WestWorld at 40: Horses, horsepower, home to signature events

WestWorld at 40: Horses, horsepower, home to signature events

For 40 years, WestWorld has been our go-to place for entertainment, equestrian events and everything Scottsdale. From its humble beginnings in 1982 as a city horse park, today it hosts a year-round menu of signature and special events, attracts tens of thousands of participants and attendees, and generates millions of dollars to the local economy.

Here are 40 WestWorld “whadda-ya-knows”:

In the late 1960s/early 1970s the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation purchased land from the state of Arizona and private landowners to use as a flood retention basin to protect the planned Central Arizona Project canal. The site of the future Horseman’s Park/Horseworld/WestWorld had been annexed into Scottsdale in 1963.

In January 1972, the city of Scottsdale opened Desert Park, later renamed Cholla Park, on the north end of the Scottsdale Airport runway as an equestrian park. After 10 years of use by the Scottsdale Saddle Club and other horse riders, Cholla park closed to make way for the airport runway extension. The city sought a new venue for the horse community.

The April 15, 1981, Arizona Republic reported: “Alamos Associates, developer of the Alamos Resort (renamed Cottonwoods) on North Scottsdale Road, has donated two buildings to the New Cholla Park at Bell and Pima roads. The 30-by-80 concrete-block duplexes, worth about $150,000, were built in the 1960s and reportedly are in good condition. They will be moved to the park, just north of the Granite Reef Aqueduct (CAP canal, then under construction), and will be used for office space, meeting rooms, storage and groundskeepers’ quarters.”

In June 1981, the Scottsdale City Council approved a master plan to develop “The New Cholla Park,” envisioned as a 132-acre equestrian park located north of the Central Arizona Project canal at Pima Road. According to the July 1 Arizona Republic, architects from Gary Panks and Associates were developing the design of the park. The first phase of the park was to include a horse arena, parking lot, restrooms and quarters for the park manager. It would be the first recreation area to be part of the CAP’s Reach 11 master plan, according to then-city of Scottsdale Recreation Director Bob Frost in a January 7, 1981, Arizona Republic article.

In March 1982, the Scottsdale City Council voted to name the new Cholla Park “Horseman’s Park.” In July, the city of Scottsdale entered into a long-term cost-sharing and land-use agreement with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation on 132 acres of land north of the Central Arizona Canal and at the base of the McDowell Mountains for development of the park.

The city of Scottsdale held a groundbreaking for Horseman’s Park on November 3, 1982, with the Scottsdale Saddle Club Drill Team performing and the sheriff’s mounted posse in attendance. Early road signs also called it Horsemen’s Park and Horsemans Park.

By 1984, city officials made plans for an expanded Horseman’s Park that could accommodate major equestrian events. The city applied for 200 more acres from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to expand. According to the July 4, 1984, Arizona Republic, “The city has surveyed 19 area organizations to find out their needs and what ‘ultimate’ and ‘basic’ facilities would include.” At the time the park had “a 60-by 200-foot dressage arena, which was donated by the Arizona Dressage Association,” as well as a lighted outdoor event arena; a small building with a meeting room, kitchen and bathrooms; and a caretaker’s residence and parking. Scottsdale Councilman Rene Wendell was the key champion of expanding Horseman’s Park.

In 1985, the city assumed oversight of the remaining 224 acres in the CAP basin, bringing the size of Horseman’s Park to 356 acres, stretching from Pima Road east to 108th Street. Construction began on two arenas, lights, entry road, polo field, permanent horse stalls, recreation vehicle hookups and additional parking. Two other buildings moved to the site were to be used as administration and business show offices. The Silverman family — then-owners of a resort on Scottsdale Road — donated their house, which was moved to WestWorld and served as park offices. B. Monte Morgan donated a 3,000-square-foot house, which was moved from its location at Cattle Track. During construction, about 100 native trees were relocated — a requirement of developers to preserve and relocate various desert trees and plants.

Phase one of the Central Arizona Project canal was completed in 1985, with Scottsdale as one of the first municipalities to use its water. The CAP canal and its berm formed the southern border of Horseman’s Park.

The Scottsdale Police Department added a mounted unit in 1985, with horses and officers operating out of Horseman’s Park. Mayor Herb Drinkwater dedicated a six-stall, $33,000 stable at Horseman’s Park for the SPD Mounted Patrol Unit.

In 1986 the city of Scottsdale contracted with K-Lin Corporation to operate Horseman’s Park. K-Lin, with Howard Keim as principal, made many improvements to the facilities. K-Lin, with city of Scottsdale and Bureau of Reclamation approval, built the covered Equidome Arena.

Although several events had been held at the park during 1985 and 1986, the city of Scottsdale and K-Lin Corp. officially dedicated Horseman’s Park on February 8, 1987, in cooperation with the Sundance/Kachina Classic and Starworld Arabians.

In 1988 Horseman’s Park was renamed HorseWorld.

HorseWorld served as the home for the Scottsdale Thunder professional arena polo team. During 1988, polo matches were held on Saturday evenings September through November.

The Barrett-Jackson Auto Auction moved from Phoenix Municipal Stadium to HorseWorld in January 1989.

The All-Arabian Horse Show moved to HorseWorld in 1989 from its Paradise Park/Bell Road location.

In February 1989, a sculpture of three horses by Scottsdale artist Snellen Johnson was dedicated at the entrance to HorseWorld.

The Scottsdale Marketplace at HorseWorld opened in 1990.

HorseWorld was renamed WestWorld in 1990.

Rattlers’ restaurant at WestWorld celebrated its grand opening in December 1990. It was later named Diamondbacks, then Monterra at WestWorld, and transitioned from a restaurant to a catering/special events facility.

In 1993, Howard Keim, managing partner of WestWorld, sold his interest in HorseWorld Joint Venture to Mary Wilcox, owner of Capital Realty-Scottsdale, his partner since 1989.

On October 3, 1994, the Scottsdale City Council met on the patio of WestWorld’s Brett’s Barn and, after hearing public testimony, voted to create the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, a beautiful backdrop to the historic council meeting.

The International Cowboy & Indian Congress was held at WestWorld in October 1994. Highlights included the Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and the Buffalo Soldier Boot Camp.

The city of Scottsdale assumed operation control/management of WestWorld from its former contractor as of January 1, 1997.

The community mourned at the January 3, 1998, memorial service in the WestWorld Equidome for beloved former Mayor Herb Drinkwater.

With completion of the Loop 101/Pima Freeway through Scottsdale in 2001, WestWorld became more accessible to event attendees from throughout the metro Phoenix area.

The WestWorld Trailhead was dedicated June 7, 2003 — National Trails Day. The trailhead and public equestrian facility were built to connect to trails in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.

The first McDowell Mountain Music Festival was held at WestWorld in 2004.

To accommodate ever-larger events staged at WestWorld, the city purchased a 119,700-square-foot permanent tent in 2005. Originally displaying an enormous American flag on its side, the tent later transitioned to a tan color.

When Rawhide Western Town closed on October 31, 2005 (relocating from its location on the northeast corner of Scottsdale and Pinnacle Peak roads since 1971), many of its events migrated to WestWorld, including the annual Parada del Sol rodeo.

WestWorld’s Brett’s Barn event facility was razed.

In 2012 the Scottsdale City Council authorized $47 million to upgrade climate-controlled major event facilities at WestWorld, and raised the amount to a total of $51.3 million in 2013. The Tony Nelssen Equestrian Center was dedicated November 23, 2013, named in honor of the late city councilman and equestrian.

On a 104-degree day — June 22, 2013 — the inaugural Beat the Heat Race was held at WestWorld, attracting 1,248 runners.

The Jeff Zischke stainless steel horse sculpture, “Impulsion” was dedicated in 2014 near the North Hall and Equidome at WestWorld.

WestWorld was named 2020 Facility of the Year by the League of Agricultural and Equine Centers.

The global COVID-19 pandemic impacted events at WestWorld, beginning in mid-March 2020. Some events were canceled/postponed; others used creative means to keep attendees healthy. Drive-in events like concerts and Scottsdale’s Fourth of July event brought families in cars to WestWorld’s polo fields. WestWorld hosted a COVID-19 vaccine drive-thru site in the spring 2021.

Parts of episodes for the TV series “Yellowstone” were filmed at WestWorld’s rodeo arena in 2022.

Among interesting events that have taken place at WestWorld: a dragster mud bog, a llama sale, an open-air summer rodeo series in the 1990s, Thunderbird Balloon Classic, National Festival of the West, SolFest, HarvestFest, Cactus Cup bike race, Mayors’ 1996 State of the City breakfast, Shrine Circus, Junk in the Trunk Vintage Market, Fiesta Bowl team/alumni pep rallies and many others. About 60% of events held at WestWorld are equestrian oriented. Perennial events at WestWorld include Barrett-Jackson Auto Auction, Scottsdale Arabian Horse Show, Parada del Sol Rodeo, Scottsdale’s Fourth of July celebration, Sun Country Circuit Quarter Horse Show, Goodguys Southwest Nationals (hot rod show), Scottsdale Polo Championships, home shows, trade shows, golf shows, and scores of other events.

WestWorld was almost the site of a movie studio, Western museum, theme park, space science center, dude ranch, resort hotel, faux Western town and a vocational training institute.

For a list of events, how to stage an event at WestWorld, or how to access its RV Park, visit westworldaz.com. 

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