Peter McNaughton

Several years ago, my wife Sandi overheard some women talking about a place in Florida one of them owned near Orlando which sounded interesting. We were going to be in the area so we decided to rent a place there for a couple of weeks to check it out. After two weeks we thought it was just too good to be true so we came back the next year. It wasn't too good to be true--in fact we now go there every year for six months (the maximum allowed by the U.S.) and it gets better every year. It's called The Villages and for the last few years it has ranked in the top three fastest growing communities in North America.

Started in 1985 as a small retirement subdivision with a golf course, it has blossomed now to a community of over 100,000 about 60 per cent of whom live there year-round and the remainder, snowbirds, for varying amounts of the colder months. Technically it is not a city as it sprawls over three counties, Sumter, Marion and Lake. When we first came here it was about 55 miles north and west of Orlando but it now is less than fifty given the way it is growing toward the south. Jurisdictionally it is largely self-governing although it is subject to county, state and federal laws. It is about 14 miles long, north to south, and about three miles wide.

The original intention was to give retirees a place in the sun to do things, mainly golf, they like to do. Golf is still one of the things they like to do and now there are more than 40 golf courses inside The Villages, all in immaculate condition, 12 of which are championship courses of 27 holes (except for two which are 18 only) with very low (by northern standards) green fees, and 32 are par 3 nine hole courses which residents play for free. Each year, more than two and a half million tee times are booked on the massive golf computer program, apparently effortlessly.

But golf is not the only activity. In fact The Villages boasts more than 2,000 clubs, cultural and other activities not including the major sports such as golf and baseball which has two seasons and more than 30 teams, male and female, in competition. Other sports cover a very wide spectrum and include swimming, basketball, billiards (including pool), bocce, table tennis, archery, badminton, cycling, dragon boat racing, lawn bowling, ball hockey, ice hockey (players carpool to a rink in Orlando) and pickleball.

Ah yes, pickleball, the oddly named game The New York Times described as the fastest growing sport in North America (and yes, it has spread to places in Canada including Ottawa).

Played over a tennis net on a hard-tru court the size of a doubles badminton court, with a hard plastic whiffle ball and fibreglass paddles a little bigger than tennis table bats, it is, after golf, probably the most popular sport in The Villages, which has over 100 courts and supplies the pickleballs (last year's they ordered more than 45,000 of them). They also supply wooden paddles but anyone who plays regularly will have purchased a good paddle for $70.00 or so. As with any sport, there are various levels of talent but suffice it to say the good players, both men and women, are very good. Experience at any racquet or court sport such as tennis, racquetball or badminton gives one a running start but the game can be picked up quickly. Where I play, there are eight courts, four for the less ambitious players and four for the more advanced players. Just show up, particularly in the morning and you'll get a game (almost always doubles and very often mixed--there are some extremely good women

players). In the afternoons the courts are generally less busy but you often see neighbourhood groups playing.

The fact that there are over 100 pickleball courts is an indication of the attitude here toward facilities. The saying is that if you want a sport and the numbers justify it, facilities will be provided. A couple of years ago on our return in November we learned of the new beach volleyball court and the new platform tennis courts, all first rate.

There are also over 60 recreational centres with swimming pools, many with bocce, tennis and shuffleboard courts and large rooms with five or so billiards tables (with free instruction from pool players who can run the table). The pools are of three sorts: family, so you can take your kids and their kids, seniors (over 30) and competitive, with lanes for training only, without the lounge chairs supplied in the other pools. Speaking of training, more than 400 competitors from The Villages recently competed in the Florida seniors’ games and they hauled in literally hundreds of medals in pickleball, weightlifting, track and field, basketball and other sports. (My favorite is the guy who pitched for the Red Sox for 10 years in the 1970s and won the basketball free throw competition a couple of years ago with 30 out of 30 and followed up last year winning with 29 out of 30. Yes, there are some pretty good athletes here).

But sports is only part of what goes on here. Culture is huge. Among the hundreds of clubs are some I attend regularly including the philosophy club, the civil discourse club, the science club and the astronomy club. This week the nonfiction book club will hear from Glenn Greenwald who wrote "No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. surveillance State" which should provoke a lively discussion given the strong biases in The Villages, mostly right but also left. Usually the speakers have very distinguished backgrounds. During election campaigns prominent politicians such as George W. Bush and many others (usually of the Republican variety) have campaigned here.

And if discussion isn't your thing, there are hundreds of other activities from line dancing, at dozens of locations, to drama, music clubs for all instruments, quilting, art, woodworking (a friend who visited us and is a first rate craftsman said the facilities at the woodworking shop alone would be enough to bring him to The Villages and in fact he is coming for six weeks next year), all forms of exercise including aquatics, yoga, Pilates and Zumba (whatever that is) all at various locations.

Card games are in a category of their own. Duplicate bridge is very popular and competitive enough that top pairs can pick up master points, but there is also "kitchen" bridge to say nothing of Mah-Jongg, cribbage, Bunco and several others I have never heard of.

They are all described in the recreation section the The Daily Sun newspaper which is about twice the size of The Ottawa Citizen or The Globe and Mail, is delivered to your driveway by > 6:00 a.m. 365 days a year and, for which a six-month subscription costs $38.00.

Another centre of activity is the local charter high school which offers inexpensive courses to seniors on a huge variety of topics including current events, foreign languages, science, computers and so on.

There are, at present, three area "squares" in The Villages, one in the north, one about the middle and the third way down in the newer south. They provide professional entertainment from 5:00 to 9:00 every night of the year, weather permitting, with happy hour from 5:00 to 6:00 or 7:00, depending upon which county the square is in. They are surrounded by shops and restaurants and it is a joy to see hundreds of people walking around, drink in hand on a warm evening. (The rules about drinking are somewhat lax; you can walk around with open booze containers in most places including the squares, pools (no glass containers, though) and the pool halls. Theoretically you cannot have an open booze container in a golf cart, although the enforcement does not seem particularly strenuous.

There 50,000 golf carts in The Villages with miles and miles of wide cart paths and a speed limit of 20 miles per hour. There are also huge numbers of cars on the roads at any one time but it all seems to work out smoothly. Much of the car traffic functions with roundabouts and the cart paths are mostly separated from the roads by boulevards and tunnels. CBS ran a feature a few years ago on Golf carts in The Villages. Many of them are vintage or otherwise tarted up and they have a drill squad like the RCMP musical ride which is quite entertaining. It is also amusing at night to drive along one of the main roads and see dozens of carts, lights on, coming to or going away from one of the squares.

Housing in The Villages is virtually entirely in the form of detached single-family, single-story residences, the exceptions being a large residential building for seniors who are past living on their own and a couple of very small row houses. Generally, houses are of four main types. The cheapest is the patio villa, with two bedrooms, usually two bathrooms, living room, dining room, attached garage large enough for a car and a golf cart, with a small front lawn. These range in price from $130.000.00 or so to probably $190,000.00 or so. Next up is the courtyard villa with two or three bedrooms but a walled garden which would be $200,000.00 to $300,000.00 or so. Ranch style homes are somewhat similar in price to the courtyard villa but with a very different configuration and more land. Finally, there are the designer homes which ordinarily start at $350,000.00 or so but can exceed $1,000,000.00 on very large lots with lovely amenities and luxury add-ons. There are many of these. The original developer of The Villages still owns some houses which it rents out and is still building what looks like its last new subdivision. All other homes are privately owned and either owner occupied or rented out.

Given that the population of The Villages is mostly seniors (apparently U.S. Housing law requires that a small percentage of homes be owned by people under 55) the health care resources are very significant. In the commercial districts there is a myriad of medical offices and clinics for any and all medical situations and there is a large hospital which is being added to and improved constantly it seems.

The Villages is thought of as gated, which it is, partly. Residents have a pass which gets them through all the gates, only some of which are staffed. Since the roads are public, however, no one can be denied their use so that anyone without a pass simply pushes a button on the gate. The gates seem to be designed to give the impression of security and indeed they are all filmed all the time (which assists in collecting damages when someone barges through a gate by mistake).

There is a fleet of neighbourhood watch vehicles which visit each village twice every 24 hours to check for any suspicious activity (or to phone you during the night if your garage door is open).There are also three county police forces in the area so that, while it is not crime-free, it is as close to it as you will get in an urban area. The Villages, by the way, consists of 80 or so areas or villages, each with a separate name but they are all attached to each other, in most cases not separated by even a gate.

So it is a fairly safe place and, it appears a very happy one. One indication of this is that invariably when they discuss where they live, people always say they live in the best area.

Tags: Peter McNaughton