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River Ranch is a “small-town Florida” escape for harried urban cowboys and their kin

The shady ladies of River Ranch have taken the dance floor of the saloon, stepping as precisely as country western Rockettes.

Heel, toe, heel, heel, jump. Quarter turn to the right.

Ma’am, are you sure you don’t want to leave the boot scootin’ boogie to them that knows their hats from their spurs, if you catch our drift?

Hip bump, bump, bump, kick ball change, then circle left.

Oh, you mean the other left.

In this line dance, a wrong turn risks a stampede by about a dozen midlife-to-retiree-age women, most of them gussied up like it’s the ‘70s.

The 1870s.

The flesh may seep out of the corset tops and the thighs might wobble a bit, but this group of women have claimed, then bedazzled, their inner dance hall girls.

They flash across the floor with practiced, complex choreography, while people sip $7 draft beers from plastic cowboy boots. A “re-boot” is $5.

Jill Brown of Delray Beach sashays in a cinched silver and black dress, black ankle boots and fingerless gloves.

“It’s just something those of us who come here on weekends started doing for fun,” she says.

For 15 years, she and her family have kept an RV at this moss-hung bend of the Kissimmee River that’s billed as the “largest dude ranch east of the Mississippi.”

“It’s a place to get away from crazy Palm Beach County,” said Brown, a native Floridian. “It’s like small-town Florida.”

Authentic cowboy country

With its low-slung ranch-style buildings and Old West decor, River Ranch canters close to the hokey side of the corral, but it does so in a place that’s been authentic cowboy country for 150 years. Visitors can spend a weekend pretending to be Florida Cracker cowboys and cowgirls — or dance hall girls — but they’re ridin’, ropin’ and hip swivelin’ at a place that was once a stopover for the state’s great cattle drives.

Local teenagers from Central Florida’s ranch and farm towns ride and rope every Saturday night at the River Ranch Rodeo, which the resort claims is the country’s oldest continuously operating rodeo.

A two-and-a-half hour drive from West Palm Beach, River Ranch lies west of Vero Beach and east of Lake Wales along State Road 60, which runs straight as string across the Kissimmee River flood plain. Ancient oaks mark the reaches of the old river’s summer floods.

The resort sits on 1,700 acres near one of the channelized river’s original oxbows. An additional 400,000 acres of state-owned sloughs and hammocks, palmetto prairies and pinelands surround the resort, home to bobcats, gators, eagles, wild hogs and huge herds of deer.

“I’ve seen two panthers out here since 2005,” said Ray Duncan, a former rodeo rider turned rodeo announcer, who also manages the resort’s landscape and recreation departments while serving as pastor of the white clapboard River Ranch chapel.

Don’t care to drive? Fly your private plane to River Ranch’s own airstrip.

Built in the 1960s, River Ranch today is owned by Davie Siegel’s Westgate Resorts, which has 28 properties in the United States.

Siegel picked up River Ranch at auction more than a decade ago and built cabins, some of which were sold as time shares.

A $3 million update completed last fall freshened the hotel rooms and added an adventure park that includes a zip line, mechanical bull ride, miniature golf course and petting zoo.

There’s an airy lodge for corporate events and an outdoor picnic area where chuck wagons dispense barbecue and burgers. In the evening, a hayride dinner excursion, complete with a singing cowboy, hauls guests over former Kissimmee Island Cattle Company land, near the abandoned cow town of Kicco.

Lodging includes a variety of wooden cabins, cottages and the original 1960s hotel or guests can opt for “glamping” (glamorous camping, get it?) in air-conditioned tents under a clump of shady, old oaks.

Siegel and his wife, Jacqueline, became infamous in the 2012 documentary “The Queen of Versailles,” as they tried to build the largest house in the U.S. near Orlando while the U.S. economy declined. (The house is once again under construction, Jackie said.)

The Siegels were staying at River Ranch with some of their eight children the weekend I visited. Wearing a diaphanous pink top over a bikini, shorts and pink cowboy boots, Jackie shepherded various children around the adventure park while happily posing for fan snapshots.

Getting down to business

The next morning, when Lonny Diamond revs up a lumbering swamp buggy and heads out where mist still clings to the flat, gold and green prairie, you know you’ve left the coast far behind.

A fisherman and hunter, Diamond left Greenacres seven years ago looking for peace and quiet in the woods near River Ranch, where he got a job driving guests around on a 6-foot, 2-inch high platform set over 52-inch tires.

“I had to get away from the big city,” he said. “West Palm Beach isn’t like it used to be when I was a kid.”

We don’t see much on the lurching tour except the harsh, eerie beauty of one of Florida’s empty places.

At the shooting range later that day, National Skeet Shooting champion Chuck Rosseter hands me a 20-gauge shotgun and tells me to Annie Oakley the clay disc he sends flying in front of me at 47-miles an hour. I can’t hit the broadside of anything, but Palm Beach Post photographer Maddy Gray, now known as “Dead-Eye Gray,” managed to blast the clay disc three out of five tries.

“Laaadies and gentleman, what we got here is 2,000 pounds of bovine with an attitude.”

On Saturday night, the rodeo arena fills with cowboy culture. Girls wear short shorts and cowboy boots; guys sport snap-front shirts. Everybody’s wearing cowboy hats.

A cadre of young women in red, white and blue sequins gallop around the ring carrying American flags with signs that read “God Bless the USA” while Lee Greenwood’s anthem brings people to their feet.

“I’m proud to be an American where at least I know I’m free …”

The atmosphere marries the happy schmaltz of Triple A baseball to an unself-conscious All-American yippie kai yay yell.

Sinewy teenage boys as skinny as snakes from rural towns such as Polk City, Arcadia, Okeechobee and Fellsmere nervously lash their hands to the backs of snorting bulls who promptly buck them onto the dirt. Only two of about 20 manage to make it to the 8-second bull riding limit.

One of the women who led me on a slow and snoozy trail ride earlier in the day dazzles with a display of dangerous trick riding stunts.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch’s saloon, the plastic cowboy boots are filling with beer.

The dance hall ladies are in costume and ready to strut.

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