For Florida's happy Minnesotans, it takes a village

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.

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  • Pam Nelson, originally of Vadnais Heights, wore a sign at The Villages’ Minnesota Club meeting.

  • Kathie Gregorich, originally from Duluth, waved goodbye after the Minnesota Club’s picnic on April 21 in The Villages, Fla. Meetings will start up again in the fall once the snowbirds return.

  • The Villages

    The Villages, population 101,000, is America’s fastest-growing community. You must be at least 19 to live in the gated retirement community and older than 55 to buy a house.

    The Villages boasts:

    63 recreation centers

    11 country clubs

    100 tennis courts

    1 polo stadium

    By the numbers:

    540: Holes of golf in The Villages (soon to increase to 630), more than in any other community in the world

    300: New residents a month

    900: Members of the Minnesota Club at The Villages

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