The sprawling expanse of flat emptiness in central Florida is an unlikely place for America’s fastest growing metro area in the nation. Yet, just 70 miles northwest of Orlando sits ‘The Villages’ – the world’s largest retirement community that surpasses the size of Manhattan and encompasses five zip codes with an ever-growing population.
Spanning 32-square-miles, The Villages is a veritable boom-town for baby boomers aged 55+ who flock to the geriatric paradise in droves for its endless margarita mixers (happy hour starts at 11am), unlimited golf courses (50, to be exact), and notorious for its laissez-fair attitude towards sex, thriving swingers scene, and controversial politics.
‘I’m just saying for me, it hasn’t been the fantasy land I thought it would be, for reasons that are true to my own,’ said Barbara Lochiatto, a widow from Boston who has lived in The Villages for 12-years and longs to return to her hometown but can no longer afford to do so.
Barbara is just one of 130,000 residents lured to The Villages for the opportunity to live out her golden years on permanent vacation. It’s dubbed ‘the Disneyland for seniors’ for obvious reasons: the grass is always green, the sidewalks are immaculate, crime is almost non-existent, and the faux-coastal landscape is framed by palm trees and tangerine sunsets.
For many, The Villages are a Utopian fantasyland. Giant swathes of ready-made track homes and manicured lawns dot the pre-fab neighborhoods in Stepford-like uniformity. An elusive billionaire family lords over the master planned community that boasts 100 recreation centers, 89 swimming pools, 11 dog parks, one polo-field, 14 grocery stores, 2,700 social clubs (from bingo to hot-air ballooning to golf cart drill team) and even its own radio station, newspaper and television channels.
But for others, life inside the squeaky-clean bubble is far from idyllic. Herein is the focus of Some Kind of Heaven, a debut documentary by 24-year-old filmmaker, Lance Oppenheim who peels back the gated community’s artificial veneer by following the tribulations of four different seniors who live on the fringes of The Villages mainstream.
‘I was looking for people who were on the margins, who didn’t exist inside of the same marketing brochure that everyone else did,’ he told Vox. In doing so, Oppenheim reveals the dark undercurrent of loneliness, willful ignorance, intolerance, and insularity beneath sheen of ‘America’s friendliest hometown.’
Some Kind of Heaven is a new documentary that plunges into this surreal world of argyle socks, heavy drinking and Viagra-fueled promiscuity at the world’s largest retirement community. The Villages, outside Orlando, Florida are manufactured to be a retirement fantasyland. With almost 450 homes sold per month, the gated 55+ community was the fastest growing metro in the United States between 2010-2019. ‘When I got here in the ’80s there was 800 people and now there are 130,000 so we did something right,’ said the Richard Schwartz, heir of the developer’s fortune (above). ‘They’re living their American dream, as we are’
The documentary follows Barbara Lochiatto, a widow from Boston who struggles to find her footing in The Villages. ‘I’m just saying for me, it hasn’t been the fantasy land I thought it would be, for reasons that are true to my own.’ She added: ‘I think that when you live in The Villages, you’re acting the part, every day, every night. You’re a part of the fantasy’
The gated community offers endless opportunities for recreation, with over 2,700 organized clubs and activities that include things like belly dancing, dragon boat racing, polka dancing, theater, karate, bonsai, bunco, glass fusion and clogging. There are 39 different groups dedicated to line dancing; as well as one for retired Naval cryptologists, and CIA agents and ‘Beatlemaniacs.’ The cheerleading squad (above) has a two year waitlist to join
The goal of developers was to create a ‘millionaire’s lifestyle on a retirement budget’ and unlimited free golf was part of that package. That being said there are 50 golf courses with over 10,000 tee times per day. The golf cart is also the primary mode of transportation in The Villages; with over 100 miles of path including special bridges and tunnels that enable drivers to trundle safely over busy main roads
At 32 square miles (and growing) The Villages is larger than the size of Manhattan. It’s comprised of 78 smaller neighborhoods with home prices ranging from $100,000 to $1million (the average price being $295K). Golf courses are laid out first and then roads and neighborhoods are built around them. The community has its own hospital, 14 different markets, multiple movie theatres, unlimited restaurants and nightclubs and three downtown shopping areas. ‘Everything you’d ever want is here,’ says one resident in the documentary. ‘There is no place like this, this is nirvana’
The rambling 33,000 acre property is made up of 78 smaller neighborhoods that range in size from 100 to 1550 houses. According to the US Census Bureau, population ballooned by 37.8% (more than any other American city) between 2010 and 2019. In order to keep up with rapid growth, The Villages is always expanding with an average of 250 new homes and 200 pre-owned homes sold per month.
The self-contained AARPopolis has everything a boomer needs to sustain their twilight years in comfort: dozens upon dozens of restaurants, bars, nightclubs, gift shops, jewelry stores, churches, movie theaters, medical facilities, a Walmart Supercenter and even a ‘fountain of youth.’
Generation appropriate retail is also on hand for the picking: Panera, Chilis, Olive Garden, Applebees and TGI Fridays. There is also a HomeGoods, Stein Mart, Belks, TJ Maxx and Chicos.
‘Everything you ever want is here,’ says one resident. ‘You don’t need to go outside The Villages.’ The Villages provide what their tour guides call, ‘GLC: golf, lifestyle, and convenience,’ – everything is easily accessible by golf carts.
Indeed, golf carts – often styled to look like mini-Hummers, hot rods, tanks – are the vehicle of choice. With over 100 miles of path including special bridges and tunnels that enable drivers to trundle safely over busy main roads, they are emblematic to the fantasy: why have a car if you never need to leave?
Public county roads cut through The Villages which means that anybody technically can drive through the sprawling ‘gated’ community. Guard huts (staffed by retirees) at the entrance of every neighborhood- do less for security than provide the appearance of exclusivity.
‘Everything here is just so positive…so I’m lost for words,’ explains a sun-worn man sitting in his golf cart. ‘I don’t see the slums, I don’t see death and destruction, I don’t see murders, you don’t see a lot of children running around here either.’
He’s not alone in his feelings. Ask any Villages resident about life in the slow lane and they all dole out the same cult-like adulation: ‘Everything you’d ever want is here,’ says one resident in the documentary. ‘There is no place like this, this is nirvana,’ gushes another.
Reality (at least the widely accepted version of it) stops existing upon setting foot in The Villages. The kitschy downtown areas that are meticulously crafted to simulate life in an old Western, the antebellum south, or crumbling Spanish colony feel more like a back lot at Universal Studios than real life.
Like a theme park, music is pumped out of the lampposts, fake rocks and time-tattered signs of yesteryear decorate the ersatz town squares.
Even history doesn’t get in the way of telling a good story in The Villages where fake historical markers convey make-believe folklore and a fanciful past, all of which was conceived – in the owner’s words – ‘over a bottle of scotch.’
It’s ‘designed to hide all of the problems of everyday life,’ said Oppenheim to the Guardian, explaining that he was compelled by ‘the insane lengths’ people will take to shelter themselves from the unpleasantries of the outside world (poor people, bad weather, mortality, Democrats). A nearby radio billboard reads: ‘Boss Hogg Radio: No Rap and No Crap.’
Some Kind of Heaven explores the lives of four different seniors who don’t fit in to the manufactured paradise of their surroundings. ‘I was looking for people who were on the margins, who didn’t exist inside of the same marketing brochure that everyone else did,’ he told Vox. In doing so, Oppenheim reveals the dark undercurrent of loneliness, willful ignorance, intolerance, and insularity beneath sheen of ‘America’s friendliest hometown’
Relentless positivity in Pleasantville is just as ubiquitous as the golf cart and perma-tan. ‘It’s another beautiful day in The Villages!’ beams out the local AM radio station owned and operated by the billionaire- Morse family who founded the retirement playground in the early 1970s.
‘You come here to live, you don’t come here to pass away,’ says one diehard devotee in the documentary.
Promoted as ‘America’s friendliest hometown,’ the pensioners paradise offers an endless array of distractions and amenities: swimming, tennis, pickleball, fine dining, drinking, and nightly line dances in the three town squares where musical entertainment can be found 365 nights a year.
But, what happens when that Utopian fantasy becomes a dystopian nightmare? What happens when that endless optimism becomes toxic?
Some Kind of Heaven explores that question by following the lives of four different seniors who live on the fringes of The Villages mainstream. He told Vox: ‘When you train a camera on the Villages, all you really see is artifice. So I wanted to find real people, with real problems, in an unreal place.’ Their life shattering realities exist in stark contrast to the imitation paradise of their surroundings.
Barbara Locciatto is an outlier in the community in that she still works full time and struggles to find joy in the manufactured happiness of her surroundings: ‘I think that when you live in The Villages you’re acting the part, every day, every night, you’re a part of the fantasy.’
Cameras also follow Anne and Reggie Kincer as their 47-year-long marriage derails while Reggie begins to experiment with mind altering drugs and faces a trial for drug possession after he was arrested for marijuana and cocaine.
Then there is 81-year-old Dennis Dean, a life-long bachelor and drifter; who, like so many others, was drawn to The Villages’ allure: ‘The reason I came here is because I honestly figured this would be the last hurrah. Where else can you party seven days a week with live entertainment? It’s a great place.’
But unlike his peers who can afford the median home price of $295K – Dennis lives out of his illegally parked van within the gated community. He prowls the swimming pools, town centers, churches and polyurethane pickleball courts (friendlier on the joints) while looking for a gullible girlfriend that will take him in and he’s not embarrassed to admit it: ‘I came down here from California to meet some wealthy women and get set up for life,’ he tells the camera.
The film also follows 81-year-old Dennis Dean, a life-long bachelor and playboy who was drawn to The Villages’ allure: ‘The reason I came here is because I honestly figured this would be the last hurrah. Where else can you party seven days a week with live entertainment? It’s a great place.’ Dennis can’t afford a home in The Villages and lives out of his illegally parked van within the gated community, hoping he will find a rich wife. ‘I came down here from California to meet some wealthy women and get set up for life’ he tells the documentary
Dubbed ‘the Disneyland for seniors, Anne Kincer said everyday in The Villages is ‘like being on vacation.’ While her husband Reggie descends into a drug induced spiral on the documentary, Anne said it’s a place where one can reinvent their identity: ‘It’s like going off to college, since nobody’s from here, everybody can be what they want to be down here’
The Villages has its own fire department, hospital and 100 recreation centers with 89 swimming pools, 11 dog parks, one polo-field, two archery ranges, 47 tennis courts, 200 pickle ball courts along with numerous basketball courts, baseball fields and bowling alleys. Each year, in April, The Villages host The Villages Senior Games where approximately 2,000 residents compete in hundreds of athletic event. It’s essentially a ’40-square-mile cruise ship’
Dean is not alone when it comes to his hawkish attempts at finding what female residents in The Villages call ‘a nurse with a purse.’
‘They want to know where you live, if they can move in with you,’ recalled a woman named Rose, to the Ocala Star Banner in 2007. The question used to be which side of U.S. 441 you lived on. ‘Now, they want to know what side of County Road 466 you live on.’
With over 20,000 single residents, it’s no surprise that the singles club is one of the most popular extracurriculars on campus. ‘When they become single, whether it’s through divorce or whether it’s through death, it’s like a new awakening,’ explained the club president in Some Kind of Heaven. ‘It’s like a butterfly coming out of a cocoon.’
Social life revolves around the three town squares where there is live music nightly from 6pm to 9pm. It’s a hotspot for women dressed in sexy tops, inappropriately short skirts and flat comfy shoes to line dance together hoping to attract some of the single men hovering near the cheap booze stands.
‘After the wife passed, I started nightclubbing,’ said one enthusiastic bachelor with dyed pitch black hair, who found love while dancing on the square of Spanish Springs. ‘I got a second chance and a second bite of the apple.’
With eight women to every man, ‘You can’t afford to let your guard slip,’ explained Belinda Beard to DailyMail.com in 2014. ‘Turn your back for a minute and someone will try to steal your husband.’
Days are spent passing idle time in slow-motion bliss, the talk turns to sex as soon as darkness descends and the cheap booze kicks in. The bad behavior begins at 4pm when the early bird special meals start. Happy hour serves up half price cocktails with names like ‘Green Nipple’ and runs straight through 9pm.
‘Sex on the Square’ is another popular beverage; the saccharine rum, cream and whip cream concoction was named in honor of a local hero named Peggy Klemm. In 2014, the 68-year-old retiree was arrested for having drunken public sex against the town bait shop with her 19 years younger toyboy.
By 10pm it’s hard to find anywhere open as the oldest residents – known as ‘Frogs’ because they’ve come to the Villages to croak – can’t stay awake.
But a hardcore crowd of 60 to 70-year-olds hang out in the twee town squares openly drinking booze in plastic cups.
The sexual proclivities of The Villages’ inhabitants are no secret to headlines. The New York Post dubbed it ‘ground zero for geriatrics who are seriously getting it on.’
A thriving swinger’s scene has created a black market for Viagra and randy couples meet at each other’s houses for key parties. Men pick their partner at random by selecting a set of golf cart keys jumbled into a bowl while wives wait in the parking lot for their mystery dates.
According to one Buzzfeed report, sticking a loofah on your golf cart antenna signals that you’re into swinging. So does wearing a red button or gold shoes. Letting your shirt tag stick out tells people that you’re open for business.
‘Every night is Saturday night in The Villages. And who’s going to get pregnant?’ said Andrew Blechman, author of Leisureville.
One restaurant worker told DailyMail.com in 2014 how he was paid $100 to bar tend a party that turned into a ten person free for all. ‘All in their late 50s to mid ’60s – and by the time I left they didn’t need any more drink. There was a full-blown orgy going on.’
With over 20,000 single residents, The Villages ‘singles club’ is one of the most popular extracurriculars on campus. Sometimes dubbed as ‘the widower’s paradise,’ the club president told the documentary: ‘When they become single, whether it’s through divorce or whether it’s through death, it’s like a new awakening. It’s like a butterfly coming out of a cocoon’
The Villages are privately owned by the Morse family whose estimated net worth is $3billion. Not only do they own the real estate corporation that sells the homes, but they also own the mortgage company that finances them. As well as the utilities, garbage collection service, banks, newspaper, TV channel, radio stations, hospital, assisted living facilities, liquor stores (and liquor distribution rights). ‘They were very perceptive about how Baby Boomers actually craved an inorganically organized landscape, an alternate vision of what America used to be, or how they imagine it having been,’ said Oppenheim to InsideHook . ‘A utopia, but a fake utopia based on an America that doesn’t really exist’
Social life revolves around the three town squares where there is live music nightly from 6pm to 9pm. It’s a hotspot for women dressed in sexy tops, inappropriately short skirts and flat comfy shoes to line dance together hoping to attract some of the single men hovering near the cheap booze stands. With a thriving swingers scene, the sexual proclivities of villagers are no secret. The New York Post called it ‘ground zero for geriatrics who are seriously getting it on’
Golf carts – often styled to look like mini-Hummers, hot rods, tanks – are the vehicle of choice. They can cost anywhere between $10,000 to $50,000. The Morse family also owns the five golf cart dealerships in The Villages where combined, they sell more Yamaha buggies than any other dealer in the nation
For Barbara Lochiatto in Some Kind of Heaven, venturing into The Villages dating scene is awkward and daunting. That is, until she develops a crush on Lynn Henry, a charming golf cart salesman and Jimmy Buffett fanatic who invites her to his Parrothead party.
The camera pans out to catch Barbara looking lost at the party in a sea of frozen margaritas and Hawaiian shirts. Cerebral in nature with dark hair and uncured porcelain skin; she doesn’t fit in there. Searching for an anchor, she finds Henry who is too preoccupied while dancing with a flashy vixen in figure hugging pedal pushers. Barbara walks away feeling dejected – the weight of her loneliness is palpable.
Despite access to 2,700 clubs, classes and interest groups; she struggles to find footing among her Bunco-playing cohorts.
A mandatory $164 monthly ‘amenities fee’ provides Villagers with unlimited recreation. All outlined within a colossal 200-page catalog: synchronized swimming, genealogy, gardening, model trains, polka lovers, Beatlemaniacs, belly dancing, dragon boat racing, improv, writing, theater, bonsai, karate, quilting, scrapbooking, glass fusion, bunco, and classic cars (just to name a few). There are countless book clubs, 15 clogging groups, and no fewer than 39 assemblies devoted to line dancing.
According to Buzzfeed, there is a group for former Naval cryptologists and one for CIA retirees that meets on the second Thursday of every month. Meanwhile, the cheerleading squad has a two year waitlist to join.
‘It’s like going off to college, since nobody’s from here, everybody can be what they want to be down here,’ said Anne Kincer in Some Kind of Heaven.
But things haven’t been all fun-in-the-sun for Anne Kincer’s husband, Reggie, who has turned to experimental drugs to help him ‘get to a spiritual place.’ Reggie says people move to The Villages to avoid ‘thinking about their problems in life;’ he adds, ‘including Anne.’
‘When we first moved here, it was like being on vacation every day, but it is not the real world,’ says Anne. ‘We live in a bubble.’
When you move into The Villages, you also buy into a lifestyle – a ready-made identity that leaves very little room to be different. There is an expectation of how things should be done: you join clubs, you find your flock and if you don’t subscribe to the way of life; then get out.
‘I think that when you live in The Villages, you’re acting the part, every day, every night,’ said Barbara. ‘You’re a part of the fantasy.’
For many people, The Villages are an opportunity to re-invent themselves. One resident by the name of Cork told Buzzfeed: ‘What I like about this place is this is an easy place to start over.’
Who you were, and what you did prior to retirement doesn’t matter once you’re in The Villages. Everyone is equal and everyone has the same access to amenities; whether you spend $100K or $1million on a home. The aim from the very beginning, has always been to create a ‘millionaire’s lifestyle on a retirement budget.’
The Villages started in the 1970s with Harold Schwartz, a businessman from Michigan who bought land in Florida that he developed into a mobile home park called Orange Blossom Gardens. After a decade of poor sales, Schwartz brought on his first son, H. Gary Morse (he took his stepfather’s surname) and later his second son, Richard Schwartz to help build the business.
They lured prospective tenants with the halcyon promise of free golf, cable TV and trash collection, suddenly Orange Blossom Gardens was selling 500 homes a year. Under Morse’s leadership, they expanded the development to add more golf courses, swimming pools and amenities and renamed it The Villages.
‘When I got here in the ’80s there was 800 people and now there are 130,000 so we did something right,’ said Richard Schwartz (half-brother of H. Gary Morse) in the documentary. ‘They’re living their American dream, as we are.’
Of the Women in the ‘Elaine’ club gather for a meeting, the premise of their group is that they all share the same name
Dennis Dean is one of the four subjects followed in the documentary. He tells cameras: ‘What I’m looking for is a companion, a nice looking lady with some money that looks good, that I would not be embarrassed to be seen on the street with.’ He adds: ‘Down here they’re rare, it’s rare to find a classic lady down here. Filmmaker Lance Oppenheim told Vox: ‘When you train a camera on The Villages, all you really see is artifice. So I wanted to find real people, with real problems, in an unreal place’
One scene in Some Kind of Heaven follows the ‘golf cart drill team’ during practice as two lines of carts weave past each other with unfathomable precision before merging into a circular flourish. With hands on her hips; the coach means business when she blows her whistle to remind carters of spatial awareness
Strict ordinances govern every aspect of life in The Villages. Residents must make sure their lawns are properly edged at all times and hedges can be no greater than four feet. TV antennas and satellite dishes are forbidden; as are clothing lines, window air conditioners and commercial vehicles. Repainting your home requires board approval, no more than two vehicles are allowed per driveway, all lawn ornaments including but not limited to: windmills, religious symbols, gnomes, animal figurines, Christmas decorations and flamingos are strictly prohibited
‘The Villages is a place where the reality that you and I belong to seemingly does not exist,’ said Oppenheim. Kitschy downtown areas were meticulously crafted to feel more like a theme park. Music is pumped out of the lampposts, fake rocks and time-tattered signs of yesteryear decorate the ersatz town squares designed to simulate life in the Wild West, a Spanish colony, or Civil War era town. ‘Lake Sumter Landing’ is manufactured to look like a Southern coastal city replete with a fake antebellum history. A giant prop lighthouse looms over the massive man-made lake that is completely void of maritime activity (above). Train tracks run through the town without locomotives. The Savannah Center is a performing arts facility that was built to resemble the plantation in Gone With the Wind
In a place designed to find fulfillment within a collective unit; Oppenheim’s film questions the underlying fantasy that appeals so many people to what he described as a ‘palm-fringed echo chamber.’
‘I wanted to make something that was able to engage or inhabit that marketing material landscape,’ explained Oppenheim, a Florida native who grew up watching the commercials on TV. He said it’s within ‘this simulated, artificially constructed world that still feels like a scene from Reagan’s ‘It’s Morning in America’ commercials.’
From its inception, the gated complex was meticulously engineered to simulate the rose-tinted idea of Main Street, USA– predicated on convenience, leisure and good ol’ American values (even if it’s an illusion). It was tailor made for a demographic that mythologized a wholesome, suburban fantasyland evoked in ‘Father Knows Best’ and ‘Leave it to Beaver.’
‘They were very perceptive about how Baby Boomers actually craved an inorganically organized landscape, an alternate vision of what America used to be, or how they imagine it having been,’ said Oppenheim to InsideHook. ‘A utopia, but a fake utopia based on an America that doesn’t really exist.’
So strong is the gravitational pull of nostalgia – The Villages were imagineered to imitate old town squares like a theme park, complete with phony histories. ‘We needed to create this place not brand new. We wanted to create it old, we decided to bring the Baby Boomers to a home that they were familiar with when they were young,’ said Richard Schwartz.
His older half-brother, H. Gary Morse (often just referred to as ‘The Developer’) was responsible for putting The Villages on the map.
Morse contracted a company known for building entertainment parks to bring his vision to life. They asked Morse, what’s your story? ‘That’s easy,’ he said. ‘Our Villagers moved her because they found the Fountain of Youth.’
‘Lake Sumter Landing’ is fabricated to look like a Southern coastal city but with a $120million Civil War makeover. Matured oak trees covered in Spanish moss line the quaint streets. A giant prop lighthouse looms over the massive man-made lake that is completely void of maritime activity. Train tracks run through the town without locomotives. The Savannah Center is a performing arts facility that was built to resemble Scarlett O’Hara’s beloved Tara.
Meanwhile, historical plaques tell its rich (albeit bogus) history of shipping accidents, skirmishes with Native Americans and epidemics.
‘Spanish Springs’ is the facsimile of a colonial Spanish fort; perfectly preserved in its faux patina. There’s a saloon with Wild West accents, faded advertisements for Charlie Chaplin’s The Pilgrim are painted on the wall outside the Rialto theater and an old-timey western jail says ‘Established in 1792.’
According to Village lore, ‘Spanish Springs’ is the location of Ponce de Leon’s long-sought Fountain of Youth. Nearby markers tell the story of a prominent debutante from the 1850s named Katie Bell Van Patten. ‘The plaque looks so authentic I have to remind myself I am standing on what was pastureland a mere decade ago,’ writes Andrew Blechman in Leisureville.
Meanwhile, ‘The Brownwood Paddock Square’ is reminiscent of a 19th century cattle ranch, replete with artificial cow tracks, a red painted barn, silo, and an old fashioned windmill. The shops stay on theme with forged relics of old advertising: ‘M&M Fine Carriages: A Specialty.’
Some Kind of Heaven plunges into this surreal world of argyle socks, heavy drinking and Viagra-fueled promiscuity with no shortage of situational comedy that borders on absurd. Like when the camera cuts to a group of geriatrics belly dancing to ‘Let It Snow!’ or pans over a club of women with the same name: ‘Hi, my name is Elaine. Hi, my name is Elaine. Hi my name is Elaine. Elaine is our name.’
One scene follows the ‘golf cart drill team’ during practice as two lines of carts weave past each other with unfathomable precision before merging into a circular flourish. With hands on her hips; the coach means business when she blows her whistle to remind carters of spatial awareness.
12 new homes are built every week at The Villages. Oppenheim thinks people are attracted to the hyper-manicured retirement mega-community ‘Because they want to be told what to do and how to live. If you’re able to relinquish any sense of your own individual self to live in this collective bubble, I’m sure, there is probably some kind of euphoria’
Through Barbara, Reggie, Anne and Dennis, Oppenheim hopes to convey that the search for fulfillment never quite ends. He told The Daily Beast, ‘By and large, the friends I made in The Villages are working through the same problems I’m experiencing in my twenties. In that sense, I suppose, they have found eternal youth’
Villagers head into the Truman Recreation Center to cast their vote on November 3, 2020. There is also an Eisenhower rec center where the walls are covered with war memorabilia collected from Village residents; and the floor and the window treatments are exact replicas of the West Wing
Retiree Al Berliner, 73, sits in his golf cart at Spanish Springs Town Square amid a COVID uptick in The Villages, Florida, U.S. March 16, 2020. Berliner, who has diabetes and COPD, says, ‘If I die tonight, they’ll find me with a smile on my face. I don’t worry about stuff like that.’ His optimism is a common thread among his grey-haired neighbors, ‘Everything here is just so positive…so I’m lost for words,’ said one resident in the documentary. ‘I don’t see the slums, I don’t see death and destruction, I don’t see murders, you don’t see a lot of children running around here either’
From its inception, The Villages were meticulously engineered to simulate the rose-tinted idea of Main Street, USA– predicated on convenience, leisure and good ol’ American values (even if it’s an illusion). It was tailor made for a demographic that mythologized a wholesome fantasyland evoked in Reagan’s ‘It’s Morning in America’ commercials, said Oppenheim
The documentary also exposes some darker truths that belie the sheen of magical realism at The Villages. Though politics and Trump are never mentioned, Oppenheim said: ‘I wanted to make something that was more engaged with the ideas of the Trump presidency, or a body of people who do believe in those kinds of ideas that Trump believes in.’
Political division in the senior mecca reached fever pitch in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election. Shirley Schantz, a resident of Sanibel outlined in a Letter-to-the-Editor of VillageNews.com, all the reasons she feels ‘afraid to live in The Villages.’ It included an uptick in destruction of personal property (red paint splattered on a driveway, torn flags, cars keyed etc) and multiple threats to one’s personal safety made verbally and in letter form.
Things turned sinister in June when 2,000 members in the ‘Villagers for Trump’ group hosted a golf-cart rally in the presidents honor. A viral video released from the event captured a man enthusiastically shouting ‘White power! White power!’ as he rolled passed counter-protesters in his golf cart. Trump retweeted the video, ‘Thank you to the great people of The Villages,’ he wrote, before deleting the tweet a few hours later.
It’s impossible to ignore that Make America Great Again springs from the same well of nostalgia for the elusive ‘American Dream’ that draws residents to The Villages in the first place. That dream is stunning in its homogeneity– 98% of the residents are white, and fundamentally conservative with nearly 70% of Villagers voting for Trump in 2016 and 2020. Meanwhile, the six-figure property prices and exorbitant Home Owner’s Association dues create an entry barrier that separates Villagers from the chaff.
It’s a place where ‘the reality that (you and I) belong to seemingly does not exist,’ said Oppenheim. They have their own in house TV station and newspaper that only prints positive news (like rising property values and wedding anniversaries). Their radio station only plays music from the 1950s and 1960s. ‘There’s this deliberate gulf that they’ve created between their world and ours.’
Peddling this pre-packaged fantasyland has afforded the Morse family a lavish lifestyle that includes four jets, a 147-foot yacht and a sprawling private compound within The Villages. No dollar is spared for convenience either; in fact the family pays the U.S. Customs Department $120K per year to staff the tiny local airport at Leesburg with a customs official, just to avoid the trek to Tampa or Orlando when they want to fly internationally.
As of 2018, Bloomberg estimates that the Morse family net worth is close to $3billion. That fortune was amassed by owning almost everything within The Villages empire; and collecting cash on the front and back end of every deal.
Not only do they own the construction company that builds the homes, but they also only the real estate corporation that sells them, the mortgage company that finances them and the insurance company that underwrites them – it’s a closed ecosystem.
In addition to those holdings, the Morse family also own the utilities, garbage collection service, banks, newspaper, TV channel, radio stations, hospital, assisted living facilities, liquor stores (as well as the liquor distribution rights) and five golf cart dealerships that sell more Yamaha buggies than any other dealer in the nation. If that wasn’t enough, they are landlords to nine million square feet of commercial space, with tenants like Target, Walmart and Publix.
People react as they watch a broadcast of Fox News showing presidential election returns at an election night watch party organized by group ‘Villagers for Trump’ on November 3, 2020. The Villages are a Republican stronghold with a demographic that is 98% white with nearly 70% of Villagers voting for Trump in 2016 and 2020. Because older voters are America’s most reliable voters, the retirement community has become a popular election stop and platform for Republican political figures such as former Vice President Dick Cheney, President George W. Bush, Mike Pence, Mitt Romney, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Rick Santorum, President Donald Trump
Trump became the first sitting US president to visit The Villages twice. He appeared alongside Gov. Ron DeSantis before approximately 10,000 supporters in a field behind The Villages Polo Club and was the only president to visit the retirement community twice. ‘This is a stop at The Villages to say hello to people that have been with me for so long,’ he said
The price Villagers pay for ‘blissful ignorance’ is rendered in personal freedoms. Or, as author Andrew Blechman writes: ‘In exchange for unlimited leisure and recreation, they’ve traded the ballot box for the suggestion box.’ It’s a warped Orwellian reality that residents are surprisingly blasé about.
Draconian rules and restrictions dictate every aspect of ‘life in the bubble.’ Repainting your home requires board approval, (and only then can you select from a bland pallet with 10-shades of beige). No more than two vehicles are allowed per driveway, all vehicles must be regularly used (defined as twice per week) or stored in the garage. Lawn ornaments are strictly prohibited including but not limited to: windmills, religious symbols, gnomes, animal figurines, Christmas decorations and flamingos (bummer!). Even the most tasteful decor can turn into a red button topic.
TV antennas and satellite dishes are forbidden; as are clothing lines, window air conditioners and commercial vehicles. There is a two pet maximum policy, weighing no more than 40 pounds each. Retractable leashes are illegal, and can be no longer than seven feet. Villagers must make sure their lawns are properly edged at all times and hedges can be no greater than four feet (planting new ones will require Home Owner’s Association approval).
The most controversial rule, is also the cardinal rule: no persons under the age of 55 are allowed to live in The Villages. That decree extends to children and grandchildren, who are not permitted to visit for more than 30 days within a calendar year.
Failure to abide by these guidelines will accrue fines; or perhaps worse – make you a pariah among your fellow neighbors.
Unsurprisingly, these mandates are primarily enforced by meddlesome neighbors through an anonymous complaint system. No charge is too trivial: an illegally planted orange tree on Ink Pot Way, a white Honda Civic parked in guest parking, a non-compliant porch modification on Raccoon Road, empty flower pots on D’Angelo Lane, an illegal turtle ornament on Cammarano Place (many of which were deemed unfounded by Community Standards personnel).
Outraged residents take to online forums to air their grievances. ‘MitchToFla’ grumbled about the increase in dog activity in his neighborhood. ‘I would like to call all dog owners to look at their deeds and restrictions that they agreed to and signed when they bought their homes,’ he wrote in an open forum on TalkOfTheVillages.com. As per ‘section 2.23 in the Declarations of Restrictions’ residents of the Santo Domingo neighborhood are only entitled to one dog.
One woman complains of the ‘egregious’ violation of ‘children living in the community’ before naming off residents who breached the law. Fran Miller from the ‘Village of Country Club Hills’ didn’t mince words in her Letter-to-the Editor of Village-News.com, when she said the youth are: ‘Taking up space and not contributing either volunteering or financially to the community and being a parasite to society, unhealthy for all.’
Although some find the endless guidelines to be a nuisance: ‘I learned, there is a rule for everything here in The Villages and a badge to go with it,’ wrote Ed Magenheimer in his Letter-to-the-Editor. He joked: ‘When will the Morses have a mandatory 2 week course on the rules and a test after? If you don’t pass, you can’t buy the house?’
‘So many people, I think, are attracted to live there because they want to be told what to do and how to live,’ says Oppenheim contemplating why this privately-owned government has been so popular.
Nonetheless he tells Vox: ‘I do understand why so many people there are very protective of this space, a world in which they can do all those things before they’re infirmed and they can’t go out anymore.’
Upon moving to The Villages, every resident is given a guidebook on how to properly care for their new home. From regular vacuuming to using Clorox bleach for stubborn stains on countertops; The Villages has a right way to do everything. The booklet ends with an epilogue titled, ‘Your Path Continues’ and reads: ‘Abraham Lincoln once said that happiness isn’t a station you arrive at, but a manner of traveling. That pretty much sums up the trip you’ve just made to become a Villager,’ it says. ‘Rather than just reaching a destination, you’ve found a whole new lifestyle to a new manner of traveling. And so, your path isn’t really ending.’
Remarkably, Oppenheim feels the same way. Through Barbara, Reggie, Anne and Dennis, he hopes to convey that the search for fulfillment never quite ends. He told The Daily Beast, ‘By and large, the friends I made in The Villages are working through the same problems I’m experiencing in my twenties. In that sense, I suppose, they have found eternal youth.’