Until recently, Ocala didn’t top many travelers’ bucket lists. But with the addition of the World Equestrian Center, the Central Florida city is quickly edging out Lexington, Kentucky, and Wellington, Florida, as America’s horse capital. This world-class sporting complex represents the country’s largest equestrian facility, plus it boasts the only five-star accommodations in town with the Equestrian Hotel. In short, Ocala has officially become a horse haven, attracting athletes and aficionados alike.
Spread across nearly 400 acres (with another 300 earmarked for future development), WEC features 22 indoor and outdoor arenas, including the breathtaking 128,000-square-foot Grand Arena — no doubt the property’s pièce de résistance, situated adjacent to the Equestrian Hotel with unparalleled views. The vast complex is also home to seven restaurants, 25 barns, a veterinary hospital, two exposition centers, a chapel and more.
Competitive equestrians from across the globe and across all disciplines, from jumping to dressage to Western pleasure, are clamoring at the opportunity to show here. No detail was overlooked in developing this exceptional equine-first facility, including discipline-specific footing, dedicated bridle paths and comfortable, climate-controlled stabling that houses nearly 3,000 horses. The complex is also expertly equipped to host future international events, such as Olympic Games and World Cups. Unsurprisingly, WEC’s debut has sparked a land rush, with savvy equestrians buying up nearby acreage and even abandoning longtime horse hot spot Wellington for Ocala’s laidback lifestyle and more temperate climate.
The Equestrian Hotel is a horse lover’s fantasy. The inn’s 248 elegantly appointed rooms and suites are dripping in custom decor, from the horse motif carpet lining the hallways to the bedside lamps resembling show trophies. The striking lobby, with its 20-foot ceilings, crystal chandeliers and floor-to-ceiling stone fireplace, sets the tone from the minute guests walk in the door. Exquisite original artwork is showcased throughout, with each of the five floors acting as an immersive gallery for a different artist. It’s truly a bucket list stay for anyone with an equine appreciation.
Discerning travelers will be delighted by the hotel’s luxe trappings: fine dining, the serene Calluna Spa, a state-of-the-art fitness center, well-equipped event and meeting spaces, a relaxing outdoor pool, and plentiful walking paths. High-end shopping here includes a Lugano Diamonds outpost, the cheerful Mr. Pickles & Sailor Bear Toy Shoppe, and more, with exciting additions on the way and even more clothing, tack and gear shops peppered throughout the palatial property.
Among the Equestrian Hotel’s seven eateries, the premier culinary offering is fine-dining flagship Stirrups, which overlooks the Grand Arena and specializes in steaks, chops and sustainable seafood. The restaurant’s terrace also acts as the venue for Saturday night VIP Viewing and Dining Experiences, with a delectable three-course chef’s dinner served up right alongside the show-jumping action. The boisterous Yellow Pony is where athletes, owners, spectators and locals gather for craft beer, pub fare and camaraderie after a long day of riding. And there’s a reason Emma’s Patisserie has a line out the door each morning. Executive Pastry Chef Yohann Le Bescond’s sweet creations — think buttery croissants, French macarons and almost-too-pretty-to-eat entremets — are most certainly the best part of waking up in Ocala.
The beauty of WEC is that you don’t need to be an equestrian to appreciate all it has to offer, which is precisely how its proprietors planned it. It’s all part of the Roberts family’s vision for a Central Florida golf and equestrian wonderland. The horse-loving clan (who has for decades owned an equestrian facility in Ohio of the same name) is singlehandedly responsible for reshaping Ocala, with trucking magnate Ralph “Larry” and wife Mary leading the way. Their dream was partially realized with the 1987 development of the adjacent private Golden Ocala Golf & Equestrian Club, which boasts a riveting 18-hole championship course designed by Ron Garl, three restaurants, tennis courts, a swimming pool, a spa and salon, a stately clubhouse, and 10 distinct neighborhoods of high-end homes and vacation rentals.
And when WEC and the Equestrian Hotel opened in 2021, their vision officially came to life. But the big plans don’t stop there. Over the years, the Roberts have amassed an impressive 6,000 acres of land here, including the notable Ocala Jockey Club. They recently broke ground on a second hotel on the WEC property (set to open in 2024), plus there are talks of additional residential offerings, including miniature farms.
Thanks to the World Equestrian Center and its visionary proprietors, Ocala has officially become America’s premier horse destination. The Roberts’ dedication to the sport is inspiring, and their massive impact evident. They’ve fulfilled not only their own dreams, but that of equestrians and horse admirers the world over.