‘Equi-tourism’: The Florida Horse Park’s Unfulfilled Potential as a Destination

By Carol B. Dover
Published by the Ocala Star-Banner, April 13, 2014

With the “season” starting to wind down, Florida’s hospitality industry can’t forget the many blessings that come with Florida being THE place to be if you are an equestrian. From Wellington to Ocala, Jacksonville to Pensacola, the horse industry makes a dramatic impact on the local economies hosting various multi-week events.

Arriving in December and staying through the middle of April, thousands of horses each year are shipped to Florida to participate in some of the toughest competitions in the world. Along with all of these horses, an entourage of riders, grooms, trainers, friends and family make the trip as well. And where do these visitors stay, eat and drink? In our restaurants and hotels.

Let’s face it, it is tough to ride a horse in sleet, ice and snow. The climates of Florida, Texas and California provide an opportunity to equestrians of every discipline to hone their skills and horse show in a warmer, snow- and ice-free environment.

Not only does the hospitality industry reap the benefits of being a warm-weather riding destination, but the rest of Florida’s economy is touched as well. Horse people are the guests, clients and shoppers that any business owner dreams of. They spend money — a lot of money. They pay their bills. They are generally repeat customers because they come back every year for a lifetime. They go to the beach and enjoy Florida’s cultural heritage. They hit the theme parks and concerts held across the state. They eat in our restaurants and drink in our bars. They stay in our lodging establishments; and very often, many settle down in Florida typically choosing Palm Beach or Ocala.

In fact, according to the Equine Alliance of Marion County, activities in that county alone impact our state’s economy by more than $900 million a year.

So, why don’t we give our visiting equestrians one more reason to choose Florida over Texas or California. The Florida Horse Park, located in Ocala, is developing a world-class international equine facility that encompasses all breeds and disciplines, placing the advancement of agriculture and equine education as a top priority.

In fact, Gov. Rick Scott and Florida legislators are leading the way in helping to provide this exciting international venue for our “equi-tourists” by supporting the Florida Horse Park through the legislative budgeting process this session.

Currently the FHP is constructing a 2-acre, 79,500-square-foot covered arena estimated to be completed in May 2014. This covered arena will host a multitude of events and will be an important draw to the FHP.

While the budget for the Florida Horse Park is uncertain for 2014-15, future projects include eight 40-stall barns with restroom and wash areas and 38 premier RV parking spaces with infrastructure.

Florida offers many opportunities to equestrians and equi-tourism. The Florida Horse Park, much like the Kentucky Horse Park, will be a venue that can be home to all disciplines.

The Florida Legislature and Scott play an important role in allowing the tourism industry to grow in every way possible. Let’s keep on moving toward achieving the goal of Florida welcoming 100 million visitors.

The growth and further development of the Florida Horse Park will positively impact Florida’s hospitality industry, advance agriculture and equine education, and will provide a state-of-the-art venue hosting equestrian and nonequestrian events.

Carol B. Dover of Tallahassee is president/CEO of the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association. She also serves on the Florida Agriculture Center and Horse Park Authority Board of Directors.