April, 2014. The Villages, Florida. People Just Want to Have Fun

Posted on April 18, 2014

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Busch Gardens, Universal Orlando, Disney World, Sea World – there’s action and adventure aplenty in Florida. As the Disney World promo says about the Magic Kingdom, it’s a place “Where fairytale dreams come true for children of all ages”.

People flock to these venues with their elaborate scenarios offering an exciting mix of the real and imaginary, but there’s one experience most miss – a visit to The Villages.

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An over-55 planned community, The Villages, located mostly in Sumpter County in central Florida, is usually assumed to be just another place where the rich go to retire.

But it’s a little more interesting than that.

Sometimes described as a Disney World for adults, it’s the Disney-like ability to turn make-believe into reality that has made The Villages such a success.

The Villages is comprised of some 65 named residential villages and three themed Town Squares, Brownwood, Spanish Springs and Lake Sumpter. Each offers an amazing array of personal services, retail shops, restaurants and watering holes. Brownwood is country-western, Spanish Springs is, well, Spanish, and Lake Sumpter has a seaside theme for its architecture and embellishments.

Each Town Square has a central park where bands for dancing and ‘2 for 1’ drink specials are available every day from 4 to 8 p.m. The two-legged wildlife are on full display and everyone has a good time, though golf cart fender-benders after the party winds down sometimes puts a damper on the fun.DSCN0925

DSCN0924While the night life (or afternoon-life) is real, The Villages is a place where imagination plays a big role, and not just in pretending everyone’s still a teenager.

Each ‘town’ is carefully crafted to look like it’s been there forever. A group calling themselves the Villages Storytellers even came up with pseudo-historic plaques that are place through town telling visitors the pseudo-history of various structures.  Buildings housing current businesses may even have a well-faded sign still visible somewhere  indicating the building once was home to an old business that it really wasn’t.

It’s almost surreal – you’re someplace real that’s actually imaginary.

But it feels real in that just about everyone could find something there that reminds them of the middle American town they grew up in; towns firmly lodged visually in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s, but with all the retail offerings of a modern-day mall.  And, like those earlier times, it feels safe, it feels familiar.DSCN0929

Interestingly, The Villages is really very middle class. The ‘rich’ are certainly there, but the community was carefully planned to be both exclusive and inclusive at the same time.

While there are a few venues accessible only to residents, those residing ‘outside’ have complete access to the shops, restaurants, watering holes and much of the entertainment offered in each of the three Town Squares.  This free-flow of residents and non-residents makes The Villages a place where reality and make-believe come together to form something that does feel like a real community.

Michigan native Harold Schwartz, with partner Al Tarrason, bought up Florida land in the Lady Lake area in the 1960’s. They began selling parcels via mail order until a 1968 law banning such sales was passed. Left with a bunch of land, Schwartz and Tarrason then came up with another idea – developing mobile home parks.

However, by the early 1980’s the business was struggling, so Schwartz decided to buy out his partner’s interest and bring his son, Chicago advertising executive H. Gary Morse, on board.

Gary wasn’t interested in mobile home parks. He wanted to do what Del Webb was doing in Arizona – build a retirement community with houses, restaurants, pools, and golf courses. The idea worked, and today Gary Morse and his family are among the richest in America.

There has been – and will continue to be – is a lot of criticism of Morse’s financial tactics and political control as he and his holding company continues to develop The Villages.  Morse has maintained firm control over local decision-making and the complex political and economic arrangements that make up the business of The Villages, but few of its 65,000 or so residents seem to care.

DSCN0934A resident of The Villages recently commented in a Tampa Bay Times article, “Most everybody worked 40 to 45 years to get here, and they just want to have fun.”

And they do.

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Posted in: Travel - Florida