Aside from a few opulent resorts in the Orlando area, Central Florida has never been known for its luxurious accommodations. And for many visitors and Floridians, Ocala is just “horse country” and a few exits along Interstate 75.
This is changing rapidly, thanks in large part to the new World Equestrian Center and Equestrian Hotel.
Spread over nearly 380 acres west of the highway, this $800 million project is becoming the Disney World of the horse set. Racers from across the United States and dozens of foreign countries flock here to compete in state-of-the-art facilities, including huge air-conditioned arenas with VIP viewing rooms. They never have to leave the field to herd their horses, shop at high-end stores, or dine at a wide variety of restaurants.
But it’s not just for horse owners. What is called the best equestrian center in the country is also a charming complex where you can relax by the pool, be pampered at the spa or simply watch the horse and rider move together as they jump fences or go through their dancing dressage steps. .
The Ocala/Marion County area, with over 1,200 horse farms, has long claimed the title of “Horse Capital of the World.” Miles of scenic pasture have produced six Kentucky Derby winners and 26 Breeders Cup champions, making it the logical location for a major equestrian center.
Opened in December 2020 after four years of work, the center was fully funded by Larry and Mary Roberts. The Ohio-native couple started with one truck and built it into R+L Carriers, one of the nation’s largest trucking companies. A friend and I recently visited the Equestrian, the 248-room hotel that anchors the center and reflects Ms. Roberts’ sense of dramatic design.
The lobby, with a fireplace and ceilings that soar 24 feet, is stark white with accents of black and gold in the French Provincial-style furnishings. Huge portraits of dogs – one of Mary Roberts’ favorite animals along with horses – line the upper walls. Fresh flowers abound.
Our room, which overlooked an outdoor arena, had two king-size beds and two bathrooms, one with a Victoria & Albert clawfoot tub and Balmain Paris toiletries. After dropping off our bags, we stopped in the shops that line one wing of the hotel.
Lugano’s, with outlets in Newport Beach, Aspen and Palm Beach, creates unique jewelry – some of the diamond pieces on display exceed $200,000. From there we passed a leather goods store, Emma’s Patisserie and into Mr. Pickles and Sailor Bear Toy Shoppe. Lamenting the fact that children today get most of their toys from Amazon, Mary Roberts wanted the center to have a proper toy store. This one features life-size animatronic animals that growl and roar, and a rocking horse inspired by one of Queen Elizabeth’s couriers. Price: $15,000.
The rest of the equestrian center is so large that Justin Garner, the hotel operations manager, took us around in a golf cart. While the hotel lobby was filled with casual visitors in shorts, almost everyone outside was a rider – many in jodhpurs, jackets, caps and boots – walking slowly or riding on trails marked with signs” horseback riding”.
In addition to the 2,500-seat arena next to the hotel, there are several indoor rides, an outdoor stadium, two exhibition centers, a chapel, a general store, a gas station, 280 campgrounds for RVs and 2,880 air-conditioned boxes for horses (by exhibitors only, no long-term boarding is authorized). Another hotel is planned, with 400 rooms and a lower price than the Equestrian, whose rates start in the $400 range. An emergency medical clinic and veterinary center are also in the works, while buyers will soon have a choice of 104 sites ranging from 3 to 9 acres large enough to keep their horses.
With its well-landscaped grounds and multiple facilities, the center is becoming a popular venue for weddings and other non-equestrian events. Among them: a volleyball tournament for young people and a food and wine festival.
That night we ate at Stirrups, the downtown fine-dining restaurant that offers prime steaks, Florida seafood, and seasonal favorites like black-eyed pea salad. Other restaurants in the center include Filo’s Mexican Cantina, Ralph’s Burger and Sandwich Shop, and Viola & Dot’s Italian Kitchen and Pizzeria.
Later we walked into Yellow Pony, the hotel pub. It was crowded, not only with hotel guests, but also with residents of Ocala and nearby developments. Given its central location, the Ocala area has become a major distribution center that attracts many new people and businesses.
Before heading out again the next day, we spent a few hours in the shaded outdoor arena, enjoying a gentle breeze and watching riders jump over a series of 4ft fences. The runners, scored by time and other criteria, came from several states including Illinois, Texas and California.
The West Coast horse, we learned, had been shipped the day before — by Federal Express.