Earlier this fall, Joan’s parents pitched the idea of visiting them in the Pensacola over the holidays at their winter location.
I said, “Sure!” However, I did say that if we went to Florida, we’d have to see my mother. Mom now lives in The Villages in Florida.
For those readers who don’t know my mother, needless, to say, she is very “colorful.” If I touched down in Florida without visiting Mom, I’d be in Very Big Trouble. Mom is under five-feet tall, is not afraid to speak her mind, and makes me look quiet and un-colorful by comparison. And that’s saying a lot if you ever heard me tell a story or two. Or three or four.
Needless to say, our Florida trip involved seeing Mom.
Joan and I touched down in Florida and spent a half-day with her folks in Pensacola. Their place is close to the Alabama border and a short walk to the Gulf Islands National Seashore.
Despite growing up near the coast, I am not an ocean person by inclination. But I can’t deny the beauty of it when I have not seen it much in the past two decades.
The following morning, with the gracious loaning of Joan’s parents’ truck, we made our way to see Mom approximately six-hours away.
I knew little of The Villages when I first heard that Mom moved there. I knew it is a retirement community in Florida, I knew people drove golf carts everywhere, and I knew it to be a conservative stronghold.
The reality proved to be ah, interesting.
The reality of the place did not hit me at first. Mom lives in what people in The Villages refer to as the “historic village” of Orange Blossom Hills.
Before The Villages became the “Disney World for Retirees” it became today, it was a collection of modest, but neatly kept and varied, selection of manufactured homes and trailers: Green lawns, kept up flower gardens, and more than a few tchotchkes on those green lawns. All owned outright and not rented.
In short, Orange Blossoms Village is the retiree version of the neighborhood that I called home in my formative years in many ways. A place consisting of mainly skilled trades workers, teachers, police, and a smattering of first-generation “professionals.” Even today, despite all the changes in The Villages, the Orange Blossoms neighborhood still has a modest but charming feel. The homes are not all cookie-cutter, and the community feels, well, real. And I suspect many of the types of people I grew up with call this neighborhood home in their retirement years.
What changed? In short, Harold Schwartz and Gary Morse offered free golf as a start. And then made use of the Byzantine laws encoded in the Florida Community Development District regulations to make The Villages take off. And they became billionaires in the process. They further made their family fortune by setting up faux “downtown” areas with themes that are actually outdoor shopping malls and the family also owns the land the nearby strip mall areas rent from, too. Oh, and most of the food and liquor distributorship is under the family jurisdiction, also.
I did not realize any of this at first, of course.
We drove to where Mom calls home, and I introduced Joan to Mom.
Naturally, Mom made a “few” snacks to tide us over. :O
The following day, Joan and I took a walk. We saw the requisite shuffleboard, tennis, and even bocce courts. And, yes, golf carts ended up being everywhere! Not being from Florida, we enjoyed the birds that frequented the ponds near the golf course.
Then we crossed the road to the “downtown” area of “historic” Spanish Springs.
And then I went deep into the wormhole.
My reaction ended up being “Holy Sh**!”
Spanish Springs is something I dubbed “Spanish Colonial World.” A world complete with fake historical society plaques about the ranchers and Spanish traders in the area, faded mercantile signs, and everything else you’d expect from a corporation that consulted with Universal Studios to make their theme park-like community. Seriously. This area historically? Pasture land until the 1990s.
I’d later learn about, and visit, what I called “West World” and “New England World” that had a similarly theme-park like experience.
The neighborhoods themselves reflect the socioeconomic groups retiring there. At least based on the architecture I spied. For instance, I called one community “Retired Executive land” with million-dollar homes. Another “village: I designated the “land of retired high-end professionals” with 500k+ dwellings. Each village community center seems to mirror the socioeconomic group, too.
“The Everglades” has a faux national park lodge set up, well-done park photos on the walls, holiday decorations everywhere, and a complex complete with conference rooms that reminded me of my past corporate life. Perhaps this is where retired executives go to relive their synergistic business meeting days? 😉
Where my mom lives? Not far removed from many community centers with the folding tables, chairs, and modest decor.
But, as others said, all themes had cookie-cutter designs with different frosting.
Add in the 97% Euro-American background, the politics, and some other interesting stories, and The Villages ends up being a surreal place.
I don’t have too much more to add to The Villages. I’ll leave it with that you should read the excellent book Leisureville to take a deep dive into this area and look at these photos.
Here’s the fishing village of Galilee, RI:
And The Villages boardwalk at Sumter Landing:
But, I can see the appeal for people who live there. You zip around in golf carts that get 40 MPG, everything is 15 minutes away, there are a ton of activities, and the place is safe and quiet. Some people seem to love it. And my Mom and her husband are both happy.
What more can a son ask?
Enough musings on this phenomenon.
Mom and Gary both loved Joan (who wouldn’t???), I loved catching up with both, and we ate. And ate some more. And ate just a little bit more. And spending Christmas with Mom? About the best thing, I could ever do. 🙂
Fortuitously, our friends Karin and Andy are house sitting in a different Village for their friends over the winter. We ended up hiking together in Lake Griffin State Park – site of the second-largest live oak in Florida.
The immense size of the tree, the substantial growth of Spanish moss, and the lush greens surrounding the wetlands all made for scenery we enjoyed that is so much different from our home in Moab.
What a difference a fifteen-minute drive made! The Florida State Parks motto is “See the real Florida,” and they are correct.
We also went to a nearby watershed management area, complete with hiking trails. Not grand or “epic,” but a needed place to stretch our legs. And providing a bit of wildness in a very built-up area.
That weekend, Joan and I took off thirty minutes away to Doe Lake in the Ocala National Forest. We’d be camping with the folks from the Florida Trail Association, and I’d be giving a talk on Rockart of the Southwest.
Again, a short drive brought us into a much different area where pines, wetlands, and some cattle rangeland dotted the landscape rather than housing developments.
The talk went well, and we saw friends we knew through the years that are involved with the FTA.
The following day, Joan and I took a hike on the Florida Trail guided by Sandra Friend of “Florida Hikes” and author of over forty guidebooks. Yes, a perfect walk to attend!
Though rainy, we found the hike both scenic and enjoyable. Even a few inches of elevation gain can change the environment. The biodiversity of Florida ends up being incredible.
After the hike, we joined the FTA folks for one last lunch, made our way back to Mom’s house for one last evening, and then made our way slowly to Pensacola the following morning.
The first part of our jaunt in Florida finished and we looked forward to the next part up in the Panhandle.
Ah, this was great! Glad y’all got to meet up with the FTA and meet Sandra, too! I had heard many of the things you posted about The Villages but a few were eye opening!
We met many years ago, but good to see her again. Yeah! The Villages was wild. OTOH, my Mom’s home cooking is always appreciated. 🙂