Villages residents and organizers are staging the best and biggest recreational and entertainment events throughout 2017
Story: Chris Gerbasi Photos: Provided
The Villages’ on-the-go lifestyle virtually demands it. If there’s a day to celebrate, a competition to be waged, or a venue to be filled, Villagers and district staff will create an event for it and make it their own.
The big, sprawling community holds big events, from sports to entertainment to holiday festivals. One of the biggest events, The Villages Senior Games, is being staged April 24-30 at venues throughout the area. In their 17th year, the Olympic-style athletic games continue to expand. The 28 different competition categories include track and field, swimming, golf, billiards, bocce, pickleball, tennis, team sports, archery, and more. This year, organizers added fencing, racquetball, bocce golf, quoits, a game similar to horseshoes, and two new disciplines in trap and skeet shooting, 5-stand and Crazy Quail.
The 2016 Senior Games included 1,730 participants, and likely attracted a similar number of spectators to the area, says Lisa Parkyn, lifestyle events manager for the Recreation Department and one of the coordinators of the games, which are popular with health-conscious Villagers.
“I think it partners nicely with the whole feeling in the area of staying healthy and active, and that kind of lifestyle,” Lisa says. “People are trying to stay fit, they use the facilities, and they want to show off what they’ve learned.”
Separating the athletes according to age groups also contributes to the lure of the games, she says, because participants are competing directly against their peers rather than someone who’s out of their league.
Gold, silver, and bronze medals are awarded to the top three finishers in each age division in each event, and The Villages Senior Games serve as a local qualifying event for the state games. The top five athletes in each age division will compete later this year in the Florida International Senior Games and State Championships at Clearwater.
There may not be a more popular sport than golf in The Villages, which has 12 championship courses and 36 executive courses. Residents can compete in tournaments throughout the year, and the larger events include the Ladies Village Cup from April 27-May 11, the Men’s Village Cup from Aug. 27-Sept. 8, the Men’s Resident Cup from May 2-19, and the Ladies Resident Cup from Aug. 14-17.
Special golf events attract visitors from around the state, says Tim Creely, director of golf administration for The Villages. The Pro Shootout is a 9-hole competition for PGA club professionals traditionally held in November at Palmer Legends Country Club. All of the golfers play the same hole at the same time in an elimination format as hundreds of fans surround each hole, making it a unique event, Tim says.
The annual Women’s Golf Expo is scheduled for Dec. 2 at Nancy Lopez Legacy Golf & Country Club. The expo is a one-day version of The Villages Golf Festival held during two days in March at The Villages Polo Club. The Golf Festival is the largest non-tournament golf event on the East Coast, Tim says, drawing an estimated 10,000-15,000 visitors for contests, demonstrations, and clinics by professionals. This year’s lineup featured former LPGA star Annika Sorenstam and current tour standout Paula Creamer.
The Villages’ three town squares are best known as entertainment venues, but they also anchor the routes for the yearly 5K Road Race Series. The races usually are run in the fall at Brownwood Paddock, the winter at Lake Sumter Landing and the spring at Spanish Springs, this year on April 15. Runners compete individually by age group, or in teams.
With 384 runners in last spring’s race at Spanish Springs, 759 at Brownwood, and 472 at Lake Sumter Landing, these are typically the largest foot races in The Villages, says Steve Wolf, leader of The Villages Running Club, which has more than 100 members.
“We get our running group and we have a pretty good turnout each time they hold those,” Steve says. “They’re excellent. The Villages’ Recreation Department does a really nice job of putting that together.”
He has run at each of the squares and won the past two races in his age category. A team from the Running Club often finishes near the top, too, and those runners aren’t just competing against fellow Villagers. The races are open to all ages, including teens and 20-somethings, from all areas. Families, church groups, and youth groups participate, Steve says.
“They encourage people to come from Leesburg, Ocala, wherever,” he says. “They bring people in.” In fact, the race results reveal runners’ hometowns from Miami, Georgia, North Carolina, the Midwest and East, and even out west in Arizona.
The Villages Championship Softball Tournament, scheduled for Oct. 20-22, also brings in elite competitors from around the state. Men’s and women’s teams are divided into age groups, and the field typically includes several dozen teams and hundreds of participants playing games at The Villages’ three softball complexes.
Anyone who has driven through The Villages has spotted dozens of bicyclists on the streets. The community is home to The Villages Bicycling Club, and the Sumter Landing Bicycle Club, whose members often gather for long-distance rides around the region.
One ride coming up is We Bike for Kids, an April 8 benefit for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Lake and Sumter Counties and the Sumter County Youth Center. Cyclists have their choice of 10-, 20-, 34-, or 65-mile routes as they start in Wildwood and pedal through The Villages, Sumter County or around Lake Panasoffkee.
The Hearts for Our Hospital Bicycle Challenge takes off Nov. 11 from Spanish Springs Town Square. More than 300 cyclists are expected to ride routes of 17, 32, 64, or 100 miles throughout Sumter, Lake and Marion counties to benefit The Villages Regional Hospital. The third annual Big Bike Weekend also includes a free Cycling Expo & Health Fair on Nov. 10 at La Hacienda Recreation Center.
Villagers love a parade, and Spanish Springs is overrun with several thousand spectators during the Oktoberfest, Italianfest, and St. Patrick’s Day parades.
The parades have been organized for the past four years by the 12-member Resident Parade Committee, with the help of the Recreation Department. The committee puts together all the participants and volunteers.
“It’s worked out very well. The Recreation Department is extremely cooperative with us,” says Sally Canna, volunteer coordinator for the committee.
“We tell them what we need and, of course, the Recreation Department is more than happy to help us out with that.”
The St. Patty’s Parade is the largest, both in turnout and the number of volunteers, requiring about 100, Sally says, while the other two parades use about 60 volunteers each.
“The response is wonderful. People come out and do support us,” she says. This year’s Italianfest is set for Oct. 3 at Spanish Springs and Oct. 5 at Lake Sumter Landing, while Oktoberfest will be held Oct. 17 at Spanish Springs and Oct. 19 at Lake Sumter Landing.
The squares are home to a number of other seasonal celebrations as well. The Scottish-themed Tartan Day Celebration is set for April 6 at Lake Sumter Landing, and Dyngus Day, an annual Polish event with lots of polkas, is slated for April 17 at Brownwood. Cinco de Mayo is celebrated May 5 at both Spanish Springs and Lake Sumter Landing, and Fourth of July festivities are planned for all three squares. Sleepy Holloween, complete with treats and a haunted house, will be set up Oct. 30 at Brownwood.
Each of the three squares host holiday Tree Lighting Festivals (Nov. 27, Spanish Springs; Nov. 29, Lake Sumter Landing; Dec. 1, Brownwood), and the Recreation Department also hosts an annual Christmas Parade in December at The Villages Polo Club, and New Year’s Eve bashes at five recreation centers.
Various arts and crafts shows fill the squares throughout the year, and two of the largest are both 21st annual festivals, one April 15-16 at Brownwood, and the other Nov. 4-5 at Spanish Springs. Classic cars line the squares during weekly and monthly showcases, such as the Friday Night Car Club Show at Lake Sumter Landing, and the Cruise In Classic Car Show the third Saturday of each month at Spanish Springs. During peak season, the Cruise In brings in 300 or more cars from 1980 and later, and the shows are open to anyone.
Beyond the entertainment at the squares, The Villages offers several venues for professional theater and shows.
The Sharon L. Morse Performing Arts Center opened in April 2015 at Spanish Springs. The Sharon seats just more than 1,000 guests in a multi-level theater with state-of-the-art production systems. Performances include concerts, dance, musicals, and operas, and the theater has hosted everyone from the sublime Johnny Mathis to the ridiculous Jerry Lewis.
“The Sharon can only augment what we already have,” says Brian Russo, The Villages director of entertainment. “It brings in high-level entertainment, including Broadway shows. It’s been a fantastic addition to what we do.”
Another marquee star is coming to the stage April 23. Fans can break out their leather jackets and poodle skirts or leg warmers and leotards for “Grease” star and “Physical” singer Olivia Newton-John.
“Our success at Savannah is built around variety and affordability, while still having high-caliber entertainment,” — Brian Russo
Also this month at The Sharon, The Villages Philharmonic Orchestra wraps up its 2016-2017 season April 4-5 with an Opera Celebration, and the Frontmen of Country Music, featuring Tim Rushlow (formerly of Little Texas), Larry Stewart (of Restless Heart) and Marty Roe (of Diamond Rio), are scheduled to appear April 19.
The venerable Savannah Center also stages an eclectic lineup of shows: Brian Hoffman’s “Remembering Red: A Tribute to Red Skelton,” April 5; the Central Florida Lyric Opera Presents “Fiddler on the Roof,” April 7-8; and “Jesus Christ Superstar,” April 10-13. On April 3, The Villages MS Walk Fundraising Committee presents the eighth annual MS Benefit, starring singers Mary Jo Vitale, Clark Barrios, Dawn DiNome, and Mark Schmidt.
“Our success at Savannah is built around variety and affordability, while still having high-caliber entertainment,” says Brian, adding that patrons of the shows don’t have to be Villages residents.
Yearlong schedules for The Sharon and Savannah Center were not available, but Brian hinted that several big-name concerts are in the works. The 2017-2018 roster of shows for The Villages’ newest theatrical venue, The Studio at Tierra del Sol, will be announced May 10.
The 99-seat “black box theater” is staging “Proof,” with previews April 3-6 and a run from April 7-30. Playwright David Auburn’s story about the daughter of a brilliant but mentally disturbed mathematician has won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award, and is the longest-running Broadway play of the 21st century.
The Studio has presented four plays during its inaugural season, selling out every performance and showing that some of The Villages’ big events come in small packages.