In early March I was invited to Florida to visit a friend and get out of the frigid Midwest for a handful of days. I wasn’t sure where my friend was living, but I knew I had to fly to Orlando for her to pick me up. After that, I didn’t care where I was going as long as it was warm and sunny and had a few amenities (pool, bars). What I’m writing about this time has nothing to do with widowhood, but I found the experience fascinating and worth sharing.
My girlfriend, who also happens to be a widow, retired from the company I work for about a year ago. After extensive cross-country travel and a walk across England, she bought a house and settled in a planned retirement “city” in central Florida called The Villages.
Before I left, I searched for this place on the web, but all I found was The Villages’ web site. The site does not do it justice.
When my friend picked me up, I learned the airport was a good hour’s drive from her new home. The weather was sunny and 84 upon my arrival making the drive to her house all the more pleasant. Given that it was lunch time and we were hungry, she whisked me to one of the city’s “town squares,” where I had my choice of restaurants, all with outdoor patios and varying themes. We settled on one that featured small plates, and I started my trip with a frosty beer.
As I looked around while catching up with my friend, I noticed everything seemed to be new but was carefully built to look old. Store and restaurant buildings in the town had fake distressed touches, but also appropriate architectural details and quality materials. Perfectly placed trees, bushes, flowers and seating were everywhere. In the middle of it all was an amphitheater, which I learned hosted live music and outdoor dancing Monday through Sunday.
Each night there is happy hour — two generous drinks for $5. (It would be easy to get and stay loaded every evening if you weren’t disciplined.) This town square closest to my friend’s house was one of three in what I learned is a city of more than 100,000.
The Villages is basically in the middle of nowhere (closest city is Ocala), but it has its own radio and TV stations and even a daily newspaper. It has been deemed the fastest growing metro area in the country the last two years, and is identified, via various sources, as the largest U.S. retirement community.
The Villages is the brainchild of the late Harold Schwartz, a highly successful Chicago marketer who also was involved in a host of other endeavors, including a photo company, a drug for digestive problems, several land development projects in Texas and Florida and a multitude of radio stations on the border of Texas and Mexico.
About 50 years ago, he started a mobile home park in the “scrub land” of central Florida called Orange Blossom Gardens, according to Stephen A. and Scott Duncan’s web site byduncan.com.
With his astute marketing acumen in full swing, Schwartz began selling tracts of land via mail order. When a new resident came to town, many of them from the Midwest, Schwartz picked them up from the airport in a limousine and personally escorted them to their new dwelling. By 1983, the development had 783 residents and he and his son Harold Gary Schwartz, or H. Gary Morse as he went by, moved there. Morse’s stepfather adopted him when his mother remarried, hence the name change.
When his mother remarried, the family moved from Chicago to Central Lake, Mich. It was here they started Brownwood Farms in 1944, a tourist attraction that featured a honey store, a restaurant, etc. on Michigan’s Torch Lake. Today one of the “towns” within the Villages is called Brownwood and some of the streets are named after Michigan towns and lakes.
The Villages is still family owned and operated and, while Morse died at 77 last fall, the descendants are running the place. Not a bad gig if you can get it.
Meanwhile, my friend calls her new home “the bubble” or a form of Stepford as in the “Stepford Wives.” I call it DisneyWorld for seniors.
Today the Villages is 34,000 acres of houses, 75-80 pools (the tour guide wasn’t sure), restaurants and retail, movie theaters, golf courses, opulent-looking country clubs and recreation centers with varying themes. Tennis courts, bocce courts and an award-winning polo field guarantee that residents and visitors will never be bored. This place has lakes, roads and, get this, miniature roads and tunnels that go under the major streets that were designed precisely for the thousands of golf “cars” that zip around the vast acreage. Houses range from $170,000 to millions of dollars, and residents pay $145 monthly for the privilege of using all the amenities.
Of course to accommodate the aging demographic, there’s plenty of medical complexes and a 200-bed hospital that is going through a multimillion-dollar expansion. You can age in place in The Villages because the city has assisted living and nursing care facilities.
To feed the spirit and the brain, churches and a lifelong learning college are part of the city. I found the place mind blowing and a little scary — scary because everything looks so perfect. Some seniors who live there also have part time jobs in the country clubs and security booths, and they are continuously wishing you a good day with true sincerity and a big smile.
I’m sure the residents find the consistency of everything around them to be pleasantly comforting, yet I found it akin to “Groundhog Day.” But my friend, who had a big career as a corporate executive, lived all over the country and is well traveled, loves it.
She moved there because she wanted a place where it was easy to meet people (it is) and have lots to do (it does). She is always busy and having a grand time. I met a few of her friends and neighbors who could not have been nicer or seemed happier.
“Here we reinvent ourselves,” said the guide on my tour bus. (Yeah, I took the tour.) She also reassured the tour participants that the place has guaranteed “super security” with cameras at every gate. And — this is just an observation — I did not see one single minority (except for the Hispanic gardeners replacing perfectly good flowers with different flowers) my whole time there. Not sure what is up with that.
Regardless, the Villages is the ultimate American entrepreneurial story of a man and his son’s vision that created a place where it seems people feel like they are on vacation everyday.