The Villages. It is a weird name for a town, when you first hear it or talk about it. But, you get used to that quickly, just like to living in it. Or, is it in them? The Villages in Central Florida is the biggest retirement community in the world and the fastest growing “city” in the United States. Why is it so popular?
In the early 1970’s, Harold Schwartz, a business man from Michigan, created the mobile home park Orange Blossom Gardens, which – with the help of his son – was turned into a successful housing development in the 80’s. While Harold is seen as the founder of The Villages, Gary, with his developer’s mind, made it all happen. The promise of free golf attracted hundreds, and later thousands of people to buy a house and become residents. At some point, the name was changed into The Village, and its draw for retirees kept growing. Because of the continuing expansions, a new name change was required, and The Villages were born. Harold has long passed way, and his son as well, but the highly popular community is still owned and ran by his grandchildren.
The Villages is huge, about the size of Manhattan, but small enough to get around by golf carts, mainly gas driven ones, which are loud and smelly. Every household owns at least one. Some homes even have a separate garage door for their carts! Over 100,000 people now live in the community, which is spread out over three counties and soars in any way possible. And, there are some funny facts about it, which I wrote about before.
The community is called “Florida’s Friendliest Hometown” and everyone wears a smile, is fit and sports a chock-full calendar. Nobody gets bored here, and you can be as active as you desire, thanks to the never ending activities and events. There are multiple community centers with swimming pools, outdoor ball courts, and indoor game rooms. Hobby opportunities, learning possibilities and competitions are endless. There are free classes, performances, exhibitions and training sessions for any craft or sport imaginable, golf and pickleball (no, we didn’t know what this was, either!) being most popular. There is truly something to do for everyone and an overview is published in a weekly events paper.
The Villages has over 40 golf courses, a hospital, nursery homes, supermarkets, many stores, boutique shops, bars and restaurants, a fat daily newspaper (!), and schools for the children of the employees. Being a 55+ community, children under 19 are not allowed to live in The Villages themselves. They are, however allowed to visit for up to 30 days a year, with a guest pass. 20% of all homes are available to adults under 55 years old. People live in houses that mostly look the same, but that are safe and comfortable, and always close to a golf course (and pool).
Walking or driving through the area is a feast to the eye. The “historic” towns of Lake Sumter Landing, Brownwood and Spanish Springs are well-maintained and fake as can be. The grounds are well-kept with manicured lawns, palm trees and immaculate road sides. It is all very pretty and instills a holiday feeling. The climate – especially in the winter – is warm and close to perfect.
This “Disneyland for retirees” has a community feel and spirit to it. There is an impressive social scene with like-minded people. The evening fun, and activity, is located around the three town squares with 5-6pm happy hours, daily cocktail specials and weekly wine specials.
What does all this cost? You’ll be surprised to learn that living in The Villages is quite affordable and you definitely don’t have to be rich to own a house here. There are houses for sale in all budget categories, at all times. Many owners rent their properties out – mainly during the hot summer months – and stay half of the year. The only monthly contribution per household is $150. This covers all activities (including golf), live performances on the squares, and landscaping and maintenance of the grounds and parks.
Would we ever consider retiring to The Villages? As much as we enjoyed our two-week stay in The Villages while house sitting, the scene can be a bit overwhelming and the entanglement in “small town communities” like these too much. Many of the behavior and lifestyle reminded us of our life as cruisers in the Caribbean… the frugal habits, the happy hours, the alcohol consumption, the social activities, the gossip, the “politics”, the tropical weather, and the average age. But, while on Irie we could pick up anchor and move locations when we started recognizing the regulars and residents, became too involved in local matters and got annoyed with the rumors, owning a house here does not offer that luxury and flexibility. Although the solution could be to leave six months out of the year.
Even if we would love the social scene (and we do like a healthy portion of socializing once in a while), we would want an electric golf cart as opposed to a loud and fume spewing gas one, we would have a hard time with the amount of car traffic and noise on the main roads and we would not like the close proximity of the houses in each neighborhood. Most of all, we would have a problem with the fact that supermarkets only provide earth defying plastic bags (no paper bags or boxes to be found) without blinking twice, that there are no recycling options in public areas and that the newspaper only mentions positive things about The Villages and censors other – objective – stories. The general, conservative mentality of Florida is not really our piece of cake… But, all in all, The Villages is a great place, for a lot of people! And, who knows… maybe for us one day as well.
For a better, more capturing feeling of what The Villages is about, check out this promotional movie. I also enjoyed reading this article on Slate and the less realistic and truthful, but more dramatized one in the Daily Mail.