You’ve probably been wondering what happened to us. I’ve been trying to write this blog post for four weeks now. We’ve been busy! 💃🕺🏼
We have been living in The Villages for a little more than a week now, renting a house for the month of December. For those who don’t know about The Villages, it is the largest retirement community in Florida … maybe in the entire country. We first experienced The Villages when we visited Joanne and Ray Poulin last winter and they gave us a golf cart tour that lasted 2-1/2 hours. We knew then that we needed to learn more about this place!
It started in the 1970’s. Two businessmen had purchased a large tract of land in north-central Florida and were attempting to sell parcels with little luck … after all, there really was nothing to attract people to this part of the state, just lots of overgrown dense woods, swamps and poor communities of run-down double-wides. The two men decided to develop a nice mobile home park and sell those parcels, which was slightly more lucrative. But, the two men couldn’t agree on how to operate the business, so one, Harold Schwartz, bought out his partner. Schwartz then brought his son, Gary Morse, into the business. Morse was a successful developer up north. Morse studied other, more successful retirement communities and convinced his father that success would only happen if they offered lots of amenities and a variety of shops and businesses. Those changes were made, and in just three years, sales improved so dramatically that they bought large undeveloped parcels of land nearby. During the 1980’s, mobile homes were gradually replaced by manufactured homes and more retirees came. In 1992, they named the development “The Villages,” and in 2006, Morse handed over ownership to his three children. Gary Morse died in 2014. Today, his children are retiring and grandchildren are taking over the family business.
There are currently over 60,000 homes and 122,000 residents in The Villages; it’s hard to find the exact number because they are constantly building. A tour guide said they sell about 400 homes per week! The Villages currently comprise about 32 square miles (for comparison, Manchester and Bristol, CT, are each 27 square miles), there are three zip codes, and The Villages sits in 3 different counties. There are 12 recreation centers, 90 swimming pools, 38 free golf courses, 12 country clubs with championship courses (one designed by Arnold Palmer and one by Nancy Lopez) with championship-level tennis courts, 100 pickle ball courts, a polo club and more than 3,000 social and recreational clubs from cards to yoga, every form of dancing, music, archery, every medium of art. The Villages even has its own cheerleaders, baton twirlers, and pep band! (Yes, we’ve had lots of laughs over the cheerleaders and twirlers!)
Now, those of you who have heard of The Villages are probably ready to hit us with the STD rumor (that The Villages has the highest rate of STD’s in the country). I read an article about how that rumor began … about 20 years ago, a journalist was interviewing a few people for a story about The Villages. One interview was with a brand new OB-GYN, fresh from medical school who was working in her first practice here. She commented that she treated many cases of STD’s in her practice here. That comment went viral. About a decade later, the same doctor said that she regretted making that statement, because she now knows that STD’s are no more common here than anywhere else. Like the childhood game of “telephone,” as the story was told over the years, it morphed into tales of many swingers living here, a home’s doormat supposedly announcing if the residents were swingers, if you saw a sponge in a golf cart, the owners were “available,” and I’m sure many other variations. All we know is that we haven’t been propositioned by anyone yet!
It’s been difficult to finish this essay because we’ve been so busy … I continue writing in our 3rd week living here!
The Villages is a very interesting place, and we aren’t sure if we’d settle here. On the one hand, there is a lot to do and you can never complain of boredom. We’ve attended multiple dance classes and social dances, beginner tai chi, and exercise classes. There’s live music and dancing 365 evenings a year in 3 different town centers, and the bands are really good (with Orlando nearby and cruise ships galore, I think it’s easy to find talent in Florida). There are 6 dog parks within The Villages, so Tessa gets to play and run her energy out every day. Everyone we’ve met has been very friendly, reinforcing the motto “Florida’s Friendliest Hometown.”
We’ve come to realize that we are living in a bubble here. Residents even talk about “the bubble.” There are two golf cart dealers inside The Villages. Want a better price? Go “outside the bubble.” This is true of pretty much everything, from veterinary services to auto repair, better prices can always be found outside the bubble. There is virtually no crime inside the bubble, and you can go for a walk to view Christmas lights at midnight if you want and not think twice about it … not something I’d do comfortably in my Manchester neighborhood.
We arrived here December 1, which is considered the early fringe of snowbird season. We saw a class advertised – Beginner Darts for Couples – and drove about 20 minutes (still inside the bubble) to attend only to find the class is not only full, but there is a waiting list of at least 40 people so no hope of ever attending that activity. Another time, we arrived at an exercise class at the start time of 8:30 am and the room was packed, not a square foot of room for us. We were told to arrive one hour prior to class if we want to be guaranteed a spot. If this is the case in early December, what will it be like during the peak months of January through March? Is it worth it to spend $159 a month on an amenities fee when the activities you are interested in are that crowded? And what if the population drops so drastically in the summer months that they stop offering some classes, or the teachers of those classes leave for the summer as so many snowbirds do?
The Villages has a lot going for it, but we can’t help but wonder if it’s gotten out of control. Maybe they should have stopped at 60,000 residents. We wonder if the saturation point here has passed. Still, people are buying homes like crazy here. And everyone we have spoken to, and I do mean everyone, has told us that they absolutely love living here, and that we will be back.
Interrupted again, and now it is December 26. Only five days left until we repack the motorhome and wave goodbye to The Villages. Yes, we have met the nicest people here! When you walk, everyone says hello, people driving past wave. We made a turkey dinner yesterday and invited a few people to join us for Christmas dinner. We enjoyed the company of one of our neighbors, also named Louise, and a former Aetna coworker, Lee, who retired and coincidentally rented a home in The Villages for a year. We missed family and were a bit homesick this Christmas, but laughing with friends made our holiday.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, we only have five more days of Villages fun, and we want to take full advantage!