The Villages, Florida: Disneyland for retirees

My parents bought a home for their retirement a few years ago in Central Florida in what used to be “cow country” and citrus groves, but is now a city called The Villages. It’s a senior living community where you must be over 55 years old to be a resident. It’s also one of the fastest growing communities in the country. We visited over Christmas again and every time we visit I feel like the place needs an explainer because the concept is so unique.

That same uniqueness seems to land The Villages in the news constantly. Stories about it effortlessly combine several popular recurring news topics, particularly: Seniors or Baby Boomers, Florida [man], and Republicans. It’s about as demographically diverse as you’d expect from an upscale suburban development in Central Florida, but that may be expected since it represents the era from which its residents are drawn.

Other than that, visit there and it’s much more normal than it sounds in the news. People are friendly and community-oriented and are always curious where you’re from, particularly if you appear to be a younger visitor like us. At its core it’s a nicely manicured Disney-esque suburban development with some New Urbanist elements central to its design philosophy, particularly mixed use paths, roundabouts, and town centers.

The mixed use paths are used by bicyclists, joggers, but more often than not by The Village’s cutest ambassadors, its golf carts. Homes in The Villages are often even built with a golf cart garage door, as nearly every home has one. Many add custom decals of sports team logos. The more adventurous “pimp” their carts to look like hot rods, pickup trucks, sports cars, or even a helicopter.

The Villages’ roundabouts are both a traffic control device and an aesthetic choice. With no stoplights, its main roads are free-flowing, green, and unspoiled by hanging wires or bright lights. Most first-time visitors have some trouble adjusting to the roundabouts, as they require drivers to slow down and yield, yet they are placed on otherwise wide and obstruction-free parkways that appear made for fast driving.

The town centers are the center of the community’s cultural life. Each cluster of neighborhoods has one, they are small mini-downtowns with supermarkets, stores, restaurants, and other amenities placed closely together to resemble a Main Street. Each night, amphitheaters host live music and events and the residents arrive, mostly in golf carts, to dance, drink, and socialize. These clusters make The Villages mostly self-sufficient, with all your typical daily needs located within a short jaunt in the golf cart.

Not only are the golf carts a conversation starter and mobility device for use into old age, they are for playing golf. One of the main selling points is the 40 nine-hole golf courses to which residents have free access. When not in use they double as beautiful landscaping.

Probably the most admirable element of The Villages is the way in which its design encourages continued physical activity in retirement. Each neighborhood has a local pool and rec center, while larger rec centers with tennis, pickleball, shuffleboard, bocce, and horseshoes are placed throughout the development. It’s like the Olympics of leisure sports!

Here are some photos from our last visit to The Villages:

Our first and hopefully not final Frontier flight

The price was shocking: $285 for two round-trip tickets from Long Island to Orlando, Florida for Christmas. At this late date, every other airline was nearly $400 or more for one ticket! The last straw was when I realized that United, the cheapest “normal” option, was now charging for carry-on bags in Economy.

There’s always a catch – and there was a catch or two, including a new airport even further away than usual – but why not? Every other airline is charging a-la-carte these days. I figured for half the price it was worth a shot.

Costs

Here’s the cost breakdown for the full round-trip:

Airfare: $285 ($142.50 x 2)
Carry-on: $70 ($35 x 2)
LIRR to Ronkonkoma: $55 ($13.75 x 4 one-way off-peak fares)
Taxi to/from airport: $20 ($5 x 4)
Total: $430

Frontier Airlines?

Originally founded as a regional airline out of Denver, Frontier is an ultra-low cost airline that flies to over 50 destinations across the US and several other neighboring countries. The airline runs flights back-to-back without any spare airplanes, pilots, or time, which we found out the hard way.

It’s part of the new wave of charge-for-everything airlines and on top of its low base fee it charges for carry-ons (in addition to checked bags). Its seats, from our experience, resemble picnic chairs and are non-reclinable and without any seat-back entertainment.

It was cheap and safe, though read on for the details.

The trip

The biggest difference between the usual JFK departure is the time spent on LIRR and cost of tickets, though with hourly service to Ronkonkoma and additional service during rush-hour, it wasn’t an inconvenience.

Departing on the 3:55pm off-peak train from Penn Station, we arrived to Ronkonkoma, which is adjacent to MacArthur / Islip Airport by 5:30. Taxi-shuttles wait at the station exit to ferry passengers to the airport terminal for $5 a head. A seamless transfer really, even better than the JFK AirTrain.

By this point we were an hour past JFK, but given that we usually budget an hour to get there and $10-15 for a peak ticket on LIRR and AirTrain, this trip wasn’t much longer or more expensive.

We were at the significantly less congested security checkpoint by 5:45pm. By now you’ll notice that most of our travel “success” stories, this one included, involve skipping security or customs at JFK.

The bad

The first message arrived to us while on the train to the airport: our 7:15 flight was now delayed until 8:35. Not the best, but ok. By the time we got to the gate, they were expecting a 9:30 departure. Once we boarded the plane, we sat for another hour before takeoff as they fixed the lavatory and filled out paperwork.

Total flight time: 2 hours 20 minutes. Total delay: 3 hours 15 minutes.

Upon arrival in Orlando, possibly due to the unplanned 1am arrival, our plane was at some obscure and far-away gate that took a bus and a shuttle train to reach the main terminal.

The return

Returning from Orlando to Islip, we arrived to the airport, hustled through a daunting security line in 30 minutes, and arrived to our gate for an on-time departure.

That is, for Frontier, on-time is an hour late. We waited in the plane for an hour while a faulty overhead bin lock was secured with packing tape and the requisite paperwork was filled out.

Arriving to Islip, we caught a taxi and made the 9:11pm train back to Penn Station with time to spare. Ronkonkoma has hourly train service, even on nights and weekends, which beats pretty much everything except the A train, plus it’s nicer than the subway.

Conclusion

Frontier got us to our destination cheaply and safely, though not at the same level of comfort or predictability as really any other carrier we’ve flown, low-cost carriers included. It was fine for the short hop to Florida, and made sense for the savings alone.

In the end, Frontier even apologized to us for the 3-hour delay by sending us each a $50 travel voucher. The catch is, we have to use it on Frontier!

We’ll give it another chance, but we won’t use the airline for any cases in which we have to be comfortable for a long time, catch a connection, or be on time for anything, e.g. our “extreme getaway” flight to Barbados that we did on JetBlue.