by TIM CRAIG
A massive multi-use equestrian facility is sprouting up on over 3,000 acres in northwest Marion County, and its growth may solidify the county’s and Ocala’s billing as “Horse Capital of the World.”
The World Equestrian Center Ocala, reportedly set for a 2019 opening, is a state-of-the-art development that includes sports and recreational facilities, as well as living and shopping spaces; and technology is at the center of it all.
Innovations like live streaming events throughout the facility will be standard, but the real technological wonder may just be the sophisticated technology infrastructure that will give everyone more ease and control over their experience.
“The technology network will make the World Equestrian Center Ocala the most technologically advanced facility in the country,” says Roby Roberts, of RLR Investments, LLC, who is developing the property.
According to Roberts, here is how it will work: when people arrive to the Center, they will get a card that will be used throughout the stay and the facility: hotel, spa, horse show office, restaurants and stores — even at vendor booths. When it’s time to check out, everything will be automatically included on the bill.
“No more standing in line at the horse show office or dealing with paperwork,” says Roberts. “You’ll register online, pick up your card when you arrive and then you will be in control of your experience.”
Part of the thrust in developing the Ocala facility came through feedback Roberts received after opening the original World Equestrian Center facility in Ohio in 2016. After talking with riders, including some U.S. Olympic team members; as well as trainers, owners, Moms and Dads and their children, Roberts came to the conclusion that something needed to change.
“There is a lot of concern that horse showing is not as fun as it used to be,” says Roberts. “It is an expensing and time-consuming sport, so people tend to get discouraged.”
There is a movement within the industry to get back to the basics of horse showing by bringing along young horses and riders up through the ranks in a way that is affordable and fun, he said.
“We hope to return horse showing to its former grandeur while incorporating an element of fun, reminiscent of the horse shows of the past,” says Roberts.
The hope is that the equestrian center will attract large horse shows year-round. The summer heat in the Marion County and Ocala area has kept some shows away during those months. With four large air-conditioned indoor arenas planned, some of those events that stay away in the summer would find a climate-controlled new home.
Indeed, the Ocala site is an expanded version of its Ohio predecessor in almost every way. The original World Equestrian Center is equipped with three indoor arenas, each equipped with premium footing and LED lighting, and two outdoor arenas, The Ocala site has four indoor, climate-controlled arenas, equipped with premium footing and LED lighting, as well as 17 outdoor arenas with shade pavilions throughout and all-weather premium footing. The original center has 500 10’-by-10’ permanent stalls, 60 percent of which connect to arenas by enclosed walkways. Following that same philosophy, the Ocala site will include 1,500 12’ by 14’ permanent stalls. The original center also offers 116 RV hookups, while the expanded Ocala center will include 200 RV sites.
The jewel of the equestrian enter is the huge three-acre Grand Outdoor Stadium with covered seating on three sides and a planned 260-room hotel that will overlook the stadium on the fourth side, according to reports. The state-of-the-art venue is designed to offer the ultimate competition experience for both the horse and rider, yet tailored with the spectator in mind.
Other amenities for the Ocala site include 1,800 square feet of retail space, and five different restaurants. There also plans to develop 300 multi-acre home sites with close proximity to events at the center, as well as veterinary services, schooling areas and on-site riding trails.
The home sites will have the option to be able to access the Golden Ocala Golf and Equestrian Club, also owned by RLR Investments, which sits adjacent to the World Equestrian Center site.
As of late November, according to an article in the Ocala Star-Banner, work on the indoor arenas and about two dozen barns on the property are under construction. The stadium arena has been outlined, though full construction had not started.