Disneyland for the Old
Two days of magical cheer in The Villages, Florida.
“But why are they dancing?” I asked the gentleman who had come to collect me for my speaking engagement at one of the nearby recreation centers.
It was 5 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon and the square was filled with the sound of a great band and a happy gathering of oldies in floral shirts or sparkling tops, dancing away in the sunshine.
“Because it is Wednesday,” he replied without a hint of comedy.
And that’s the thing here in the largest retirement community on the planet: people dance just because it is Wednesday and they are darned happy to be alive. I can confirm this firsthand because I went back the next day and joined them doing the same thing again because it was Thursday.
Around 150,000 people now live in this place that some term Disneyland for the Old, and it is easy to see why. I used to work at Disneyland, Paris and the similarities are remarkable. Everything appears perfect, the buildings in the main squares are all fabricated to a theme, and an army of gardeners, food and beverage staff and community police keep the place looking Disney-perfect at all times.
If there are 150,000 residents, each of them must own at least two golf carts, if the sheer volume of cart traffic is anything to go by. These retired folk whizz about in these things embossed with their names – his on the driver’s side, hers right beside him – with purpose and at speed, as if late for every tee-off on every golfing green.
They form a seemingly endless stream of color and fun, defying age and the notion of immobility. One gentleman designed his as a fire truck, a nod to his working life no doubt. Another is a Rolls Royce complete with the Spirit of Ecstasy perched proudly on the little bonnet – tipping a wink, perhaps, to the reputation of The Villages as an enclave for energetic bedroom antics.
The folklore on this subject is legendary. When my friends in America hear I have come to speak at The Villages they remind me — to a man — that this place has the highest rate of Sexually Transmitted Infections in the country. I don’t like to point out the obvious: that I am a) married and b) here to speak, and just because herpes is rampant doesn’t mean I am going to make an effort to catch it. But I know they are just poking fun.
There are other rumors about the sexual proclivity of these retired folks, which I challenge them about at the bar over lunch. Is it folklore that The Villagers use their garage doors as a kind of "relationship status," as one might do on Facebook or a dating app, in order to indicate to a friendly passersby that they are open to all comers (garage door wide open), open to invitation (part open) or swingers indulging in a party (door ajar)?
They look at me and laugh. Clearly that’s a contrivance too far but the little glint in their eyes and the extraordinary joie de vivre of so many of the residents filling bar and tables at lunch time, ready for bingo or pickleball or dragon boat racing tells me no one is refusing a good time if there is one to be had.
And I love them for it. I glance out of my hotel room at 9 in the morning and there are two dragon boats racing across the lake, packed full of oldies paddling as if from a great white shark, competing against each other for victory. As I head out to pick up my own golf cart, a peloton of positivity is gathering in the parking lot for the morning bike ride. I look at them in their Lycra and smiles and contrast the elderly in homes and residential care communities in the chilly cold of Britain, perpetually arguing over which chair is theirs in the TV lounge. For $150 a month this community of bon-viveurs has access to more golf courses, pickleball courts, education and entertainment than they will ever have the time to enjoy. Their life is a perpetual cruise without the inconvenience of water.
It is not for everyone.
Among those who worship this place and their happy lives within it are others who cannot wait to get away.
“We want to get out,” a lady tells me at the Brownwood Hotel and Spa with its Wolfgang Puck menu and plush decor. “We have had enough and we miss living with other people and other generations. This place is just so small.”
Spanning three counties, with a further massive acreage under development, she is not talking about the physical space, but rather the mindset of some of its residents. A cursory glance at Villager News gives evidence to war between two residents after an argument over a lawn statue, and a scuffle in the square over a golf-cart parking incident. As I join the line for morning coffee, a gentleman in his late 60s (at a guess) grumbles behind me about how there is always a wait at this place, and scuffs at the back of my heels in his impatience to move the line forwards.
Full of smiles, I ask him if he is in a rush – perhaps he has something pressing he needs to get to? He looks back at me, realizing my question is more pointed than literal.
But you know, for those that love this place it is just as magical as Disney is to a child. In a time when our elderly have been treated so horribly in nursing homes, this place is the opposite of that. It is built with the purpose of making every day just as full, fun and happy as it can be. Even the darned crematorium is offering lunch and interesting chat, for goodness sake.
[Left: Flyer sent to people's homes in The Villages].
I love my new friends here, befriended in an instant and as comfortable as old shoes in a heartbeat. My new pal Goldie at the bar confides:
“You know what, girl? I am 80. I have lived a great life, and I am doing what the hell I please with who I want, and I really couldn’t care less what anyone thinks. I don’t owe anyone anything and I have nothing to prove. I am as free as I can be.”
I laugh and watch her leave in her cute little shoes and top. She is going dancing. Because it is Wednesday.