Golf carts and retirement: How the vehicles have made life better for seniors (PHOTOS).

All you need to know about retirement.
Feb. 24 2011 11:47 AM

Slow Ride, Take It Easy

The astonishing rise of golf carts, and how they have improved retirement.

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In the winter of 1962, William Stevens Jr., a young owner of the fledgling golf-cart company Club Car, took a six-day, 450-mile journey of questionable legality. In order to show just how reliable one of his small electric vehicles could be, he and a colleague drove a golf cart from his factory in Georgia to a golf merchandise show in Florida. At one point, a Florida highway patrol officer pulled him over and told him he couldn't drive his slow-moving contraption on the highway. Stevens replied, "I haven't seen any signs saying that we couldn't." The officer let him go.

Emily Yoffe Emily Yoffe

Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. You can reach her at prudence@slate.com.

It turned out to be a prescient trip, foretelling changes in the worlds of both golf and retirement. Back then, people who played golf walked the 18 holes. Today there are many courses at which players are required to use a golf cart. Back then, retirement generally meant that you stopped going to work, not that you had started a new "lifestyle." But around the same time when Stevens was driving to Florida, the first age-restricted retirement community, Sun City, Ariz., was created. Today more than 1 million people live in these "active retirement" developments, and at many, the golf cart is the symbol of liberation from the strictures of their former lives.

At The Villages, a seniors-only community of 83,000 west of Orlando that was opened in the late 1980s, there are about 100 miles of golf cart trails. "This community was developed for the golf-cart lifestyle, it was built for that very deliberately," says Gary Lester, vice president for community relations. "It was developed so people can do everything by golf cart—go to the hairdresser, grocery store, bank, dancing, movies, and, oh, yes, you can play golf." A video on The Villages Web site specifically touts the golf cart's rejuvenating qualities. One resident says, "It's just like driving a go-kart. It makes me feel like a kid again."

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In warm-weather retirement developments around the country, from Florida to California, Georgia to Texas, the golf cart is the primary means of transportation. The golf cart both liberates and confines. Seniors cruise around giddily in these quiet electric vehicles. Open to the air, unencumbered by doors and seat belts, life becomes a kind of rolling party. But when the golf cart is your primary mode of transportation, it means you're not going very far and not getting there very fast. When everywhere you need to go is reachable by golf cart, it generally means you aren't going anywhere but your retirement community.

Don Hahnfeldt, 66, is a retired Navy captain who used to, in his own words, "drive submarines" for a living. When he and his wife Cheryle bought their home at The Villages six years ago, they arrived with a Cadillac and an Infiniti. By the time they'd closed on their house, they were the owners of their first golf cart. Six months later, their cars sitting idle but their golf cart racking up miles, they bought another one. A year after that, they sold the Infiniti and hung onto the Cadillac mostly because they needed it to chauffeur visiting grandchildren to Disney World. * Hahnfeldt's experience is typical. There are about 50,000 privately owned golf carts at The Villages. That's more golf carts than all the buses, taxis, and subways in Manhattan.

Ernie Keckonen, sales manager of The Villages Golf Cars, where the vehicles generally retail for between $6,000 to $8,000, says that the ability to travel in a golf cart is a major reason people move to The Villages. "You're open to the weather, you're going a slower speed, you observe things. You're closer to other golf-cart drivers, so you can interact with people as you go. It's easier to park. It's like a big toy in some ways." Many residents spend a lot of time and money customizing their golf carts to look like Hummers or vintage Chevys and Mustangs. A retired firefighter drives one that looks like a miniature fire truck. People decorate them with memorabilia from their home states or favorite football teams.

At Arizona's Sun City, Paul Herrmann, executive director of the visitor's center, gives the development credit for making golf carts a way of life. He says early on residents started driving off the course and doing errands in their golf carts. Today, he observes, "I would venture that at least half our golf carts have never been on a golf course." So insinuated are golf carts in the life of Sun City that in the 1970s, garages at the development began being designed to fit not two cars but a car and a golf cart.

The reality show Sunset Daze, set at Sun City Grand, follows the adventures of its senior cast as they circle around the complex in their golf carts like the teenagers cruising in American Graffiti. Two of the participants are sixty-something Sandy and her forty-something daughter Dawn, who is living with Sandy while recovering from substance-abuse problems. There's a poignant moment when Dawn plaintively asks her mother, "Can I borrow the keys to the golf cart?"

In his book, Leisureville , journalist Andrew Blechman, 42, has a somewhat jaundiced view of The Villages. He was disturbed by the voluntary self-segregation, the attitude that the end of one's life should be endless entertainment. But he had to admit driving around in a golf cart was a blast. As he writes, "The sensation is oddly thrilling. Cruising along in a golf cart at 20 miles per hour is somehow more invigorating than traveling in a car at seventy." In an interview he acknowledges the advantages of the golf-cart life, "Frankly, it's very peaceful. It's more relaxing to drive a golf cart to grocery store. It's safer, more economical, better for the environment." He observes that while cars are alienating, golf carts are social—you just take your foot off the accelerator and stop and talk to whoever's passing by.

But, still, there was something disquieting about the land of the golf cart: "It's the emblem of a community that is closed and remains closed. You don't have enough juice to get out of the community or any desire to."