People who retire to The Villages in central Florida aren’t interested in slipping quietly into old age. Take Michael Roche, a New Jersey native who says he’s done everything from teaching high school history to working as a casino dealer and describes himself as an extrovert.
“I like to dance, and I saw that there was live entertainment every single night. That appealed to me,” he says, while standing outside a crowded bar at the retirement community where the midafternoon day-drinking is in full swing. “Plus, you could plug into as much or as little as you want.”
More than 22 million people live in Florida. One in five is older than 65. Retirees are often drawn to the warm weather, relatively low cost of living, and the lifestyle offered at retirement communities like The Villages.
“Everything is about what retired people want to do, how they feel, what makes them happy, what kind of music is played, what our interests are,” says Denise Moline, a retired financial planner who moved from Texas. “I definitely feel more valued here because they do cater to the age set. They are really thinking about what my age group, the retired set, does.”
Pittsburgh native Ray Henry, who used to work in construction, mostly drilling holes in building foundations, came for a visit and never left.
“I didn’t want to leave after I was here. It’s too much fun,” says Henry, while standing outside the crowded bar and describing a typical day. “Get up and come over here. See some friends, do a little dancing, have a couple drinks. Go to one of the great places to eat and get up and do it the next day.”
Roche, Moline and Henry are among the approximately 80,000 people who live in The Villages, making it one of the largest retirement communities in the world, according to U.S. Census 2020 data.
The Villages—a census-designated place in Sumter, Lake and Marion counties, covering 57 square miles—is a community development district, which has powers that are similar to local governments.
Along with 50 golf courses, The Villages offers hundreds of other activities and clubs, including arts and crafts, book clubs, games, dancing and singles events. There’s also nightly entertainment in the three town squares, which feature a variety of restaurants and shops.
Lauren Ritchie, a retired columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, used to report on The Villages and its residents.
“They’re buying a lifestyle. And the lifestyle they’re buying is the one that they are convinced that they deserve. They’ve worked their whole life, and shoveled snow every winter,” she says.
“People call it Disney for old people. Well, it’s exactly what it is. And there’s a certain person who wants to live in that kind of ambience-created place. And there are other types of people whose families are the number one priority, and they want to stay up north to be near their grandchildren,” she added.
Safety is also a paramount consideration for some of the retirees.
“There’s no sketchy neighborhoods in The Villages. Every place that you go, you feel safe,” says Roche, the New Jersey native who bought his home here in November 2022. “There is no one looking over their shoulder or worrying about getting mugged. And, in America today, that’s important.”
Feeling secure was also a big draw for Barbara Weese. She lives at the Hawthorne at Leesburg, a gated retirement community about an hour’s drive from Orlando, where emergency personnel are always on standby.
“We have buttons in our homes, so, if you have an emergency in the middle of night, you push the button. Someone will come and check and see what is going on,” Weese says. “That’s a very, very secure feeling, particularly for people who are widowed or alone.”
About 2,000 people live at Hawthorne, making it far smaller than The Villages. Retirees looking to move to Florida have hundreds—as many as 670 by one count—of active adult retirement communities to consider.
“We have so many communities to choose from that someone’s going to find a good fit,” says Realtor Sharon Wooten. “I think the 55-plus communities are a great fit for a lot of people that are retiring … a lot of people work their whole lives and when they retire, they want to go to a place that has activities, things to do, convenience, just a more relaxing lifestyle.”
It’s a lifestyle Weese has embraced. She says she came to Florida for the climate, camaraderie and a chance to reinvent herself.
“There are opportunities in these communities for older people to do things that are usually only the province of younger people, particularly when you get to your 80s,” she says. “Maybe in high school you played the trumpet, and you’ve never played it again, and then you come down to one of these communities and you find out … there’s an orchestra or something and you start playing the trumpet again.”
But for Weese, 87, and her 90-year-old husband, the party is coming to an end. After 30 years of retirement living in Florida, they are returning to Maine to be near their adult children. They plan to live in a townhouse that is connected to their adult daughter’s residence.
“Let’s be perfectly honest about it. When you’re 87 and 90, you’re not going to be here in 20 years. So it’s probably time, while you can still walk, talk and chew gum, to leave and get settled somewhere for when you do decline,” Weese says. “You’re not going to stay healthy forever. When you do decline, your family is there.”
Realtor Wooten says it’s not unusual for older clients to leave Florida.
“You get to that point in life where you may not be able to drive anymore, and you might want to be closer to your kids or family members,” she says.
Even though she enjoyed living in her retirement community for the last three decades, Weese is feeling upbeat about the move.
“It’s an adventure. It’s new. It’s a new chapter,” she says. “Not a lot of people at age 87 get to have a new chapter.”