Jody Duda is living a secret life her friends back in Oregon don’t know about yet — one that has the 55-year-old wearing her college cheerleader’s uniform to a sock hop in the ballroom of a Mesa RV park for winter residents.
She and her husband, Dave, who’s 42, were able to retire last year — “You wouldn’t believe how much money there is in dog grooming,” she says — so they bought a motor home and set out for what they thought would be a nomadic lifestyle of traveling from post to post, park to park.
Before they took off, they found the Good Life RV Resort through its Web site, and after watching a promotional videotape that featured its large church service and choir, they knew they wanted to at least drop in for a visit.
But once they arrived on Dec. 1, they were hooked on the Good Life, with its dizzying array of activities and warm, friendly people, many of whom remain active into their 80s and 90s.
They were hooked on that East Valley phenomenon — the Snowbird Life.
For decades, retirees from the Midwest, Northwest and Canada have roamed Mesa and Apache Junction from October to April, reaching a critical mass after the holidays. You see them eating at Apache Junction’s Feed Bag restaurant or gazing at the sculptures displayed along Main Street in downtown Mesa.
Their usual MO has been to pack themselves into age-restricted communities designed for mobile homes, manufactured homes or park models, manufactured homes small enough to fit onto an RV space.
Some experts say the East Valley parks are losing out in the competition with Yuma and other less-congested parts of the state, a trend they expect to accelerate as more boomers like the Dudas retire.
But this winter, local parks are still winning over the Dudas and other winter visitors, both old school and new, with their carefree lifestyles and plethora of activities.
“The church service had 600 people last week, and the activities in here for us to choose from are amazing, and everybody knows everybody,” Jody Duda said. “I never thought anything like this existed.”
She’s even coming out of retirement next winter to take over as the park’s assistant activities director, she said at a recent dance, part of a fundraiser that brought in more than $4,600 for Mesa’s fire department, beloved by the park for its speedy response to frequent medical calls.
“The RV’s in storage, and we’re staying,” she said. She arrived at the dance alone, but her husband showed up later after pursuing a separate interest, cigar smoking, off-site.
The Dudas come from a generation, the baby boomers, that is just getting used to being old enough to join AARP, and with few exceptions they haven’t told their peers yet that they’ve extended their stay at a senior park indefinitely.
“I mean, how do you tell everybody? How do you tell them?” Jody Duda asked.
When she takes her place in the Good Life activity office next season, she’ll join a profession that’s trying to figure out how to attract and accommodate the Vietnam-era crowd without alienating those who remember World War II or Korea, and who’ve been the parks’ target market for decades.
THE BOOMER BIRD
“We used to have hobo night, where everybody would come in and get a bowl of stew, a cup of apple cider and a doughnut, and they’d be happy,” said Joan Fogge, manager of Mesa Spirit, the city’s oldest retirement RV park. “They would wear old clothes. People don’t do that anymore.”
In January, Mesa Spirit had its first “Western Week,” featuring different entertainment options every night, including Dolan Ellis, Arizona’s official state balladeer. This month will bring a luau with ticket prices of $20, whereas $4 or $5 will get you into the door of most dances. Fogge said the tickets have been selling well.
“We’re just feeling our way along to see how these things work, and the things we used to do, they kind of don’t work anymore,” Fogge said.
She said Mesa Spirit has struggled to bring visitors in over the last few years, largely because many of its spaces are too small to accommodate big-ticket RVs with slideouts, sections that can be extended from the sides of the vehicle to add more living space.
Fogge said the park has rented out about 1,200 of its 1,800 spaces this winter, about 100 above last year. She said they’re doing what they can to accommodate people who need more room for larger motor homes, and a larger-scale revamp of the park is in the talking stages.
Many of these vehicles are driven by boomers who will start turning 60 this year and are beginning to filter into the RV parks that have defined much of east Mesa and Apache Junction. The jury is still out on how many of those living in colder climates will choose a winter lifestyle tight on space, but heavy on activities ranging from shuffleboard to painting to bicycling to motorcycling.
For now, most of the large parks are offering the full range of activities, broad enough to scoop up all of the age groups.
“If you’re here and you’re bored, there’s something wrong with you,” said Bob Gedney, 90. He’s been a fixture for 25 years at Mesa Spirit, which changed its name from Travel Trailer Village around the turn of the millennium. He’s been a year-round resident for 12 years, after his wife, Nadine, died and going home to Seattle for the summer lost its appeal.
He does have fond memories of hobo stew and remembers how he and his friends would improvise much of their entertainment, something he doesn’t see as much of with the “young group” of today.
“When we were growing up, we had to make our own entertainment and we were used to it. We did a lot more, like when we were sitting around the pool, somebody would say, ‘Hey, let’s have a potluck,’ and we’d all run home and get a dish or something, and have a potluck,” he said.
Gedney isn’t able to participate anymore in the dances held at virtually every park, but he’s still active in the park’s Palette Club for painters.
He promoted the club at one of the park’s recent “country store” events, held weekly so residents, and vendors, if there’s room, can sell goods made at either their summer or winter homes, including potholders, address labels and cards, jars of honey and preserves, fabric carriers for plates and bottles.
Fogge said some hobbies are faring better than others at Mesa Spirit. Shuffleboard and bowling have fallen on harder times, and the china-painting room was shut down a couple of years ago. But the stained-glass classes are beginning to take off, she said, and the wood shop is buzzing.
RISE OF THE PARK MODEL
Some experts think the RV parks may be facing extinction, with the decline of the generation that fueled their rise, plus competition from less-congested parts of the state.
Wendy Hultsman, an associate professor of recreation and tourism at Arizona State University West, has guided the long-range planning process for two East Valley retirement communities, Venture Out and Apache Wells.
Venture Out just opened a revamped $4 million community center, a product of Hultsman’s research.
She said Venture Out is taking the right steps to try to adapt to the coming boomer market, but it and other RV parks are in particular peril even though boomers are buying motor homes because they are more interested in having intergenerational experiences. “The ones who feel secure financially are definitely looking for adventure, and travel especially, but with family.”
Of course there are exceptions. Good Life resident and yoga teacher Niki Miles, 58, of Wichita, Kan., said children and grandchildren are constantly visiting, and all the women “go crazy” when a baby shows up.
“We love them, but that doesn’t mean we want them around all the time,” she said. “This is summer camp for adults.”
ASU’s Center for Business Research reported in 2004 that occupancy rates at Valley parks had been falling for six years while rising in Yuma and Pinal County, but snowbirds as a whole dropped $1 billion into the state’s economy.
ASU economics professor Stephen Happel said the university will launch another study of the retirement parks in February, and while he also expects many boomers to shun age-restricted communities, the sheer size of that group makes it almost certain that a significant number will choose the RV-park lifestyle.
Most East Valley retirement communities labeled “RV resorts,” either formally or informally, have been overrun in recent years by park models.
Add-ons for these homes can be pretty elaborate, particularly in the handful of condominiumstyle communities where residents own the land their units sit on.
Longtime Venture Out residents have watched the housing style of choice evolve from trailers to motor homes to park models. The park models top out at about 400 square feet, but can be doubled by adding an Arizona room or enclosed patio.
“There have been so many changes in our homes,” said Betty Osterdock, 83, from Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, who has wintered at Venture Out since 1983. “We used to have just little, small trailers, and now we all have Arizona rooms. Now the next step is getting a ground-level Arizona room,” she said.
Park models are situated on concrete slabs, so all add-ons sat several feet below the floor until the condo board began allowing residents to raise their Arizona rooms five years ago.
Osterdock doesn’t have one of these yet, but “I’m looking forward to it,” she said, more for convenience than keeping up with the Joneses.
But she may have to wait a bit longer. “Right now, the contractors are so busy it’s two years away,” she said.
Even in most parks that rent spaces, people are constantly fixing up and remodeling their park models.
LIVIN’ THE GOOD LIFE
Jim Kocills, 67, of Gardner, Ill., has been coming with his wife, Lynne, to the Good Life for five years and is somewhat “middleaged” there.
He helps his older neighbors who can’t get up a ladder or swing a hammer work on their homes and said he has noticed a vanguard of younger people coming into the park, as baby boomers begin to move onto the lots that have been vacated by a death or illness.
“Golf is big, real big, and the tennis is starting to build up,” he said. Of course, these sports have been popular with seniors for years, and pickleball, played with wooden paddles on the inner section of a tennis court, is a newer alternative for those who can no longer play the whole court.
It was surprisingly easy to locate the under-60 crowd at Good Life’s major fundraiser of the year, where residents grateful for speedy response times raised $4,637 for Mesa’s firefighters and paramedics. The biggest chunk of that came from a pie auction, where donated pies made or bought by residents sold for an average of $43.
The playlist for the sock hop that followed the auction hovered between the 1950s and ’60s, with Buddy Holly, the Beach Boys and lots of Elvis. A few brought leather cases designed to hold two large bottles of liquor to spike their cups of punch or soda.
Musical tastes may have varied a bit in the crowd, but most everyone seemed to have the same sense of humor. When one of the six firefighters and medics who came to thank the crowd spoke, one of them joked about loving the residents because they provided him “job security.”
He got the biggest laugh of the night.