The Villages is located roughly in the center of Florida, about an hour north of Orlando International Airport, where I touch down feeling like a dork in my new argyle socks and loafers. I drive north along a relatively lonesome patch of the Florida Turnpike, which to my surprise cuts through rolling pastureland instead of swamps. The sides of the road sprout billboards advertising retirement communities. Photos of seniors playing golf and relaxing in pools are plastered with slogans such as “Life is lovelier,” “On top of the world,” and “Live the life you’ve been waiting your whole life for!”
I don’t see any advertisements for The Villages, but I do see state highway signs that guide me there via an off-ramp and a few small towns filled with vacant storefronts and roadside citrus vendors. I know I am getting close when the loamy soil and piney solitude segues into a construction site that stretches as far as the eye can see. A billboard displays a joyful phrase not often seen these days: “The Villages welcomes Wal-Mart!”
I turn on the radio and tune into WVLG AM640, The Villages’ own radio station. “It’s a beautiful day in The Villages,” the DJ announces. “Aren’t we lucky to live here? Okay folks, here is a favorite I know you’re going to love. The Candy Man Can. C’mon, let’s sing it together.” I listen to Sammy Davis Jr. and his effervescent lyrics about dew-sprinkled sunrises in resigned silence, feeling slightly claustrophobic and uneasy about living in a gated retirement community for the next month.
A few miles later, I drive by a hospital, an assisted care facility, and a large Catholic church. I drive around another roundabout, cross an ornate bridge, pass some crumbling faux-Spanish fort ruins, and suddenly I’m in the “town” of Spanish Springs. I spot Betsy outside a Starbucks, standing beside her shiny red Miata, dressed attractively in pale pink slacks, a white cardigan, and sporting a nice tan. She greets me with a relaxed smile and a friendly hug, and insists on buying me a much-welcomed cup of iced-coffee.
“Isn’t it nice?” she asks. “People call it ‘Disney for adults,’ and I’m beginning to understand why. I just can’t believe I’m here. I’ve met people that have been here for five years, and they’re still pinching themselves. It’s like being on a permanent vacation.”
Betsy and I take our coffee to the central square, and sit on a bench beside the Fountain of Youth, which is peppered with lucky coins. We catch up on neighborhood gossip, the miserable New England weather, and the uncertain fate of our neighborhood park. Betsy is left pondering her incredible luck. “If we were still living up north, those problems would be our problems,” she says with a sigh. Although not meant as such, her comment stings. But she’s got a point; her life down here promises to be a lot more carefree than it was back home.
We mosey around the square and then head to the western-motif saloon, Katie Belle’s, which is for residents and their guests only. Outside, an historical marker explains the building’s colorful past. “Katie Belle Van Patten was the wife of Jacksonville businessman, John Decker Van Patten, who, along with a number of other investors, built the luxurious hotel in 1851 …”
The plaque looks so authentic that I have to remind myself that I am standing on what was pastureland a mere decade ago. Inside the saloon the walls are covered in dark wood, and heavy drapes hang from several large windows. An enormous Tiffany-esque skylight catches my eye, as do two-dozen line-dancers keeping time to a country-western tune. Many of the stools along the bar are filled with retirees holding draft beers. I look at my watch. It’s just past two in the afternoon. “Line dancing is very popular here because you can do it without a partner,” Betsy explains. “They say the only problem with being a widow in The Villages is that you’re so busy you forget you are one.”
Ever the host, Betsy suggests I drop my luggage off at their house and join them for dinner. “They call it ‘Florida’s Friendliest Hometown’—and that’s just what it is,” she says as she gets into her Miata. “Everyone’s so friendly because everyone is so happy. So make yourself comfortable at our house and enjoy your stay.”
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Excerpt from Leisureville: Adventures in America’s Retirement Utopias by Andrew D. Blechman, published May 2008. Leisureville(c) 2008 by Andrew D. Blechman and reprinted with permission of the publisher, Atlantic Monthly Press.