Retirement the Margaritaville Way | The New Yorker

I didn’t. Murphy was now crying. He turned away to collect himself. Changes in attitude. After a few moments, he apologized and introduced me to his friends. One of them was his neighbor from across the street in what was known as Phase 2—the second neighborhood to have been built. (Phase 5, consisting of six hundred and forty-one homes, is now fully developed, and half sold, and lots are for sale in Phase 6. There is room and approval for nearly four thousand homes.) The neighbor was Jack Sjursen, a retired ironworker from Patchogue, on Long Island, who was turning sixty-two the next day. “It’s my birthday, bitch!” he called out. He appeared to have momentum. He’d also just learned that he had a new grandson, and was going saltwater fishing at dawn. “I fish and I golf,” he said. “I’ve been here for two and a half years, loving every minute of it.”

The citizens of Latitude Margaritaville testify so consistently to a life of gratification that one suspects, but finds no evidence for, a regimen of happy pills or talking points. Disgruntlement and curmudgeonliness must exist, but not in view of a visitor susceptible to such traits.

“My husband doesn’t own pants.”

“We’ve got four bars in our villa.”

“The freshman fifteen is real here.”

Stuart Schultz, a former summer-camp director who, as Latitude Margaritaville’s head of residential community relations, serves as a kind of cheerleading pooh-bah, told me, “It’s like being in college, but with money and without having to study. You have a great dorm room, you never have to go to class, and there’s always a party.”

One resident said, “In our previous life, we could do paper calendars. Here we had to learn Google Calendar.” Some had college- or adult-aged children living with them who were startled by their parents’ social lives. “My daughter’s always, like, ‘You’re going out again?’ ” one woman said. Men with guitars set up outside someone’s garage, and the golf carts appear out of nowhere. Commence the beer pong. Pool parties, poker nights, talent shows, toga parties, pig roasts. Cigar-club meeting, group renewal of wedding vows, a pub crawl in old St. Augustine. Oktoberfest this fall had a “Gilligan’s Island” theme; “Hoodstock” was hippies, Fireball, and multicolored jello shots. The golf carts zip and swerve. “By the time we got to Phase 3, we were driving on people’s lawns!” one participant told me. (“Open containers are encouraged,” he said.) An Andrea Bocelli concert in Orlando, or a pajama party at the Last Mango, with a screening of “The Polar Express.” Proximity to Port Canaveral means easy cruise-ship access; the residents set sail, often in big groups, on vacations from their permanent vacation. A couple of hundred of them were booked on a cruise to Bermuda this spring.

If it’s isolation that ails us—our suburban remove, our reliance on cars, our dwindling circles of friends, our lack of congregation and integration and mutual understanding, of the kind described by Robert Putnam in “Bowling Alone”—then the solution, especially for those tilting into their lonelier elderly years, would seem to be fellowship, activity, fun. In the Margaritaville calculus, the benefits of good company outweigh the deleterious effects of alcohol. Merriment is medicinal.

At a happy hour one night, I met Chuck and Christina Danner. Chuck, fifty-eight, was ex-military intelligence, now in electronic payments, as yet unretired. Christina, fifty-four, had worked in payments, which is where they’d met: this was, for both of them, a second marriage. (An underage resident, upon turning fifty-five, might have a “Finally Legal” party.) Originally from Pennsylvania, they’d moved to Daytona from Denver, and owned a Harley, two Jeeps, and an R.V. They were among the first fifty people to arrive at Latitude Margaritaville.

One of the many resident bands.Photograph by Tobias Hutzler for The New Yorker

Chuck told me, “If you don’t get here and automatically relax and think, This is great, there’s something wrong with you, and you don’t belong here.”

When Chuck was fifty-one, he had a heart attack. “I nearly died,” he said. “The E.M.T.s beat the shit out of me.” Recently, he’d been to see his cardiologist, who reported that all his vitals were almost shockingly strong: “He said, ‘I’d never be able to tell that you ever had a heart attack.’ ” Chuck chalked it up to the Margaritaville life style and outlook. Another resident at the happy hour chimed in: “My cardiologist told me, ‘I’m from New Orleans. I’m on call all the time down there at Latitude Margaritaville, and they throw it down pretty hard!’ ”

The chief executive of Margaritaville Holdings, the parent company of Latitude Margaritaville, is a New Yorker named John Cohlan. In 1994, Cohlan was an associate at Triarc, the investment firm co-founded by Nelson Peltz, which owned RC Cola and Arby’s. That year, Peltz moved the firm temporarily to Palm Beach. Cohlan, thirty-six and single at the time, didn’t know anyone there; a friend introduced him to Jane Slagsvol, Jimmy’s wife, and, eventually, Cohlan met Buffett himself. At Jazz Fest, in New Orleans, he saw the enthusiasm of Buffett’s fans during his set and had an epiphany that Buffett might be a more substantial and self-sustaining brand than any that Triarc owned. “He was a real businessman!” Buffett told me recently. Buffett had already, as he put it, “opened that vein of the mine” with a Margaritaville bar and a T-shirt shop in Key West. Disney had shown interest in a partnership but hadn’t agreed to Buffett’s terms. The investor Warren Buffett, whom Jimmy had got to know after a Buffett-clan pilgrimage to a South Pacific island populated by Buffetts (a DNA test revealed no blood relation between the two), had advised him, Ask for what you want, and if they say no someone else will come along. Uncle Warren, as Buffett calls him, was right. That someone was Universal Studios. Buffett enlisted Cohlan to help him establish a twenty-thousand-square-foot Margaritaville restaurant at the entrance to Universal’s Islands of Adventure theme park in Orlando. Cohlan also outflanked Seagram, which owned both the park and Buffett’s record label, on the question of what alcohol to stock—with Seagram, Margaritaville created its own. Buffett brought in Cohlan as his partner, saying, “I can’t pay you what you’re making on Wall Street, but you get to come to work in shorts and flip-flops.”

More than twenty million people a year pass through the doors of a Margaritaville-branded establishment. The company, with annual system-wide sales of $1.7 billion, licenses the name to restaurants, hotels, casinos, and resorts, and sells a wide array of branded merchandise: umbrellas, towels, beach furniture, bicycles, blenders, frozen shrimp, and Key-lime-pie mix. It recently announced plans to launch a cruise line. (Before that, Buffett himself had never been on a cruise ship.) Given the age of Buffett’s fan base, and the life style he’s hawking—as well as baby-boomer demographics—the move into active living was a natural one.

“Who knew people wanted to live in Margaritaville?” Buffett told me. “I thought for a while it was a myth.”

The development in Daytona was a joint project of Margaritaville Holdings and Minto Communities USA, the American branch of a builder based in Ottawa. In 2017, Minto had bought roughly two thousand acres of brush and swamp, about seven miles from the coast, across the street from the Ladies Professional Golf Association’s headquarters and its pair of signature courses. Minto had a plan to develop a retirement community there called Oasis. Cohlan caught wind of it, and Oasis became Latitude Margaritaville, taking its name from Buffett’s breakthrough 1977 album, “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes”—the one with the “Margaritaville” single. The latitude would be east-central Florida, or any place where it doesn’t ice over in winter; the attitude would be strummin’ the six-string on a front-porch swing. The partners developed a nearly identical one in Hilton Head, South Carolina, and last year launched the biggest one yet, in Panama City, Florida.

“We were getting polarized as a country politically, and then the pandemic comes along,” Buffett said. “It’s a good place to be if you like your neighbor.”

Cohlan told me, “It attracts people—and this may sound corny—who have a set of common values. Those values are rooted in this attitude. A person created that attitude. But whether or not you feel connected to that person, it’s not physics. It’s, ‘We’re interested in meeting other people. We like to have fun. We don’t want to be overly political. We like the idea of being happy.’ ”

After my night with Phil Murphy at the Bar & Chill, I looked up “The Captain and the Kid.” It was on “Down to Earth,” Buffett’s first album, from 1970, which never really got off the ground. He wrote the song about the death of his grandfather, a ship captain who’d instilled in Buffett a love of the sea when he was growing up, on the Gulf Coast of Alabama. Buffett says that the record company wanted him to change the ending, to make the song less sad, but he refused:

We both were growin’ older then and
Wiser with the years
That’s when I came to understand
The course his heart still steers
He died about a month ago
While winter filled the air
And though I cried, I was so proud
To love a man so rare.

It is impressive, in that American way, how Buffett steered from there to here—from struggling singer-songwriter whom no one ever called the next Bob Dylan to surefire arena act and hospitality conglomerateur. A poor man’s Gordon Lightfoot grows into a drinking man’s Martha Stewart, hardly having to change his tune.

Nashville, on that first go-round, anyway, didn’t work out for him. His second record, “High Cumberland Jubilee,” a string-band gambit without a whiff of brine, didn’t get released. He had an infectious personality, a facility with words, and some mojo as a solo performer, but the charisma didn’t translate onto vinyl, or onto the charts. For a while, to make ends meet, he worked as a reporter at Billboard. Humbled and frustrated, he retreated, in 1971, to Key West, at that time a redoubt of leathery sots and acid freaks, drug smugglers, treasure hunters, and shrimpers, along with artists and writers who weren’t necessarily not one or two of those other things. Key West became material and muse. Buffett signed on as second mate on a fishing charter (“I kind of had it made”) and played for drinks and tips at the Chart Room, Capt. Tony’s, and Crazy Ophelia’s. Among his acquaintances were the writers Jim Harrison and Thomas McGuane, whom Buffett called Captain Berserko. (McGuane eventually married Buffett’s sister.) Periodically, he left the Keys to perform around the country, honing his emergent Caribbean cowboy style—“trop rock,” or “Gulf and Western”—and an audience took root. Still, it was a hard road. As Ryan White chronicles in an unauthorized biography, “Jimmy Buffett: A Good Life All the Way,” from 2017, Buffett was on the verge of buying a Boston Whaler to join the local marijuana-smuggling game, but, after a successful gig on the undercard at Max’s Kansas City in New York, he managed to sell a third album, “A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean.” The liner notes, by McGuane, burnished the emergence of a revised persona: A “throwback altar boy of Mobile, Alabama, brings spacey up-country tunes strewn with forgotten crab traps, chemical daydreams, Confederate memories, Ipana vulgarity, ukulele madness and, yes, Larry, a certain sweetness.”

“Margaritaville” was his first big hit, peaking at No. 8 on the Billboard chart in 1977. He has said he wrote it in six minutes, the first half of those in a notebook after an afternoon of drinking margaritas at a bar in Austin, Texas, the rest in a traffic jam on the Seven Mile Bridge, on returning to Key West. It was a catchy and clever distillation of the happy-derelict attitude, the celebration of leisure, transgression, and good humor that he’d been describing in song and projecting onstage for years.

At Latitude Margaritaville, the pickleball courts are typically busier than the tennis courts.Photograph by Tobias Hutzler for The New Yorker

I was eight when “Margaritaville” played over and over on the AM dial—in the summer not only of Sam but of Barry Manilow and Andy Gibb. It’s easy to disdain it now, but I associated its steel-drum calypso sound and droll delivery with the good life. I had a great-aunt, Julie, who each Christmas gave me a vinyl LP, relying on the recommendations of the record-store clerks. One year, she gave me “Anthology,” a compilation of the Band’s greatest hits. Another year, it was a Herb Alpert release called “Rise.” One wonders how she was describing me to the clerks. In 1980, it was “Volcano,” by Jimmy Buffett.

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