Florida’s Creek Ranch

Me and Sparkplug.

Giddy-up your inner cowboy at Florida’s Creek Ranch

Sparkplug amenably enough allowed me to feel in control and steer him where I wanted to go. Except, that is, when we came across cattle in the pasture: Then the tawny gelding pulled stubbornly in the direction of the black Brangus cows and white Charolais bulls at Creek Ranch in Central Florida.

Sparkplug, you see, is no tourist-attraction horse. He is a true working steed, hard-wired to work the herd. At Creek Ranch, you can opt to work with the ranch’s cowmen in true dude ranch fashion, but we were doing a more leisurely nature walk through the 1,400-acre ranch south of Kissimmee.

Ranching Roots

It surprises most people that the state ranks second  in the nation (or third, depending on who’s talking) for beef production. In truth, cattle ranching has been embedded deeply in Florida genes ever since the Spanish first steered their longhorns on shore.

Kissimmee and Central Florida historically have been headquarters for the ranching industry, which made rich men of early cattle drivers. They herded the wild animals to ports such as Punta Rassa, across the bay from Sanibel Island, for transshipment.

Their long whips cracked in the sultry, dusty Florida air, inventing the term “Cracker” to label them and their ways.

True Cracker

Owners run Creek Ranch like a true Cracker cattle ranch, but like many of their ilk in the past few decades, found themselves also in the tourism business as raising beef became less lucrative.

Owner Jim Black demonstrates shotgun safety.

“Our accountant told us ‘the cows just aren’t paying the bills anymore,’” owner Jim Black explained the family’s move into the hospitality industry. Whereas other Florida ranches added agro-, ecotourism features such as swamp buggy rides and horsebacking, Creek Ranch raised the bar with a ranching-resorting package when it debuted its luxury all-inclusive bunkhouse experience a couple of years ago.

Once the family’s home, the bunkhouse got a designer make-over. Named for family members and decorated by Jim’s mother, Jane, each of the five rooms has a stylish, boutique personality all its own. What they don’t have?  Televisions and door keys.

A big-screen TV, however, resides in one of the roomy public areas indoors and out. In the morning, most prefer to sit with coffee overlooking the  nature’s-got-talent show – wild turkeys, sandhill cranes, woodstorks, eagles, and white-tailed deer – from rocking chairs on the front porch.

Guests can also stay in a three-room Cracker cottage on property. Rates either way include breakfast and all beverages and ranch activities – swamp buggy, airboat, and sunset pontoon rides; horseback and four-wheel all-terrain vehicle riding; nature walks, bike use, skeet shooting, and freshwater fishing.

You can also opt for a meal package, and it just wouldn’t be right to ignore a tribute of worship to the bunkhouse kitchen. Staff serves up Southern fried chicken in the rather formal dining room, ribs and chicken barbecue lunch on the screened Boat House, and a key lime pie that squeezes some of the Florida pucker into this particular ranch experience. Now you’re eating Florida Cracker!

Cowboy lunch at the ranch

Duding It Florida Style

My recent visit started with a true Florida whoosh as I boarded a small airboat that whisked around Lake Hatchineha at the Everglades’ Chain-of-Lakes headwaters. The boat’s shallow draft allowed us to skim over grass marshes into small log-jammed creeks, flushing water fowl and majestic birds as we roared.

It ended with a morning of shouldering a 20-gauge shotgun and yelling “pull,” then trying to knock yellow clay disks out of the cloud-puffed sky. Let’s just say I was bested by a 12-year-old computer geek.

Nonetheless, it rounded out an experience that was patently rural Florida in a world that seemed lightyears — rather than a mere hour — from Disney World, where folks can only pretend at playing cowboy. At Creek Ranch, you live it.

Related articles: Birding: The Florida Big Week, About Chelle

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