THE VILLAGES, Fla.-- They started out as snowbirds. Now they’re frogs.
“We’re here ’til we croak!” said Denese Kruse with a laugh as she and her husband of 50 years, Bob, navigated the winding streets of their new hometown, past immaculate new homes, golf courses and smiling seniors cruising by in golf carts on their way to tee times, happy hours, scuba lessons, or to dance in the village squares, where live music always seems to be playing.
This is The Villages; the fastest-growing, fastest-graying community in America. Disneyland for old people, residents call this place, where you have to be at least 55 to buy a house and children are restricted to visits of just a few weeks per year. More than 101,000 people now call this sprawling gated community home, including a huge, happy contingent of former Minnesotans like the Kruses. The Minnesota Club alone has 900-plus members.
“When we first came to visit, we were convinced they were piping in happy gas. People couldn’t possibly be this happy all the time,” Denese Kruse said. But after a one-week visit, the Kruses were ready to trade in Rochester for the happy gas.
They don’t have to go far to hear an Ole and Lena joke.
The Minnesota Club meets monthly during the winter, spring and fall, bringing hundreds of members together to celebrate their home state and wince sympathetically over weather reports.
“It’s nice to talk with people from Up North again,” Bob Kruse said, laying the Minnesota accent on thick. “Minnesota people like to talk to Minnesota people, so it works out great.”
Minnesota Club members rolled up to the club’s annual picnic last week in golf carts still sporting Minnesota plates and wearing their finest Vikings, Twins and Gophers gear. It was the group’s last get-together before snowbirds fly north for summer.
The Villages is the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the country, according to the latest census estimates. Fargo is fourth on that list. Guess which town makes better lefse.
“The friends we’ve made, it didn’t take them very long to find out that Minnesotans ate lutefisk and lefse,” said Marcy Solomonson, who chairs the Minnesota Club with her husband, Bob. She invited neighbors over to make lefse the day after Thanksgiving one year, just like she used to in Stillwater.
“We have two irons, so we had them rolling it out, spooning it on,” she said waving her arms to mime the efforts of New York and New Jersey retirees to craft the traditional Norwegian flatbread. The neighbors were less enthusiastic about lutefisk.
‘Everybody is active’
It’s amazing how much fun you can have, residents say, when there are no kids around to tell you you’re too old to have fun anymore.
The Villagers might look old, “but they’re not old-acting, ” said Bob Solomonson. “That’s what we like about it. Everybody is active.”
“We have to plan our fun, we have so much going on, ” Marcy Solomonson agreed. “We pinch ourselves every morning because we get to live here.”
Marcy’s to-do list for the week filled two pages of pink notepaper: Minnesota Club, potterymaking, golf, golf league, water aerobics, volunteering, the Second Honeymooners club, two classes at the Lifelong Learning College, wine club, a neighborhood get-together, two different dinner clubs and a local theater production of “Brigadoon.”
They reviewed the list on a patio off one of The Villages’ three themed town squares; this one designed to look like a centuries-old Southwestern village, complete with phony historic markers celebrating imaginary people and events.
But Villagers don’t seem to resent the artificial ambience any more than visitors to Epcot get upset that Disney’s Eiffel Tower isn’t the real thing. For them, it’s all part of the charm in a community where everything is designed around them.
Not everyone is charmed. After his retired neighbors traded in their idyllic New England neighborhood for The Villages, writer Andrew Blechman followed.
He turned his monthlong embed as a 30-something at this retirement community into the book “Leisureville: Adventures in a World Without Children.”
“It’s certainly a marvel. In the same way that Disneyland is a marvel, or Las Vegas is a marvel, ” said Blechman, whose book chronicles the gleeful escapades of residents here, where there’s a thriving black market for Viagra and skyrocketing STD rates.
Nevertheless, he came away concerned about what a gated community geared solely to the needs and interests of people over 55 says about America.
“It’s almost impossible to age in place in modern American society, ” Blechman said.
Children move away, old neighborhoods vanish and most communities can’t offer amenities to compete with days full of sun, golf and dancing in the village square.
But, Blechman says, “the more you self-segregate, you forget what you have in common” with people who are still raising young children and working 9-to-5 jobs.
The Villages is a planned development, controlled by a single man — billionaire H. Gary Morse. That leaves a metropolitan area nearly the size of Rochester without any real form of government. Residents have little input into community decisions.
“They traded in the ballot box for a suggestion box,” Blechman said.
That hasn’t slowed the building boom. In 2011, according to the developers’ website, one of every 100 homes sold in America was sold in The Villages. The community sprawls across 40 square miles and parts of three counties in central Florida.
It currently boasts 52,000 homes and 540 holes of golf — soon to increase to 630. New homes are going up at a rate of 300 a month, said Villages spokesman Gary Lester.
The Villages is also in the process of building its first assisted living facility, as age begins to catch up with some residents in a community where the average age is 62 for men and 60 for women. But there’s still no cemetery in The Villages, a community designed to keep the focus squarely on living.
The Villages is a collection of hundreds of smaller “villages” — individual neighborhoods, each with its own fitness and recreation centers, pools, paths and golf courses, radiating out from three large town squares, with their own movie theaters, restaurants, bars, boutique shops and public plazas.
Most residents are just a five-minute golf cart drive from grocery stores, malls and offices clustered just beyond its borders.
Homes in The Villages are tidy houses with manicured lawns and lanais.
Prices range from under $100,000 to well over $1 million, and a $145 monthly “amenity fee” offsets the cost of all those pools and golf courses.
The Villages had a population of 8,000 in 2000 and just over 50,000 in the 2010 census.
There’s a lot more traffic — tying up roads and golf cart paths alike — and a lot more new faces than there were when the Solomonsons moved in a decade ago.
“Ninety-nine percent of the people we talk to in The Villages say ‘We love it here,’ ” Bob Solomonson said, raising his voice over a saxophone solo a musician was belting out for the patio patrons around him. “One percent say ‘It’s too busy.’ And you talk to them a little while longer, and it’s because they miss their grandkids.”
So some leave, but in an average day, 20 newcomers move to The Villages to take their place.
Welcome boards in the recreation centers list each day’s newcomers by name and home state. A board on a recent Tuesday showed almost two dozen new names, including one more couple from Minnesota.
A happy retirement isn’t a competition. But if it was, the Minnesota Club would be medalists.
At the end of another busy day, the Kruses headed out to hear a friend’s blues band perform at McCall’s tavern. The band fired up, the crowd jumped to their feet.
Time to dance.