Fifty-five miles north of Orlando is a “mature adult” alternative to Disney World called The Villages. It’s a retirement community that bills itself as Florida’s “friendliest retirement hometown.” My parents bought a home there in 2007 and spent their first winter there in 2008.
Whenever I try to describe The Villages to people (the travel by golf cart, the homes that all look pretty much alike, the pods of villages with Spanish-sounding names) they have one of two reactions. One is, “Wow, that sounds like a lot of fun,” and the other is, “That sounds weird.”
The Villages promotes a culture of “active lifestyles” for the retired. The key, as you might have guessed, is golf. Everywhere golf courses, golfers and golf carts abound. If you love golf, this is your heaven. It’s pay-back for all those days golfers had to go to work during the summer and longed to be out on the course. I imagine time on the golf course is what a lot of men and women thought about when they were selling insurance, running businesses, teaching math or fixing someone’s plumbing. So, in that sense, it’s a cool place to be. People are happy doing something they love.
If residents don’t like golf, they can play pickle ball, swim, play shuffle board or belong to one of hundreds of special interest clubs (just today one of the headlines in the Lifestyles section of the Daily Sun, The Villages’s newspaper, informs us that “Scrabble so popular in The Villages that groups meet four times a week.”)
The Villages also has its own adult education courses, so you can learn everything from how to write your memoirs to American history. Active residents never really have time to sit around watching TV – this was one of my dad’s complaints while I was visiting this year. Apparently, he can be looking forward to a quiet night at home and then suddenly friends call and want to get together to play cards, watch football or have cocktails. My parents have a more active social life than I do. They may have a more active social life than I did in high school or college.
I’m glad my parents no longer live in Wisconsin during the fall and winter months because my dad would probably start whittling things out of wood and my mom would sew herself a new wardrobe and then start in making quilted coverings for everything – a cover for the Kleenex box, a cover for the toaster, a cover for the coffee maker. Then, when those hobbies got old, they could shovel snow, maybe go bowling and watch it snow again. Boring, to be sure. And crazy-making. Hide the ice pick.
There is a definite creed within The Villages; an adherence to a way of life that one must buy into if one is to buy real estate. My first Christmas there, we took a bus tour led by one of the residents. I couldn’t help thinking that someone might have had her drink a concoction of Kool-Aid and a mind-controlling substance before putting her on the bus. To hear her tell it, everything was as dandy as could be, right down to the clinic where her veteran husband receives his care. It may have been my imagination but she seemed nervous by the presence of me, my husband, my sister and her husband. Bus tours are aimed at people considering buying homes in The Villages and you can’t buy unless you’re at least 55 years old.
Needless to say, the bus tour wasn’t a time to address any of the thornier issues… Like how The Villages are predominantly a place for white people to retire, how there don’t seem to be many “out” gays or lesbians (we did see a lesbian at the dog park last year, which was reassuring – if you can’t meet a lesbian at your local dog park, something is very, very wrong), how children are not allowed to live within The Villages or the fact that the place is overrun with Republicans, who came out en masse for Glenn Beck’s recent visit.
My parents told me they recently joined a Democrats group and attended a barbecue designed to bring out Dems so other Dems could see how many of them there really are, hiding in plain sight. When you’re a Dem in The Villages, it seems, “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” is the preferred policy.
To live in The Villages is to sign up for homogeneity. It’s voluntarily placing oneself in what we might refer to as a “ghetto,”Â (defined by Wikipedia as “a portion of a city in which members of a minority group live; especially because of social, legal, or economic pressure”)Â as ugly as that word sounds, if living there was not by choice and didn’t cost quite so much. I’m positive that for many people one of the main attractions besides golf, is, in fact,Â the sameness.
You can find people just like you to be your friends. One village looks like the rest. There are rules for what you can put in your yard (this is not the town where one can haul an old love seat out onto the front lawn and collapse down onto it to enjoy a beer) and how to go about having a society.
It is also a return to some of the gentle and innocent pleasures of youth (although The Villages does have its share of quick hook-ups, casual sex, drinking, etc). There are kite-flying groups, line dancing classes and live music every night in the “town squares,” one of which is made to look like an old, somewhat time-worn Spanish town when in fact it’s fairly new construction. This is where the Disney-esque quality comes in – the squares are about as authentic as an “international” experience at Epcot would be. There are sock hops and “Back To the 50s” tribute concerts. The days of the week only matter in terms of remembering when your various groups meet, when you’re golfing and for church on Sunday. Clowns are an accepted, indeed embraced, form of entertainment. Having a clown visit the hospital bedside of an ill person is a gesture of good-will, not a terror.
There is a certain attraction to buzzing down to Starbucks on a golf cart. Or maybe over to Barnes & Noble to browse. Or how about some bowling? Or meeting up with your village’s women’s group to discuss what to knit for the poor this year? Many retired people believe they’ve paid their dues; they’re tired of the hassle. They just want to play cards, goddammit, and drink a margarita! And can I really blame them? Life is a lot of hassle, after all, and how can I judge, in my 30s, what it might be like to be 65, 75 or 85?
And it’s not all about “stuffy old people” playing canasta. My parents talk about parties, drinking and lively conversations over shared meals. Indeed, The Villages has its own swinging lifestyle, some of which is detailed in Andrew Blechman’s thorough and entertaining book Leisureville: Adventures in America’s Retirement Utopias.
While I was out jogging in the mornings during my latest visit, I wondered if it might be possible to capture all the knowledge and expertise that certainly resides in The Villages. These people know things. They’ve done stuff.Â And they’re all in one place. Shouldn’t someone be going around, conducting interviews with each resident and capturing these interviews on video? Or could we set up a think tank somewhere near The Villages to tap residents and have them suggest ways we might use their life experiences and insights to solve some of our social or economic problems? Do they still care about the rest of us? Are retired baby boomers really going to turn on to places like The Villages, tune in and drop out to play golf until they die?
But then I read a newspaper article in the Daily Sun entitled “CRAZY FOR KITTIES” (yes, the headline was all in caps) that made me doubt my worries and wonder again if The Villages isn’t just la-la land for retirees. It was an interview with a woman in The Villages who has a collection of cat ornaments for her Christmas tree.
“The McDonalds’ towering tree, which rotates slowly thanks to its base, is filled with cat ornaments and topped with a cat angel wearing a gold dress.
‘I’ve always loved cats, from the time I was little,’ Kathy said. ‘There’s just something about them. They’re relaxing.'”
Really? Cats are relaxing as they puke and pee on your belongings and paw at you as you try to use the toilet?
“Other ornaments include a painted cat on a sand dollar, as well as a Victorian-style ornament with a lace top and a cat painted on the egg-shaped portion. One cat plays with a small ornament, another looks at his reflection in a mirror, and another plays with some yarn it found in a shopping bag…
A few famous cats hang around the tree. Garfield is singing Chrismas carols, while Hello Kitty’s face is painted a few times around an ornament… Prior to getting the cat angel some six years ago, the McDonalds used a star to top the tree.
‘I was so lucky I got that (angel),’ Kathy said.'”
Amen to that, Kathy.