Villages opens 100th recreation facility

Local residents tour the newly opened Aviary Neighborhood Recreation Center, which is The Villages’ 100th recreation facility and 29th recreation center.

Pam Henry never tires of attending the opening of a new recreation facility. As an employee with The Villages Recreation and Parks Department since 1996, Henry has been part of many such openings, but Wednesday’s soft opening of Aviary Recreation Center represents a special one. The newest village recreation center, located south of State Road 44 in the Village of Hawkins, marks the 100th recreation facility in The Villages. “When I first started with The Villages we had five recreation centers,” said Henry, manager of lifestyles, parks and public relations for the department. “I never would have imagined we’d get all the way to 100 facilities. We have come such a long way. It’s been wonderful to work directly with The Villages to provide these facilities to increase the lifestyle opportunities for residents.”

It’s an amazing accomplishment, said John Rohan, director of Recreation and Parks.

“It’s a huge milestone for our community,” he said. “It’s a great number, but what’s more important is the number of lifestyle services and programs we are able to offer. I think it fortifies the continued commitment to provide first-class amenities for our residents.”

It’s a number that impresses even officials with the National Recreation and Parks Association.

“Recreation professionals throughout the nation understand how important it is for all communities to have access to centers that provide opportunities for quality recreational and health activities,” said Melissa May, senior research manager at the NRPA. “It is obvious the priority and pride placed on active recreation in The Villages. Impressive numbers like these are rarely seen within cities with hundreds of thousands of residents let alone communities of 130,000.”

Aviary is the 29th village recreation center, joining 12 regional recreation centers and 59 neighborhood recreation areas. It is the sixth new facility to open in 2020, following village recreation centers Water Lily and Trillium, and Chitty Chatty, Bradford and Hawkins recreation areas.

Paradise Recreation Center was the original recreation facility in the community, opening in 1973 in what was then known as Orange Blossom Gardens.

The emphasis on recreation is something appreciated by Taylor Ratliff, who will serve as recreation supervisor at Aviary, which officially opens to residents today.

“It shows how successful the department is, as well as the success of the entire vision and planning of the Developer to focus on recreation,” Ratliff said. “It’s definitely unique. I’ve lived in 10 different states and no place has anything close to what we have here.”

Henry said the opening of a new facility is something she never takes for granted.

“It’s always exciting,” she said. “And it never ceases to amaze me the ability of the design division to do something unique with the design of each one. They might have similar amenities, but each facility has its own individual character.”

Aviary features a theme focused around birds, with a strong emphasis on eagles. The inspiration was provided by the eagle preserve next to the property.

A full-sized papier-mâché eagle serves as a showcase piece in the front entrance. The eagle was created by English artist Lisa Lloyd.

Inside the recreation center is a large meeting room, kitchen, card room and game room featuring billiards, table shuffleboard and dart boards.

Outdoor amenities include a resort-style family pool, picnic pavilion, pickleball, tennis, bocce, corn toss and shuffleboard.

Residents of nearby villages Chitty Chatty, Bradford, Hawkins and St. Catherine were invited to Wednesday’s soft opening.

Tina and Dave Ahrens, of the Village of Bradford, were surprised to learn Aviary was the 100th recreation facility. The couple moved from Connecticut in October.

“We knew there were a lot, but we had no idea it was that many,” Dave said. “Other places we’ve looked at, or communities where we have lived, you have maybe one or two recreation centers for hundreds of homes and you might have to travel two or three miles just to get there.”

Tina said she is impressed by the different types of facilities as well as the number.

“When we were researching where we wanted to live, we liked the fact that we’d have our neighborhood pool, and we saw this recreation center would be close by with even more options,” she said. “And we have easy access to Rohan [Recreation Center] with the [Chitty Chatty] bridge open, so we really appreciate all of the variety.”

Sandy and Robin Woolen are building a house in the Village of St. Catherine and were eager to explore Aviary. They have been renting in the Village of DeLuna after moving from Kansas City about four weeks ago.

“Our home is being built right around the corner, so we were excited to be able to come and take the tour,” Robin said. “It’s a fabulous facility.”

“We’re excited about all the different activities that are offered here,” Sandy said. “We’re ready to dive in.”

Robin said learning the number of recreation facilities in The Villages gives him even more confidence they chose the right place to retire.

“To me it shows the level of commitment to the community,” he said. “If you’re going to build 100 recreation centers you’re going to be here for a long time, which is what we’re planning on doing. What they are doing really appeals to us. And from everything I’ve seen so far, they’re doing it right.”

Specialty Editor Keith Pearlman can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5347, or keith.pearlman@thevillagesmedia.com.