Traditionally free Villages tree lightings introducing pay-to-view seating

Two of the highly popular annual Christmas tree lighting ceremonies in Florida’s Friendliest Hometown this year won’t offer equal access for all Villagers.

That’s because The Villages Entertainment Department is pushing residents to purchase “VIP Experience” tickets for an “extra festive time” at the annual holiday celebrations at Lake Sumter Landing Market Square and Brownwood Paddock Square. The tree lighting event at Spanish Springs Town Square, located near the Historic Side of the community and inhabited by a largely older population, apparently isn’t offering the pay-to-view seating option.

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The gargantuan Christmas tree, covered in thousands of twinkling lights, came to life during a ceremony at Brownwood Paddock Square last December.

The concept of selling specialized treatment at holiday events first surfaced this past July 4 at Brownwood. The tree-lighting shows are following that model, with tickets offered for $50 per person, $80 per couple and $225 for a table for six. Those purchasing the “VIP Experience” are being promised two free drink tickets, appetizers provided by a yet-unnamed vendor and access to a VIP tent and cash bar, as well as reserved seating and “direct access into the square.”

The tree lighting events will be held Saturday, Nov. 30 at Brownwood; Monday, Dec. 2 at Spanish Springs and Thursday, Dec. 5 at Lake Sumter Landing. Each will last from 4-9 p.m. The Entertainment Department also lists three charities connected to the events – Ronald McDonald House, Lake Sumter Children’s Advocacy Center and Operation Shoebox – but it’s unclear how each will benefit and how much money they will receive.

Villagers and area residents came from far and near last year to take part in the annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony at Spanish Springs Town Square.

The entertainment at each square will include:

  • Brownwood: Blue Stone Circle, WeFlip, The Grinch and Who People, stilt walkers, a photo booth, Santa Claus and a projection light show beginning at 8 p.m.
  • Spanish Springs: Cool Yule Band, The Villages Twirlers and Drum Corps, Aloha O’ Ka Hula, Mystic Jewels Dance Troupe, The Original Villages Belly Dancers and a projector light show.
  • Lake Sumter Landing: Johnny Wild & The Delights, Brown Bag Bass Band, stilt walkers, a recreation boat parade, Santa Claus and a projection light show starting at 8 p.m.

Traditionally, holiday shows in The Villages have followed suit with the philosophy put forth by Villages Founder Harold Schwartz and his son, retirement community guru H. Gary Morse. They preached the concept of creating a “millionaire’s lifestyle on a retirement budget.” And it was often pointed out that it didn’t matter whether Villagers lived in affordable villas or multimillion-dollar homes, or whether they had been high-level executives or blue-collar workers, once they arrived in Florida’s Friendliest Hometown the playing field was equal and it included things like free golf for life on executive courses and free town square entertainment 365 days a year, barring inclement weather.

Bernadette Buatti, left, and Dyrinda Cole prepare to perform as part of the Silver Rockettes during the Christmas tree lighting ceremony at Brownwood last year.

The choice of Brownwood and Lake Sumter Landing for the pay-to-view holiday shows also raises some concerns because the nightly entertainment at those venues is partially funded through $120,000 provided by the Sumter County Commission. This year’s allotment for the entertainment at the two town squares – Spanish Springs isn’t included because it’s in Lake County – was a $40,000 increase over the previous year.

Several Villagers and other residents weighed on social media sites with their thoughts on the “VIP Experience” offer.

It was all about the show last November at Lake Sumter Landing as performance groups strutted their stuff as part of the annual Christmas tree lighting event.

“Please don’t pay for tickets,” wrote Diane Ziemlak. “If there are people who are willing to pay then they will continue to charge. Then there’s the possibility that eventually everyone will have to pay to go on the square.”

Patricia Letterio wrote that she lives in The Villages and already pays her fair share every month.

“There is no way that we should be asked to pay for priority seating,” she said. “This is insulting and it’s definitely not good business for the community.”

Kathy Gittings questioned the charity angle connected to the tree lightings, calling it “just another excuse” to charge for an event that should be free.

“Those who can contribute are becoming a new elite, while those needing to pinch pennies are forgotten,” she said. “When does charity and kindness begin at home?So many Villagers and businesses donate large sums without the recognition of a chair at an event. I prefer that all-inclusive holiday spirit.”

Darlene Rowland offered a different solution.

“We’ll go watch the tree lighting in Ocala,” she said. “There are other trees to watch.”

The Christmas tree at Spanish Springs Town Square came to life last November after the command was given to turn on the lights.