As the band kicks off one of the nightly town square gatherings here in The Villages, a retired woman from Canada leans over to point out all of the characters who will soon hit the dance floor. Despite the fact that I accidentally stole her regular seat on the covered bleachers that face the stage – she gladly opines about her favorite bands that play here and why this town is full of roundabouts. She even mentioned that her daughter routinely watches the live webcams overhead to see if she’s attending the concerts. “Tonight, she’ll be wondering why I’m talking with such a younger man” she says with a grin.
For an entire week I immersed myself into life in The Villages – a popular retirement community in central Florida. The Villages is literally made up of various “villages” – or subdivisions, guarded by gates and friendly older men and women who joyously wave as you enter and welcome you back home. Located about 90 minutes northwest of Orlando, this bustling network of subdivisions, golf courses, and entertainment complexes is so well thought out and organized, some may find it borderline creepy.
Once you begin living in The Villages, you never really have to leave. Anything you can think of that you may desire in your retirement years is readily available. There are several town squares, each with a unique theme, surrounded by restaurants and shops. Though instead of Old Navy or Hobby Lobby – you’ll find places to buy eyeglasses or have work done on your golf cart. The Villages has its own fire department and ambulances are always nearby – just in case. (One local I talked with joked that sirens are referred to here as the community’s “national anthem”.)
Almost from its inception, there have been rumors and criticism about the way of life in this community of roughly 130,000 residents. After mentioning to one man that I was visiting for the week – he quipped “I bet you think we’re all a bunch of swingers.” In fact, that’s one of the most common rumors about The Villages -that its full of oversexed seniors. I can’t say that I heard anything remotely close to making me believe it was true. (At least no more than any other city in America.) The locals seem to poke fun at the disses from outside the bubble. Most residents seem to think, rightfully so, that they enjoy the last laugh with everything this place has to offer, including the warm weather and regular sunshine.
They even have their own radio station – blasting a great mix of 60s and 70s hit songs on overhead speakers around the city’s public spaces as DJ’s share announcements about upcoming events.
The other popular talking point is that The Villages has the highest STD rate in the country. Of course, that claim is 100% inaccurate. Back in 2006, a gynecologist who had moved to the area stated that she had treated more cases of herpes in The Villages than she had while working in a practice in Miami. Her claims made news (though she later modified her statement). Unfortunately the damage was already done. The New York Post picked up the “fake news” story as did other media outlets across the country. In reality, Sumpter County (where The Villages sits) has one of the lowest STD rates in both Florida and the nation.
If anything, The Villages seems to be a place where people come to stay healthy. There are more recreational opportunities here than you can possibly imagine. Every where you look, residents are moving about – playing games, walking, running, riding bikes, or trying new activities. Each week, a small portion of the community’s events and meetings appear in a 60 page newspaper detailing the when and where of gatherings for things like archery, pickleball, card games, craft making, educational clinics, and workouts. There are very few “old” people in the traditional sense of the word. Most people are active, keep a busy schedule, and spend most of their time outside of the house – as opposed to sitting in a nursing home, waiting to keel over.
Everything about The Villages is well organized and nothing is half-assed. There are community centers that residents can use to organize their own clubs or social groups. Each center is uniquely decorated. For example, the Eisenhower Recreation Center has a military theme – with tasteful decor and museum-like exhibits of uniforms, awards, and paintings. Even the chairs used for card games had the presidential seal on them.
As a bit of a neat freak, I immediately took notice of how clean everything here seems to be. Buildings have fresh paint, trash disappears, fresh flowers are always planted, and you’re not likely to encounter a pothole on the street. On the flip side, every house here looks exactly the same and the town square feels more like a resort than a traditional downtown.
So what’s the verdict? The Villages is nowhere near as bad or tacky as I’ve heard from various people or media outlets over the years. I wasn’t attacked by lonely old ladies and nobody invited me to a sex party. Nearly every person I encountered here was pleasant and friendly. Just today, I had a random guy on a bike point, smile, and salute me just for letting him pass at the intersection.
There’s also no doubt that this is a place full of people living out their final years as best they can. You overhear complaints about the most ridiculous things and the Google reviews of local restaurants are hilarious. The yellow lines dividing the roads are merely a suggestion to many residents and you’re constantly in fear that you’ll back over someone driving a golf cart.
The good news is if you head out after 7:00pm – you’ll have the entire street all to yourself.