A lot of folks, myself included, were surprised to see a 50th anniversary logo on the new phone book for The Villages. The world’s largest retirement destination may seem like it sprang up only in the last 20 or so years, but that’s hardly the case.
The Villages truly is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. In 1959 a Midwesterner named Harold S. Schwartz began buying land in Central Florida—the same year that Walt Disney was shop-ping for a place to build a theme park. Although he didn’t acquire the original community—Orange Blossom Gardens—until the early ‘70s, Schwartz already had a vision. He wanted to create a place where people could afford to retire and live a lifestyle that had once belonged to only the wealthy.
By 1989, the community was known as The Villages. The original Orange Blossom Gardens was one of 16 villages and a small town center was located on the north side of Highway 441. In the mid-1990s, however, a grander dream was born when a new town square, Spanish Springs, was opened. Residents could gather, shop, dine, and dance every night if they wanted, and it was all golf-cart ac-cessible.
I’ll never forget the first trolley ride that my husband and I took through Spanish Springs in 1999, shortly after seeing The Villages advertised on the Golf Channel. We looked at each other and imme-diately said in unison, “It’s Disney World for adults.” We weren’t too far off the mark. Universal Studios theme park architects, Forrec Ltd, created a distinctive 19th Century Spanish-American motif that still fools visitors into thinking that Spanish Springs has been around for a 100 or more years.
Being history buffs, my husband and I were also quite amused to read some of the “faux” history that adorns the plaques on many of the downtown buildings. We’re still amazed when we talk to folks who think some of those yarns are real. As I recently researched the “real” history of The Villages, I learned that there really was a Katherine Isabel—or Katie Belle—as Harold Schwartz’s grandmother was called. And golfing great Chi-Chi Rodriguez really was on hand to open the Hacienda Hills Golf and Country Club in 1991.
Now after 50 years, The Villages has a real history of its own. And it’s not a bad one—the former pastureland, citrus groves, and watermelon fields have become one of the nation’s most thriving communities. New businesses are opening weekly and it’s not unusual to find folks driving from Or-lando to come here to shop. How we got here from one man’s vision is a pretty amazing story and one that we can be proud of.
On a different note, each new year, we ring out the old and ring in the new as the saying goes. It’s also time to say “goodbye” to a good friend and one of my favorite colleagues. Leigh Neely, who has been a writer for Style and other area publications for several years, is moving to Wayne, New Jersey, where her husband, Richard, recently took a new job. Leigh always knew whom to contact if I had a question and was a great inspiration for story ideas. She has an infectious laugh and sense of humor that can brighten any day. Although Leigh is dreading the cold weather, she is looking forward to being near the New York publishing industry. Who knows where we might see her next byline. Good luck, Leigh. We’ll miss you.
Happy New Year,
Mary Ann DeSantis lives in The Villages.
Read more of her writings at www.maryanndesantis.com