Throughout presentations from the developers pitching The Wellington, a refrain has formed: “We have to compete with Ocala.”
Even in equestrian developer Mark Bellissimo’s pitch for “Wellington 3.0” in September, and in subsequent pitches for the updated project, there seems to be a looming specter of the World Equestrian Center in Ocala and the potential danger it poses to Wellington’s booming equestrian industry.
And it is an industry.
Estimates put the economic contribution of equestrian competitions in Wellington at anywhere from $95 million to $300 million – like having a mini-Super Bowl in town each year.
In-Depth on The Wellington
This is one of three parts in this in-depth report on the Wellington Equestrian and Golf Club proposed development. The other two parts are:
In my quest to help you understand the full scope of this project and its implications, I decided to find out: What’s the hubbub with Ocala?
The issue was highlighted in a Wall Street Journal article in March titled, “Two Florida Towns Vie to Be Center of the Equestrian World.”
“If we sit idle, I think Wellington will atrophy,” Bellissimo told the Wall Street Journal.
The article noted that land prices in Ocala are far less than in Wellington.
For someone who isn’t an equestrian, Ocala might sound like a horsey-heaven boogeyman, looming in North Florida to scoop up every last competitor from Wellington.
So, is it true? Will the World Equestrian Center usurp Wellington’s equestrian industry?
I went to Ocala to see what I might be able to find out.
First, a clarification: There are two facilities near Ocala that some say could pose threats to Wellington’s title as the Winter Equestrian Capital of the World.
(Ocala’s home county, Marion, bills itself as the Horse Capital of the World. So already we have a little friendly competition in our titles.)
It takes between three and a half and four hours, or longer depending on traffic, to drive from Wellington to the World Equestrian Center, which is about 25 minutes west of downtown Ocala in unincorporated Marion County.
The fastest way to get there is to take Florida’s Turnpike until it turns into I-75, then follow that up to State Road 40.
The other competition ground is even farther afield, no pun intended.
HITS Inc. has a showground for hunter-jumper events about 20 minutes northwest of the World Equestrian Center.
Most of the focus on competition for Wellington refers to the World Equestrian Center, so that’s where I went.
Why is it in Marion County?
The World Equestrian Center was founded and developed by Mary and Ralph “Larry” Roberts and their family, who made their money in the trucking industry with their family-owned business R+L Carriers.
They’ve owned land in Marion County for decades, paying tens of millions of dollars since the late 1990s to amass thousands of acres of property.
In addition to their trucking business, they first made a name for themselves breeding and showing Quarter Horses.
The family owns a sister property in Wilmington, Ohio. Larry Roberts died earlier this year.
The World Equestrian Center, by the numbers
1: Hotel, The Equestrian, with another, The Riding Academy, set to open next year.
248: Hotel rooms, with another 390 when The Riding Academy opens.
378: Acres on the core property.
2: Other properties owned by the World Equestrian Center, including Golden Ocala Golf and Equestrian Club just to the north, and the Ocala Jockey Club, which has been approved for redevelopment.
40,000: Square feet in the on-site veterinary hospital for large and small animals operated by the University of Florida.
1: On-site medical care facility opening soon, also operated by UF.
106: 3-acre lots that are platted for a future residential area on the west side of WEC. The farmette-style properties will be between 3 and 9 acres.
2,800: Stalls, most of which are climate-controlled.
2: Air-conditioned expo venues similar to the Expo Center at the South Florida Fairgrounds. One has a carpeted floor and the other is concrete.
125: Seats in the on-site chapel, which offers services two days a week and is open 24 hours a day.
1,000: Year-round staff members, with 700 for hospitality and between 200 and 300 for the horse show.
2021: When the full facility opened.
128,000: Square feet in the Grand Arena. There are an additional 15 outdoor show arenas and five indoor arenas.
A tour of the World Equestrian Center
I got to WEC at 9 a.m. on a recent morning. Fog still rolled across some of the open farmland I passed on my way there. I listened to podcasts on my drive.
WEC and its sister properties – Golden Ocala and the Ocala Jockey Club – sit within Marion County’s Farmland Preservation Area, which restricts development to agricultural uses and allows only one residential unit per 10 acres. WEC is in a special zoning district to allow for the mix of uses on the site.
And there are a lot of uses on the site.
In addition to The Equestrian Hotel, the property’s centerpiece, there are two air-conditioned expo centers, indoor and outdoor competition arenas and rings, several restaurants, a toy store, an RV park, a gas station, a general store, a veterinary hospital for large and small animals, bridle trails, golf cart paths, a chapel and more.
Coming soon: An event center with a retail complex next to it that will have more than two dozen stores, and a massive new hotel with 390 rooms, including 160 one-room suites.
I was given a tour of WEC by Justin Garner, director of hotel and hospital operations, and Christy Baxter, director of equestrian operations.
Baxter’s background in equestrian sports includes years spent in Wellington, so she provided a unique perspective to the tour that I found helpful.
We started in the hotel. The rooms are spacious and include touches that feel very specific to equestrians’ needs – like tile floor at the entrance of each room, and a separate closet for riding gear. Suites have clawfoot bathtubs. A standard room is about 500 square feet, and a one-bedroom suite is about 900 square feet – larger than the first house I owned in downtown Lake Worth Beach.
The hotel has its own spa, fitness center, restaurants, cafe and toy store. Young parents in riding pants chased a gleeful toddler through the Mr. Pickles and Sailor Bear Toy Shoppe, which is named for the owners’ dogs.
The average stay at The Equestrian Hotel is four days, and the busiest days are Thursday-Sunday, Garner said.
From the back patio of the hotel, spectators can step from Stirrups – the on-site fine-dining restaurant that just received a Best of Award of Excellence in Wine Spectator’s 2023 Restaurant Awards – to the Grand Arena, a 128,000-square-foot competition show arena with covered grandstands on its north and south sides. This is where the World Equestrian Center hosts its major competitions during the winter season, Baxter said.
From the hotel, we hopped on a golf cart and started our tour of the grounds. Everything in WEC is accessible by golf cart. Many trails are only for horses. Massive live oaks with Spanish moss dripping off the branches offer natural shade for some of the bridle trails near the hotel.
A chapel on the property is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Services are offered, and the chapel has become a popular spot for weddings, Garner said. The stained glass windows in the chapel and one of the hotel’s restaurants, The Yellow Pony Pub, were made in Ocala. The chapel has towering 30-foot ceilings and Swarovski-crystal chandeliers. It can seat up to 125 people.
Inside the chapel, and at nearly every other venue throughout WEC, there are baskets of small olive-wood crosses from Jerusalem that are free to visitors, Garner said.
“Faith is very important to the Roberts family,” he said.
In addition to the restaurants inside the hotel, there are four standalone restaurants, each with its own theme. All are operated by WEC, not a contractor. Even the cafes on-site that serve Starbucks coffee are operated by WEC. Emma’s Patisserie in The Equestrian Hotel is helmed by chef Yohann Le Bescond, who recently was a finalist on Food Network’s “Summer Baking Championship.” Starbucks coffee is served alongside his award-winning pastries.
Garner drove us alongside some of WEC’s climate-controlled barns. There are 2,800 total stalls on the site. Much of the area where horses commonly walk has a rubberized surface that feels like what you might find at a newer playground.
We pulled up to the World Equestrian Center Stadium, which is designed for hunter competitions and has about 7,500 seats. It hosts other events including concerts, and recently hosted a high school marching band competition, Garner said.
From there, we crossed the complex’s main thoroughfare and approached two massive buildings: the twin expo centers. We walked into the expansive Exposition Center 2, which has a carpeted floor. It has hosted conventions and conferences.
A schedule on WEC’s website shows the venue will host WEC Oktoberfest from Sept. 30 to Oct. 7 and the Ocala Food and Wine Festival Nov. 3-5.
Non-equestrian events form a major part of WEC’s economic engine.
Development is underway on the east side of the property to build 10,000 square feet of offices for physicians from UF Shands Medical Center. Just south of that, the Event Center will offer 180,000 square feet of meeting space and four more restaurants. The Shoppes off 80th Avenue will be south of the Event Center and east of The Riding Academy, with another 80,000 square feet of retail space in 31 shops. All of that is set to open between now and the end of 2025.
“We’ve kind of become the convention center for anything in North Central Florida,” Garner said.
Inside the carpeted expo center, WEC recently fit 20 volleyball courts and hosted 120 teams for a tournament on Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, he said.
“And on the horse side, we’re pulling in more,” Baxter said, adding that they’re booking “a lot more dressage.” A few competitors have moved from Wellington to Ocala, she said – something backed up by accounts I’ve heard from a few equestrians here in Wellington.
“We try not to conflict too much,” she said. Even so, “We are slowly filling in our calendar,” Baxter said.
Garner next took us past Arena 5, which is situated for Western shows. As we drove between Arena 5 and the barn to its north, a man dressed mostly in denim who sat in the saddle atop a palomino tipped his hat to us. Cattle were penned out back for the American Ranch Horse Association 2023 World Show.
As we drove along the western edge of the developed WEC property, Garner pointed farther out where crews worked to clear more land. That space, he said, is approved for 103 3-acre home sites. Buyers can combine up to three plots to make a 6- or 9-acre farm, he said.
The construction happening when I was there is to make way for a sixth indoor arena and five more rings, Garner said.
We turned to head back east along the north side of WEC, where there is a 280-space RV campground with a dog park and general store. The store includes a laundromat and showers. There is a cafe inside that serves Starbucks coffee. Guests can rent golf carts.
“It’s a home away from home,” Garner said.
We buzzed past the future grounds of the Event Center and The Riding Academy, to the indoor arenas on the east side of The Equestrian Hotel. As we passed and Garner described The Riding Academy, he called WEC, “Our Disneyland.” That’s the model for development, he said.
Inside Arena 1, a group of riders and trainers walked the show jumping course in preparation for their competition that day.
We returned to The Equestrian Hotel, and I was left to explore the grounds and parse for myself – how does this place compare to Wellington?
Farmland Preservation Area
There are many similarities between WEC and Wellington’s equestrian competition area and showgrounds.
The people who compete at elite levels in Wellington very well could have another barn in Ocala, Baxter said.
And the area surrounding WEC has “true farmland preservation,” Garner said. Marion County in 2005 established the Farmland Preservation Area, which restricts development to one residential unit per 10 acres of land. There are nearly 200,000 acres in the FPA.
There are some specialized zoning districts within that area, including the World Equestrian Center and Golden Ocala.
As there has been outcry about removing land from Wellington’s Equestrian Preserve Area for The Wellington, there has been similar outcry in Marion County when it comes to removing land from the FPA. Preservation groups rallied in response to state plans to run highways through Marion County’s farmland preserve, media reports show.
Development within Marion County’s preserve has been criticized by some opponents who say WEC’s plans for more commercial uses at the Ocala Jockey Club are out of line with the rural character of the area and will lead to even more commercial activity, according to reporting by the Ocala Star-Banner. WEC countered that by keeping an equestrian use on the property, the development “will strengthen the farmland community” around it,” the Star-Banner wrote.
The 1,000-acre property, which is northwest of WEC, narrowly passed the Marion County Commission last year on a 3-2 vote with a plan for polo fields, a stadium, more RV parking, six barns and almost 100 homes, records show.
Within days of the approval, neighbors sued the county to force it to overturn the decision. That case remains before the court in Marion County, court records show.
‘Wellington’s not going anywhere’
When I was at WEC, the Citrus County County Kennel Club had its All-Breed Dog Show in Exposition Center 1. With equestrians’ love of a good barn dog, it’s no surprise that when I returned to the dog show after finishing my tour with Garner and Baxter, I found several people who compete in equestrian competitions in both Ocala and Wellington. The refrain from all was the same: You really can’t compare the two facilities.
They noted differences in the levels of competition offered but also the surroundings – Wellington is 25 minutes from West Palm Beach and Palm Beach, and has three major airports within about an hour’s drive. Ocala doesn’t have a large city like West Palm Beach to offer high-end amenities or a change of scenery. While beautiful, they said Ocala has more of a small-town feel.
That was the sentiment shared by Erynn Ballard.
The Canadian-born Ballard competes in hunter-jumper events at an elite level. She competed in the 2018 World Equestrian Games and won the $100,000 CSI 5-star Longines Speed Challenge at the 2018 Longines Masters of New York. In the past few years, she set up a home base in Wellington, with close to 60 horses there year-round.
While WEC is beautiful and offers many amenities on-site with excellent competitions, Ballard said it cannot compete with Wellington because of the level of lifestyle offered by Wellington’s location.
She emphasized that she very much enjoys Ocala and competing there. “This is a beautiful place, and I enjoy it here,” she said.
“I think that Wellington offers something that nowhere else in the world offers,” she said. “You can get to anywhere in the world” from the nearby airports, she added. “It’s a destination.”
She’s competed for eight years in Ocala, but it has a downside.
“Outside of this venue, which is incredible, there’s not a destination,” Ballard said. “Once you leave WEC, you’re in Ocala. If you leave Wellington, you’re in Palm Beach.”
Ballard said that “nothing in my mind” compares to Wellington.
The closest possible competition, she said, are the showgrounds in California, west of Los Angeles. The area has a similar feel and high-end amenities that equestrians look for, she said. When you leave the grounds there, you’re in Palm Springs.
Ocala will remain a great place to compete for a couple of weeks during the grueling Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, Ballard said. Many competitors travel for a week or two at a time during WEF to provide their horses a change of scenery.
“Wellington has created something that no one else can keep up with,” Ballard said. “More and more you start to see people basing in Wellington.
“In my opinion, Wellington’s not going anywhere,” she said.
As it continues to grow, could the World Equestrian Center – current and future development included – draw so many competitors from Wellington that it threatens the Winter Equestrian Festival?
Talking with longtime equestrians in Ocala and Wellington over the past few weeks, the consensus is, possibly – but it’s a long shot.
There is room in the sport for both venues, competitors told me. Each has its place. Ballard, for example, said one of the things she enjoys about Ocala is that it gives her a place to take young horses during the summer and fall to prepare them for the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington.
The sheer scope of the property also cannot be compared. The showgrounds in Wellington aren’t 3,800 acres – and never could be, because of existing development around the grounds.
But what Wellington lacks in landmass, it makes up for in history, quality and lifestyle, competitors told me.
There also was consensus among equestrians with whom I spoke that the showgrounds in Wellington are in dire need of expansion and renovation.
How to make that happen? That is the delicate dance we see now before Wellington officials.
As we watch for the next step, a rallying cry has formed – with opponents who say that if something must be done, one thing is certain: Land must not be removed from Wellington’s Equestrian Preserve Area.
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