BOB Hunter and Bobbie McConnell admit they had trouble adjusting when they moved into their new home in the Florida retirement community of The Villages in January, although it had nothing to do with trading Missouri’s freezing temperatures for the balmier winter climate of the south.
Like the many thousands of others who made a similar move over the previous 12 months, the couple were bewildered by the astonishing array of new opportunities suddenly open to them in what some call Disney World for seniors.
“It takes a little bit of getting used to and understanding because it’s so big,” said Hunter, 67, a retired commercial construction engineer and army veteran. “People tend to get overwhelmed by it, and I was initially. I think just understanding there really is 118,000 people, but you don’t see every one of them every day makes it a lot easier.”
Now, three months after they moved into what is the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the country according to recent US Census Bureau figures, the engaged couple look like any other residents of The Villages, cruising between the immaculately landscaped development’s dozens of swimming pools, golf courses, restaurants and shopping and entertainment complexes in an electric golf cart personally and lovingly decorated in the colors of their beloved Kansas City Royals.
“The golf cart thing is fun, and knowing that you don’t have to put snow tires on it, that’s a plus,” Hunter said.
If The Villages, located about 60 miles north-west of Orlando, is about anything, it is fun. Billing itself as “Florida’s friendliest home town”, the development grew from a trailer park surrounded by watermelon patches and ranch lands in the early 1980s to a 34-square-mile, self-contained expanse across three counties today. It offers so much to residents that some people never leave “the bubble”, to use one of its prominent nicknames.
Dotted around the community are three giant, uniquely themed open-air “town squares”, where hordes of residents gather nightly to eat, drink and dance to live entertainment provided 365 days a year.
Children are welcome to visit, and the popular grandparent-and-grandkids summer camps are booked out months in advance, but kids cannot reside inside the development for more than 30 days in any year. Make no mistake, this is a playground for older folks, “age 55 or better” as The Villages’ own sales literature points out.
“Where I came from, in old farm-country Ohio, when my dad retired he sat at home and watched TV, did crossword puzzles, read magazines and got old, because there was nowhere to go, not when you’re in small-town America,” said Carol Lynn Nelson, who moved to The Villages in 1994.
“Here, you begin to reinvent yourself. You start trying things you’ve never done before, you get involved, you have more of a social life, simply because everyone else is wanting a social life. When you’re working you’ve got jobs, you’ve got kids, here all of a sudden the time belongs to me.”
Nelson guides prospective new residents on trolley tours, telling them of the history of The Villages. “When we bought our house here, there were four pools, four golf courses and 200 activities,” she said. “Today there’s 48 golf courses, 80 pools and more being built and 2,400 activities that happen every month.
“In Ohio, the highlight of my sister’s month is getting to go to a tractor pull at the fairgrounds. And going to the senior center and playing bingo once a week because they have a potluck. That’s why I escaped.”
Anecdotally, about 400 properties a month change hands in The Villages, a collection of individual gated neighborhood communities each with its own recreation center and linked to the others by a network of tunnels and roadways reserved for the estimated 50,000 on-site golf carts, many of them air-conditioned.
Roughly half of that figure is accounted for by new-builds as sales continue to flourish, and a quick drive around the development reveals several sites where construction has begun on new homes, assisted-living facilities and shopping plazas.
“The Family”, as longer-term residents refer to the three billionaire grandchildren of founder Harold S Schwartz who own and run The Villages, rarely give interviews or return calls from the media.
Politics plays a significant role in the life of The Villages and as well as controlling the direction of the development, the family’s political leanings are also reflected in the wider community. Republican voters traditionally outnumber Democrats by about two to one, in a development where the average age is 71.1 and the racial makeup is 96.5% white. The development is a popular stopover for candidates in state and general elections. Morse was a significant financial donor to Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s failed 2012 presidential bid.
“They don’t advertise it that way but most of the folks there are very conservative, I can’t explain it but they are,” said Richard Nugent, Republican congressman for Florida’s 11th district that includes The Villages.
“They’ve become a very big political force within Sumter County, the predominant voting bloc controlling the county commission and school board, and members of the state legislature. I’ve been there when Marco [Rubio] was first running, and with Paul Ryan on the vice-presidential ticket. They got a real warm welcome, particularly Ryan, they really liked him.”
In fact, Rubio’s final campaign stop before he pulled out of this year’s presidential race was in The Villages last month, while the state’s current governor, Rick Scott, former governor Jeb Bush and a number of other prominent Republican politicians are said to be regular guests at The Villages’ exclusive dining club, The Angler’s.
Ordinary residents, meanwhile, need not try booking a table. “It’s only for the family and guests,” said Joe Flynn, a director of The Villages Democratic Club. “I went there and said I’d like to make a reservation for dinner and they just laughed at me. Nice place though. I didn’t even know it existed.”
As a minority Democrat in The Villages, Flynn, 73, said he regularly witnesses petty political squabbles. One resident was cited for breaching strict regulations and displaying a small picture of Barack Obama in his window during the 2012 presidential campaign, and there were reports of residents finding bags of dog excrement left in their golf carts by others with opposing views.
“That’s exactly how it is,” Flynn recalls. “Some folks just are that way. It’s a great place to live as long as you understand you’re probably living in the most socialistic community in the country. Everything is controlled by the developer, everything. If it’s not controlled by them they privatise it, and they control the privatisation.”
Yet what some residents see as an Orwellian society complete with Fox News radio blaring from speakers in the town squares, and a widely distributed daily newspaper with distinctly conservative views, others consider a utopian paradise.
“I can go to any recreation centre I want to, swim in any pool, play any golf course,” said Sandy Mott, a resident since 1989 and long-serving official of The Villages Homeowners Association. “If there’s not a club for whatever, they’ll form one. I got a call from a lady who wanted to form an Oklahoma club. There aren’t many of us from Oklahoma here, but that’s fine, we’ll get together once a month for lunch.”
Mott says the only thing that makes her sad about The Villages’ extraordinary growth is the loss of a close-knit community. “I knew everybody,” she said. “When I went to the grocery store I saw all my neighbours. If I go now it’s unusual to see anybody I know. It’s changed, but we never regretted moving here, not for a day.”
Bob Hunter and Bobbie McConnell: “People tend to get overwhelmed by it, and I was initially. I think just understanding there really is 118,000 people, but you don’t see every one of them every day makes it a lot easier.”
Carol Lynn Nelson: “Here, you begin to reinvent yourself. You start trying things you’ve never done before, you get involved, you have more of a social life, simply because everyone else is wanting a social life.”
Joe Flynn: “It’s a great place to live as long as you understand you’re probably living in the most socialistic community in the country. Everything is controlled by the developer, everything. If it’s not controlled by them they privatise it, and they control the privatisation.”
Sandy Mott: “If there’s not a club for whatever, they’ll form one. I got a call from a lady who wanted to form an Oklahoma club. There aren’t many of us from Oklahoma here, but that’s fine, we’ll get together once a month for lunch.”
Construction is booming in The Villages, the fastest-growing metropolitan area of the United States.
“There’s a club for everything”: A Dragon Boat crew takes an early-morning paddle on Lake Sumter.
Brownwood Paddock Square, one of The Villages’ three themed town square complexes.