Last Updated on April 30, 2023
With competition facilities opened in December of 2020 and its signature The Equestrian luxury hotel welcoming guests starting in May of 2021, the World Equestrian Center Ocala is up and running, but by the time you’re reading this and visiting, it will look nothing like it did when I stayed there in the spring of 2023. Occupying hundreds of acres of central Florida horse country upon which to develop, construction and plans are underway for additional hotels, shopping, restaurants, a residential community and a great deal more.
The World Equestrian Center Ocala was the vision of Ralph L. “Larry” Roberts, Sr. He passed away in March of 2023 in Ocala. Roberts founded the nationwide freight carrying company R+L Carriers in Wilmington, OH in 1965. Surely you’ve seen their semi-trucks if you’ve ever driven a car on an interstate in America.
Wilmington, OH, not coincidentally, is home to the original World Equestrian Center. The World Equestrian Center in Ocala is a more grandiose and updated version of the Ohio facility.
Roberts’ success in trucking allowed him to begin spending his winters in Ocala, about an hour and a half drive up I-75 from Orlando, 40 miles south of Gainesville. He purchased over 1,000 acres there to develop the Golden Ocala Golf & Equestrian Club which now sits adjacent to the Ocala World Equestrian Center, following the subsequent purchase of thousands more acres in this once sleepy part of central Florida.
Florida Horse Country
Golf, beaches, theme parks – sure – everyone knows Florida has those things, but Florida is also renowned for its horse country, stables and breeders in the central part of the state. Consider it the “winter Kentucky.”
Florida and Kentucky have similar limestone soils and with central Florida’s warmer summers and mostly flat landscape – and abundant, inexpensive real estate – thoroughbred breeders began frequenting the area in the mid-20th century.
More than half of the horses running in the 2022 Kentucky Derby had connections to Marion County, where Ocala is – Florida horse country. That ratio is not at all uncommon.
Breeders regularly sell prized thoroughbreds for more than $1 million during the spring auction season in Ocala.
Kentucky may have the Derby, but Ocala considers itself the Horse Capital of the World.
On your way to or from the World Equestrian Center Ocala, leave Interstate 75 and drive the U.S. Highways or smaller roads around the county and you’re sure to bump into a couple of the area’s horse farms. The land upon which the WEC sits was formerly a quarter horse farm.
World Equestrian Center in Ocala
Ten years in the making, the World Equestrian Center in Ocala is the largest such facility in the Americas. Buildings, stables and arenas sprawl out over the grounds requiring a car or golf cart – or horse – to get around. Unfortunately, despite all the open land, there are no sidewalks or walking paths, no parks or recreation areas for people. The Ocala World Equestrian Center was built for horses and trucks.
As of my visit, the WEC has 2,880 horse stalls, 19 outdoor arenas including a 7,500-seat stadium and numerous indoor arenas including one designed specifically for Western activities – roping, barrel racing, rodeo and bull riding – with seating capacity for 3,400.
There is no permanent boarding or stabling of horses on the grounds, nor are there horse-riding opportunities for the public.
Horse barns are connected via underground tunnels to spare the animals when the weather is uncooperative. Ocala can be brutally hot with vicious thunderstorms in the summer, but it also gets colder than you’d expect in winter – both weeks. Just kidding.
Nearly every horse related activity, competition or show you can imagine takes place on site aside from racing – there’s no thoroughbred, steeplechase or harness racing at the World Equestrian Center in Ocala. Polo is coming.
Thankfully, all of the WEC’s horse events are free and open to the public. If you visit during one of these times, be sure to meander through the stables admiring the horses up close and behind the scenes talking to their owners and trainers who are almost uniformly friendly. WEC regularly invites local food trucks and pop-up bars to participate at these events.
In addition to horse events, which are typically centered around the cooler winter and spring months, WEC hosts a year-round schedule of festivals, fairs, expos, shows and conventions unrelated to horses in one of its two 130,000-square-foot event halls. These include hunting and fishing shows, car shows, dog shows and, in April of 2023 while I was visiting, the Great Florida Bigfoot Conference.
World Equestrian Center Northwest 80th Avenue Ocala, FL
For competitors trailering horses who will often be staying at the Ocala World Equestrian Center for a week or more, there is an RV park with 280 spaces and a general store with a laundromat and gas station on the grounds right next door.
With all the high-dollar animals on-site, the University of Florida opened a veterinary hospital on the grounds which is also open to the public. That’s a nice touch.
Let’s face it, in the hierarchy of expensive hobbies, anything having to do with horses is near the top with car collecting and yachting. Unless you’re one of the folks working the horses, an undeniable air of wealth and privilege pervades the facility.
As does Christian religious fervor. A cross appears prominently on the horse’s nose in the World Equestrian Center logo.
If you are put off by extreme wealth or proselytizing, this is likely not the place for you.
Ocala World Equestrian Center
As of my visit, roughly 700 people were employed at the Ocala World Equestrian Center, most of them at The Equestrian, a 248-room hotel located directly amongst many of the competition areas and stables with views of one of the outdoor competition arenas from many of the rooms.
I don’t know how this was achieved, and I’m sure it wasn’t the design, but upon entering the property’s elegant lobby I caught the undeniable whiff of grape Bubblicious chewing gum. I’m sure it was lavender and some combination of fresh flowers and perfumes, whatever the case, it was a bit of wonderful nostalgia to my 1980s childhood.
As you’d imagine, rooms at The Equestrian are not cheap. An extended stay hotel is under construction on the grounds which will offer a lower price point.
The hotel offers an outdoor pool – it’s shallow, so don’t expect to be diving or swimming laps, and there’s no hot tub – a much-better-than-standard fitness room with dumbbells up to 50-pounds and pullup bars, a full-service spa and numerous high-end retailers including Mr. Pickles & Sailor Bear Toy Shoppe, the No. 2 retailer nationally for Breyer horse figurines.
Sorry Mr. Pickles, while dogs are allowed in public areas, they are not allowed in guest rooms.
On-site dining at The Equestrian includes a wonderful patisserie serving freshly baked croissants, pain au chocolate and muffins. Their hearty breakfast biscuit sandwiches feature thick-cut bacon and are substantial enough to satisfy even the ranch hands. Quiche, macrons and pastries make delightful treats.
Yellow Pony Pub & Garden is a lively gathering place for World Equestrian Center Ocala visitors. Take time to make a reservation if you want dinner there to avoid a wait. The cocktails and pretzel appetizer stand out.
For fine dining, Stirrups offers steak, seafood and a staggering wine list which includes a full two pages of just champagne varieties. The restaurant employes a master sommelier on staff, one of fewer than 300 in the world. The whiskey selection is first rate as well.
Faster, more casual restaurants are located directly around the hotel including Miss Tilly’s Lollipops, which, you guessed it, sells candy, fudge, ice cream and the like. My favorite was Viola & Dot’s Italian Kitchen and Pizzeria. I’m a pizza guy and was amazed by the quality of the thick, saucy, Detroit style pizza slices served here. Thin-crust pizza by the slice or whole pies are available as well.