tooth with ice cream and fudge at Miss Tilly’s Lollipops and homemade French pastries at Emma’s Patisserie. Have taco bowls and quesadillas at Filo’s Mexican Cantina or pizza and pasta at Viola & Dot’s Italian Kitchen.

There’s often live music on the patio at the Yellow Pony, pub fare, and an extensive bourbon and craft cocktail menu. Try the crowd favorite: brisket nachos.

Or stay for an elegant meal at Stirrups Restaurant, with seafood, prime steaks, and succulent fall apart beef ribs. Indulge in Executive Pastry Chef Yohann Le Bescond’s desserts, including caramel-butterscotch bread pudding. The secret ingredient? Croissants. Actor John Travolta, who has a home nearby, is a frequent diner.

The WEC hosts many dressage, barrel racing, and eventing shows. The 10-week Summer Series hunter and jumper competition runs from June 15-August 14, and the 12-week Winter Spectacular is held January-March 2023. Western Quarter Horse Championship Show is September 29–October 16, with an estimated purse of $2 million. The center will also hold the 2023 and 2024 National Collegiate Equestrian Association National Championships.

Nothing captures the equine tradition and pageantry like Saturday Nights during the hunter and jumper weeks when thousands of spectators gather at the Grand Arena dressed to the nines. Reserve seats for a VIP chef dinner with balcony seating and alfresco fine dining and drinks.

If all of this inspires a hop in the saddle, the hotel will happily arrange lessons or trail rides with local businesses.


By the way…

Getting there

The Equestrian Hotel and WEC are an easy drive from numerous airports and cities. It is located approximately 76 miles from Daytona Beach, 90 miles from Orlando and Disney World, 104 miles from Tampa and 111 miles from Jacksonville.

Toy lover’s dream

Kids will delight in Mr. Pickles & Sailor Bear Toy Shoppe, where the Breyer collection ranges from $6.50 tiny plastic horses to a $249 wooden barn. It also boasts Geoffrey, a 16-foot stuffed giraffe, once the mascot of New York’s Times Square Toys ‘R Us store (not for sale) and a rocking horse replica of Tinkerbell, one of Queen Elizabeth’s favorite horses ($19,500).

Special events

Upcoming this Fall is a major concert in the WEC Stadium, which holds 7,000. Ocala Comic Con is September 18. Ocala Food & Wine Festival with celebrity chefs, local restaurant sampling and cooking demonstrations is scheduled for November. Winter Wonderland Spectacular is Nov. 25-Dec. 26, with tree lighting, ice skating, live reindeer, carolers and visits from Santa. Check the calendar for more: worldequestriancenter.com/events