Payne: Behind the wheel at the Bronco Off-Roadeo Texas theme park

Posted by Talbot Payne on July 1, 2021

Austin, Texas — The frisky 2021 Bronco has reinvented Ford’s iconic 1960s off-roader as a high-tech, high-powered competitor to the Jeep Wrangler. But that’s just the beginning. As Ford remakes itself as a rugged, SUV brand (think Jeep), it wants to educate customers on the off-road experience.

Say hello to Bronco Off-Roadeos — four sprawling, Disney-like off-road-vehicle parks that Ford has developed across the country.

Available at no cost to buyers of the truck-frame Bronco (and its unibody kid brother Bronco Sport Badlands), these “ORV resorts” offer an immersive experience to teach the vehicles’ versatile tools in the wild. Just a week before its July opening to customers, I got a driver’s eye view of what is in store for Bronco Nation at Ford’s premier Off-Rodeo park 54 miles northwest of Austin.

Welcome to Bronco Off-Roadeo in Texas. The main campus of the 360 acre property 54 miles northwest of Austin.

“We bring customers out here and say: ‘Here is where you start.’ We teach the ABCs of off-roading,” said Bronco Off-Roadeo program manager Greg Nikolas as we looked out over the 360-acre property in the Texas foothills.

The idea of marinating customers in an auto brand is hardly new. Luxury performance automakers have done it for years. Buy a ferocious Cadillac V-series performance sedan and GM’s luxe brand will invite you to Spring Mountain Motorsport Ranch in Pahrump, Nevada, where you get schooled on track, then unwind by the pool. Porsche has built U.S. customer playgrounds in Atlanta and Los Angeles so customers can wring the neck of six-figure sportscars.

Ford itself has entertained buyers of its performance products — think F-150 Raptor and Mustang coupe — at locales like Utah Motorsport Campus and Charlotte Motor Speedway.

But the four Off-Roadeo theme parks — in Austin; Moab, Utah; Las Vegas, and an east coast location to be named — are ambitious for a mainstream brand. They cater — not just to speed-addled motorheads — but to a new generation of buyers as Ford repositions itself in the market.

On the trail, Bronco Off-Roadeo participants enjoy gorgeous views and rugged terrain.

Just a few years ago new Ford customers were learning to hoon around Utah Motorsports Park in entry-level Ford Focus and Fiesta ST pocket rockets. Those cars are gone — replaced by a full lineup of SUVs led by Bronco and Bronco Sport.

Like taking the family to a Disney theme park, Ford hopes the experience will nurture new Bronco fans for years to come.

Nikolas brought in drift racing legend Vaughn Gittin Jr. and King of the Hammers champ Loren Healy to help craft the park.

“We helped curate the experience,” smiled Gittin, who won the Formula Drift championship in 2020 and competes in Ultra4 off-road racing. “I call it Walt Disney-fying the off-road experience so that owners can learn everything they need to know about their Bronco. We want them to embrace the Bronco lifestyle and join the collective of off-roading.”

Gittin & Co. have designed off-road trails with spicy names like Jalapeno, Habanero and Ghost Pepper that snake through the park’s woods, streams, rocks and 150-foot elevation change.

Ford leases the off-road park from the Horseshoe Bay Resort overlooking the Colorado River. The Vegas venue will be the next to open late this summer. Off-Roadeo attendees can book rooms (flights and hotel are on the customers) at the resort or other local hotels — then take a 20-minute shuttle to the venue. Spouses and children over 12 are welcome.

Off-Roadeo’s ranch-like vibe is anchored by a main building where participants register and share southwest-style meals. Attendees can play games on the wide porch or relax in Adirondack lawn chairs. Broncos outfitted in the rugged “Sasquatch” wardrobe of 35-inch tires and Bilstein shocks are littered around the main campus.

Bronco Off-Roadeo welcomes drivers of all skill levels. The two-day experience begins after lunch with an orientation session at “The Sluice Box,” where customers learn the Bronco’s formidable off-road toolbox. Those tools include a 43-degree approach angle, best-in-class 29-degree breakover angle, front and rear locking differentials, and two-speed 4×4 transfer case.

Free to Bronco and Bronco Sport owners, the Bronco Off-Roadeo experience enables drivers to get closer to nature - and the capabilities of their vehicles.

With Off-Road 101 under their belt, customers make their way to the ORX course (Off-Road Experience), where they apply the tools in various disciplines. A steep hill shows off Bronco’s Trail Control feature. A rock crawl demonstrates the 360-degree camera. Tight turns show off Trail Turn Assist.

“We show them the techniques and the technology,” said Nikolas.

Broncos head out on a trail, next familiarizing drivers with the terrain. Drivers learn which modes to select with the SUV’s GOAT (Go Over Any Terrain) mode selector. Or how to shift to neutral before engaging the 4×4 transfer case.

Dressed in bright colors like Lightning Blue Metallic and Cyber Orange, Bronco impresses as a cute ute. But back on the main campus, Bronco experts demonstrate the Ford’s macho modularity with removable doors, fenders and roof. Some 200 accessories can be snapped on. It’s Legos for adults.

Attendees end Day One with dinner and a campfire.

After breakfast on Day Two, customers apply all they’ve learned in a four-hour drive across the property. A full stable of Broncos are stamped — Jurassic Park-style — with the “Bronco Off-Roadeo” logo. Ford built a gas station on property to keep their steeds fed.

The four-hour drive shows off the SUV’s remarkable range, from fording 34 inches of water to climbing steep rock faces.

A line of Broncos at the Bronco Off-Roadeo rides along a stream. The scenery is ever-changing on the windy trails from water to rock to steep inclines.

At the end, customers get the icing on the cake: a high-speed Bronco roller-coaster ride with a skilled driver at the wheel.

“We call it the Funhammer Five-Smile Loop,” said Gitton before taking me through the course.

Exhausted and exhilarated, attendees return to the main building for lunch and debrief before re-entering civilian life. Now official members of Bronco Nation, they can share their experiences at thebronconation.com — an independent online community for the Bronco brand faithful.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

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