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Leimkuhler: Flee the frigid north and head to Florida

For six years my parents debated fleeing the frigid Mid-Atlantic winters to become southern snowbirds.

One year, they rented a pet-friendly beachfront condo in Gulf Shores, Alabama. Their month-long stay in Gulf Shores was a learning experience that helped them define what kind of snowbird nest there were, and were not, looking for.

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They quickly discovered that pet-friendly rental options were few and far between, and that, like the temperatures, the further south they searched, the higher the rental rates climbed. Which is how they found themselves on a beautiful beach in ‘Bama in the quiet town of Gulf Shores.

But, when I visited that February, the area was experiencing one of the coldest winters it had ever had, and they only way to sit comfortably on the beach was to bundle up in layers and huddle beneath a blanket.

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Also, in Gulf Shores, my parents were not staying in a community designated for seniors and, as renters, they found their transient status made it difficult to connect with other people and form meaningful relationships with their neighbors, many of whom were also short-term renters.

Enter The Villages — a booming retirement development in north-central Florida that is widely acknowledged as the fastest-growing small city in the U.S.

According to toughnickel.com, in the decade between the 2000 and 2010 United States Census, The Villages experienced a population increase of 43,109, reflecting a whopping 517.33% growth. By 2017, The Villages had grown to just over 60,000 households and 115,000 residents; the place even has its own zip code!

To entice potential new residents to The Villages, a “lifestyle preview” is available. For $99-$199 per night based on season and availability, the curious are invited for a 4-7 night stay to “experience what life could be like living in The Villages.” During this stay, visitors have full access to all village amenities and activities including swimming, golf and pickleball while staying in a “private, fully furnished cabana complete with golf cart and bikes.”

Considering it a mini-vacation as well as research, my parents took advantage of this preview on several occasions. Twice they put a contract on a house, and twice they backed out; mainly due to the deeply ingrained feeling that “Maryland is home” and not wanting to leave their kids and grandkids.

But as the grandkids became teenagers and started to head off to college, the allure of sunny skies, warm temperatures, a social senior community and a more active lifestyle continued to grow. This year, the timing finally seemed right.

In October, my parents officially headed to The Villages as “trial” snowbirds. Though the cost of living in The Villages is above average for the USA — mainly due to the cost of housing, with $268,600 being the median home price in The Villages — careful financial planning and the benefit of a lifetime of disciplined saving and sacrificing enabled my parents to make this leap while still keeping their Maryland home. For now.

This key safety net, the fact that they can still come return to their home if they decide Florida is not for them, helped to give my parents the courage and peace of mind they needed to go for it.

Earlier this month, my oldest daughter and I traveled to The Villages to spend three days with these newly minted snowbirds. Located in Sumter County, The Villages, which covers 32 square miles and includes approximately 90 miles of golf cart paths, is located approximately 20 miles south of Ocala and 45 miles northwest of Orlando.

Though still growing, there are currently about 78 different villages within The Villages that range in size from about 100 to 1,550 homes.

As an age-restricted community, the general rule is that there must be at least one person aged 55 or older living in a household. But, overall, The Villages simply requires that 80% of their residents be over 55. People under the age of 19 are not permitted to live in The Villages unless a special exemption has been granted, however there are a few subdivisions that have been designated as “family units” in which the age minimum does not apply.

From what I saw and experienced in The Villages, the residents definitely seemed to skew toward the younger side of the senior spectrum. Or perhaps it’s simply indicative of what healthy living and abundant sunshine can do for a person.

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Editor’s Note: This column is the first in a two-part series on The Villages, Florida.

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