Monday, February 22, 2010

My Winter in Leisureville

In 2010, Anne and I spent the winter months of January and February at The Villages in Florida. The Villages is a large 55+ retirement community located in central Florida about 30 miles south of Ocala. When I say large, its about 13 miles long and about 7 miles wide and has a population of about 75,000. It is a collection of 60 neighborhoods called Villages that are grouped around numerous golf courses, recreation centers, and neighborhood pools.

The Villages is a developed community that began in the early 1970’s by a Michigan businessman named Harold Schwartz.

He purchased a small mobile home park, called Orange Blossom Park, that was surrounded by cow pastures. Schwartz’s vision was to create a place where average folks could retire and live like millionaires. What started out as a mobile home park with a few hundred units has turned into a sprawling community with over 35,000 homes. It’s been hugely successful and continues to grow with 200 -300 new homes being sold each month.

When you look at The Villages you can see Schwartz’s vision take shape. All the roads are winding (no grids or blocks), most have sidewalks, landscape islands, street lights, and bike/cart paths. There are strict standards for house designs, house colors, landscaping, signs, and land use. Most of the houses are medium sized (under 2,000 sq, ft) and are designed to look like small mansions.

It can look a little homogeneous, but everything from the lawns, roads, and golf courses is beautifully maintained. It looks a little like Disney World. And its all very affordable. You can buy a small 2 bedroom Villa for about $150,000 or a 3 bedroom Designer home for about $225,000. For those wanting more, there are custom Premier homes that go anywhere from $350,000 to $800,000.

The big draw for The Villages is the Lifestyle. The Villages fosters a very active lifestyle. When we first visited in 2009, the lady giving us a tour told us that if we wanted to retire and spend our time inside reading, then The Village was not the right place for us. One of the big activities is golf. There are 28 golf courses that residents can play for free. There are 9 championship country clubs courses that residents pay $30-40 to play a round.

There are 21 recreation centers that have tennis courts, billiard rooms, meeting rooms, swimming pools, shuffle board courts, and horse shoe pits.

Everyday you see people out being active; walking, biking, playing tennis, playing softball, golfing, playing shuffleboard, etc.  All are free to use by the residents. There are 25 neighborhood pools for the residents with most within walking distance. Softball is also very big. There are 4 leagues with over 100 teams competing. There are clubs for almost every activity you can think of. In the local recreation newspaper, I counted almost 300 clubs. For my interests, there are two cycling clubs, a motorcycle club, bluegrass music club, several dance clubs, and a NASCAR club. There’s even a Woodworking shop for residents to use for a small fee.

There are two town centers in The Villages; Spanish Springs and Lake Sumter landing. They were built by the developer and each has a design theme.

Spanish Springs is designed to look like an old Mexican town and Lake Sumter Landing is designed to look like a turn of the century fishing village. Each town center has numerous businesses and eateries. Also, there are music events each night, 7 days a week at the town squares that are free for the residents. 

During our stay we tried to take advantage of what The Villages offered. We took three dance classes (West Coast Swing, Country 2 Step, and Beginner Line Dancing) offer by The Villages Lifelong College. The dance classes were fun and the instructors were very good, but taking three classes each week sort of overloaded our brains when it came to remembering all the moves. Things tended to blend together when I’d do a Swing move while 2 Stepping. But we had fun and laughed a lot as we screwed up the moves. 

I also shipped a bike down and went biking 2-3 time per week. It was easy to do a 15-30 mile loop ride within the Villages using all the cart paths and lanes. I played a lot of golf, usually playing 3-4 times per week. The computerized tee time system would match me up with other players so I never had to worry about finding people to play with.  During our stay, I played over 30 rounds of golf on 18 different courses.

One aspect of the Villages that is pretty cool is the preferred mode of transportation is a golf cart. Everyone seems to have one and you can go anywhere in the Villages in a golf cart. All the roads are built with special lanes for the carts and there are cart paths bordering the major road ways. There are tunnels under the major roadways so you can even go to most stores and restaurants in the cart. During our stay we rented an electric golf cart from the owner of our unit. Most people have their names painted on their carts and ours had the names Oscar and Barbara, from the previous owners. I went everywhere in Oscar and would rarely use the car.  I’d use Oscar to go to the golf course, to dance classes, out to lunch, to the bank, to dances at the town square or to go to the store. Oscar did about 20 mph when I had the accelerator petal mashed to the floor and it was fast enough. I got so use to driving Oscar that on one day when I drove Anne’s Corolla, I tried to take it on the cart path. Anne looked at me like I was nuts, but my brain had been re-programmed to drive the cart.

Most everyone I met in the Villages was engaging and very happy. When you passed people out walking or saw someone in their driveway they’d always say hi or wave. With most people being retired and not having to work, I’m sure that was a factor. Being in warm lovely sunny place was probably another factor. And with most bars, country clubs, and restaurants having 2-1 drink specials all day long, that could have been another factor. I met 10-15 new people every week. All were engaging and nice folks. The people I met were great ambassadors for the Villages. A sample of a few of the memorable folks I met are described below.

There was Nancy and Mark who I met on the golf course one day. They have lived in the Villages for nine years and are in their late 60’s. I remembered Nancy because on the second hole I landed my drive in a huge sand trap. It took me three trys to get the ball out of the trap. When I finally got the ball on the green, she came up to me, stood in front of my face, and chewed me out for not following thru on my swing. “You didn’t follow thru on your swing. You just didn’t follow thru!!!” she said. I didn’t know what to say to this lady who was in my face giving me hell for not swinging my club right. Instinctively, all I could think was that I should say “Yes Mom, I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.”, but I just said “Yup”. I figured Nancy's motherly instincts had got the best of her when she gave me the advice and I now remember it each time I land in a trap. Nancy’s advice was sound; the ball does come out of the sand when you swing all the way thru the ball.

There was Jack and Marjorie who I also met on the golf course. Jack and Marjorie have been spending winters in the Villages for the past 5 years and had just bought a home so they could spend six months out of each year in The Villages. They play golf every day and both hit the ball very well. We were playing with another fellow named Doug. Doug and Jack were talking about retiring and Doug happened to mention something about being born in 1943. Jack stopped and looked at him and said “I graduated from high school in 1943!”. When I heard this my mind quickly did the math and figured out that Jack was 85. He didn’t look anywhere near 85 years old; maybe more like early 70. It made me think and hope that I’m out playing golf everyday when I’m 85.

I played golf with Eddy on a cold windy day. Eddy is a short stocky man from New Jersey. He has lived full time in The Villages for the past 5 years. Eddy is sort of a character and each time he spoke he sounded just like Joe Pesci. If I closed my eyes and listened to Eddy, I swore I was in the movie “Good Fella’s”. Budda Boom Budda Bing. It was a riot listening to him each time he said “I can’t believe it's so freaking cold!“ Eddy hit the ball pretty good and usually out drove me. He floored me when he said “Once I turned 70, my game went to freaking hell!”. Eddy was a good golfer and must have been really great in his younger years.

I met Barbara while I was eating lunch at the local sports bar watching the Patriots get beat by the Ravens. Barbara took the seat next to me at the bar crowded with Patriot fans. Barbara is a retired school teacher. She is divorced and has been living full time in the Villages for the past 2 years. Like most of the snowbirds in the bar, Barbara is a huge Patriots fan. I happened to ask her how she likes living in the Villages. She told me that once she retired, she was living alone and would spend most of her time indoors watching sports on TV. She said “Jim, in the winter I’d spend each week-end on the couch watching 4 football games and 8 basketball games”. “I came down here and now I’m in three golf leagues and play golf every day”. “I can’t imagine going back to my old life” she said. It was a great endorsement for The Villages.

I enjoyed my time in the Villages. It was a different lifestyle than I am used to, but one that I enjoyed. I was active everyday doing something. It was nice being able to spend so much time outside during the winter months. It was easy to get involved in any group or club.  I learned some new things and constantly interacted with nice people. It was nice having everything so close and convenient. Oscar could take me anywhere I needed to go. I could walk to the library or supermarket in 10 mins. The local sports bar was a 5 min cart ride. I had six golf courses within a 10 min cart ride. If I wanted to play golf, I would just get on the computer and request a tee time. The local town square was a 15 min ride in Oscar. Most franchise restaurants and stores were nearby. The local pool was a 5 min walk. I could have overloaded myself with more activities and clubs, if I wanted, but the golfing, dancing, walking, and bike riding was enough.

The only downside that I perceived during my stay was that I spent most of my time on leisure type activities. It was fun for two months, but I could sense myself getting a little bored as we came to the end of our stay. I hadn’t picked up a hammer, cut a piece of wood, made an investment decision, or fixed anything in weeks and was getting anxious to doing something productive. By the end of our stay I was looking forward to going home but also looking forward to coming back next year.

Our neighbor, Tony from Wisconsin, told me that the worse day I’ll have in The Villages will be the day I leave. He was right.

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