Travel: Postcard from Ocala, Florida

The Grand Outdoor Arena at the World Equestrian Center in Ocala, Florida.
The Grand Outdoor Arena at the World Equestrian Center in Ocala, Florida. | Dennis Lennox

I escaped the spring break crowds that overshadow many of Florida’s better-known destinations by visiting Ocala.

Once a sleepy backwater far removed from the coasts, the area around this part of the Sunshine State — about an hour-and-a-half’s drive from Orlando and Tampa — is today the self-proclaimed horse capital of the world.

At the center of all things horse is the nearly 4-year-old World Equestrian Center.

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While the approximately 380-acre property was built as a venue for equestrian sports, it’s really a resort. There are two hotels, an RV park, several restaurants at every price point and numerous indoor and outdoor multipurpose spaces, including what has to be the largest floor outside Orlando and Tampa for trade shows and other exhibitions.

Readers of this column will surely be interested in the handsome stone chapel, which bears a resemblance to the centuries-old Roman Catholic Church of Our Lady of Victory in Old Quebec City. Quite impressively, it hosts three nondenominational services every Sunday. The chapel is among several subtle public professions of faith by the Roberts family, owners and developers of the center.

The chapel on the grounds of the World Equestrian Center in Ocala, Florida.
The chapel on the grounds of the World Equestrian Center in Ocala, Florida. | Dennis Lennox

Not only is the center a destination in its own right, but surrounding Marion County is on the map for visitors who otherwise wouldn’t come to Central Florida. For perspective, Ocala was the second stop in the 2024 Longines League of Nations tournament, which started in Abu Dhabi and finishes in Barcelona after additional stops in Switzerland and the Netherlands.

I don’t ride and wouldn’t pretend to know anything about dressage, show jumping or any of the other disciplines within equestrian sports. But you don’t need to be an enthusiast to be a spectator.

Perhaps what’s most impressive about these sports is the interdependence between the rider, aka the human, and the horse. The horses aren’t really analogous to running shoes, hockey sticks or other pieces of sporting equipment. This is actually a team sport — a partnership between horse and rider, both of whom must be trained, conditioned and prepared to compete.

In addition to events during the season, which I was surprised to learn isn’t confined to the winter months when snowbirds flock to Florida, there are numerous non-equine events to bring in visitors and guests at the two hotels.

During my visit the terrace overlooking the 128,000 square-foot Grand Outdoor Arena hosted a sunset event featuring some of the best wines from California’s Sonoma County. I’m told the regular food and wine events are especially popular with retirees living in the nearby Villages — the sprawling community that has been among the fastest-growing areas in the country.

If you go

The main hotel at the World Equestrian Center is the 248-room Equestrian Hotel. The luxury hotel with its four-diamond rating from AAA has an eccentric decor courtesy of designer Ric Owens. Think opulent Louis XVI mixed with Ralph Lauren’s High WASP style.

I stayed at the newest of the two hotels, The Riding Academy Hotel. While a little more approachable than the Equestrian, it has the same attention to detail and overall quality. In fact, the lobby could be a Ralph Lauren store. Be sure to also spend some time at the resort-like pool.

The closest airport with commercial service is about 40 miles away in Gainesville, although getting there may require double connections depending on where you’re coming from. The best alternative are the big-city airports in Orlando and Tampa. For those driving, Ocala is about five hours from Atlanta and around eight hours from New Orleans as well as Charlotte and Wilmington in North Carolina.

Dennis Lennox writes a travel column for The Christian Post.

Dennis Lennox writes about travel, politics and religious affairs. He has been published in the Financial Times, Independent, The Detroit News, Toronto Sun and other publications. Follow @dennislennox on Twitter.

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