At The Villages, it takes a special vehicle to provide the right rides for thousands of different personalities and needs.
If you want to see how a golf car can stand up to the most demanding conditions, you don’t have to enter it in a NASCAR race, or even build your own test track. Just head down to central Florida, about an hour north of Orlando, and make your way to a community called The Villages.
If you’re interested in learning how a golf car can perform on a variety of different golf courses, The Villages certainly provides ample opportunity for that. The property has 10 championship golf courses and 29 executive tracks, for a total of 504 holes that extend for 84 miles, tee to green.
That makes The Villages the largest golf facility in the world, easily lapping number two (Mission Hills in China, with 216 holes). And it doesn’t plan to relinquish the crown anytime soon: Two more championship and six more executive courses are being planned, to take the total number of holes up to 621.
Clearly, there’s no room for non-starting or poor-performing golf cars at The Villages, where 10,000 tee times are available each day, and over 2.5 million rounds were played last year. (Perhaps the most eye-opening statistic of all, though—and one that might make you contemplate buying stock in every golf-ball manufacturing company—is this one: Players at The Villages lost nearly six million balls in 2011.)
The research you can do on golf-car performance at The Villages shouldn’t be confined to the golf courses, however. The Villages was founded as a retirement community 40 years ago, and like many such places, has always billed itself as “active.” But in this case, that claim is an understatement.
At the end of the last decade, Forbes magazine named The Villages, which now has 85,000 people, as America’s fastest-growing small town. Forty thousand homes have now been built in the community—and there’s an average of one golf car for every home. That’s because golf cars are needed not only to access the courses at The Villages (one-third of the residents are regular players, and two-thirds play at least one round a year), they’re also the preferred mode of transportation for getting around a property that’s one-and-a-half times the size of Manhattan Island.
Residents of The Villages rely on their golf cars to also get them to stores, restaurants, theaters and other regular stops in their still-busy lives, and these aren’t Florida drivers who are content to putter along—golf cars are frequently seen cruising the streets of The Villages (which all have special golf-car lanes) at speeds of up to 20 mph, and residents also like to use them to enjoy the property’s miles of recreational trails.
If you’re also interested in studying how golf cars can be customized and tailored to specific needs and individual personalities, The Villages has you more than covered there, too. This is a place full of people who already led full and distinctive lives before they came here, and who now want to express their individuality through their vehicles—and not just so it’s easier to find them among a sea of other golf cars in the parking lots.
As a result, any visitor to The Villages will be treated to a non-stop parade of tricked-out golf cars that reflect the former professions, hobbies, pro- and college-team rooting interests and other personal preferences of their owners. Cars are also frequently customized to provide rain-or-shine protection from the elements and accommodate special needs for improved accessiblity when getting in or out of them, extra mirrors and lights for expanded fields of vision and safety, or other options that can help their owners get the most use, and enjoyment, from their rides.
On a Steady Roll
One golf car manufacturer that has found The Villages to be an especially valuable proving ground—not to mention a steady source of business—is the Yamaha Golf-Car Company. The company has an active dealership on the property, with a team headed by General Manager Ernie Keckonen.
Yamaha currently has three showrooms within The Villages, with a fourth one being planned. Keckonen estimates that probably one-fourth of all of the golf cars at The Villages now carry the Yamaha brand. But, he adds, you might have to look a little closer to recognize that brand, around all of the customization that he and his staff do for their customers.
“These aren’t just golf cars, they’re rides,” Keckonen says. “Depending on what people want and need, we build enclosures for them—both soft and hard—add nice 8- or 10-inch steel wheels, add mirrors and running lights, upgrade the seats, put in radios and coolers, and of course do a lot with graphics so [the cars] can be personalized according to [the owner’s] favorite teams or colors.” By the time they’re through with some of the special orders, Keckonen says, the more-deluxe new cars can carry price tags that approach $20,000.
For those for whom price, and operating costs, might be more of an object, the Yamaha team at The Villages also offers comprehensive parts and maintenance service, to help maximize the life and performance of the cars that it sells to residents. Golf cars on the property typically get from 3,000 to 5,000 miles put on them a year, Keckonen says, and what he and his staff have learned about optimizing maintenance under The Villages’ unique operating conditions has helped the company build better cars for all applications.
“We have some customers who first bought their cars here 20 years ago and are still getting good use out of them,” Keckonen reports. “With regular maintenance and attention to things like battery cleaning, we can help them get extended and maximum life from their vehicles.”
Yamaha also does a brisk business in trade-ins and sales of reconditioned cars at The Villages. All told, there’s nothing “inactive” about its operation in this unique property—nor does Keckonen expect “retirement” for his business anytime soon.
“By the time the final buildout is done here in 2015, they expect to have 55,000 homes and 110,000 people,” he notes. “There’s nothing small-scale about this place, and golf cars are clearly the preferred mode of transportation, as the easiest and best way for people to get around.”