- January 8, 2020
If you see the Lakewood Ranch bus driving around town on a Tuesday or Friday morning, it’s most likely filled with people on a tour from one border of the rapidly growing community to the next. The guided two-and-a-half-hour tours are designed to give prospective and current Lakewood Ranch residents the lay of the land, and the 30-passenger bus is usually fully booked. Recently, I made a booking of my own and rode along recently to find out why.
After registering online, I meet Lakewood Ranch Ambassador and tour guide extraordinaire Frank Verdel at the Main Street Information Center around 9:15 a.m. The experience is kicked off mingling over complimentary cookies and cold bottles of water. While we wait to board the bus, additional LWR guides are at the ready answering any pre-tour questions.
Then at 9:30 a.m. — sharp — armed with reusable swag bags full of LWR-branded goodies and a detailed map, we board the clean, climate-controlled bus and choose our seats.
As we settle in for the next few hours, Verdel begins with housekeeping.
Seat belts are available but not required. Follow along with the map provided if you please. Feel free to take notes and ask questions. There will be only one stop to use restrooms and stretch your legs.
We set off toward the southern border to see the community’s newest construction in Waterside. En route, Verdel spouts notable facts about Lakewood Ranch. It’s approximately 48 square miles. The 41,000-strong population is growing and expected to double within the decade. The community is known for its wider sidewalks. Recognizable white flags mark the boundaries. The neighborhoods are called “villages,” and there are currently 17 of them. Today we will get a glimpse of all of those villages. During our tour, the bus will never leave Lakewood Ranch land.
As a nine-year resident, Verdel leads the tours with a confident and radio-ready voice, combining area knowledge with a quick wit. He entertains and enlightens the bus full of passengers.
“There are pockets of nature everywhere,” Verdel says. “And we try to save as many trees as possible in development.” The community’s dedication to nature and conservation will be highlighted a few more times during the tour.
As we move from Waterside northeast, then west and south again, we dip in and out of each village. Our tour guide continues with general information in addition to highlighting the signature features of each village — from aging-in-place to green building to those with low HOAs.
When you are interested in buying a home or moving to Lakewood Ranch, with all it has to offer, it could easily become downright overwhelming. The information center team, which also includes Greg Spring and host of guides, was created to facilitate comfort and clarity, which it has done for years. Now these tours offer a way to streamline the process and help more people.
“We drove around here once before, six or eight months ago, and we kind of got lost,” says Mike Mullaly from Chicago, who’s on the tour with his wife, Barb. “We went and looked at a specific home that was for sale. It was nice, but I had no idea what all was available here and how big this place is.”
When it comes to home sales, the tours are clearly an asset.
“We’ve had tremendous success in the short time that we’ve had our bus,” Verdel says after the tour. And although he could not offer hard numbers, he referenced a lady who had taken the tour two weeks prior and was buying in Waterside.
As we set off on the last hour of our tour after a quick pit stop at James L. Patton park, there are questions from the rows about flood zones, taxes, neighborhood security and state roads. Verdel answers each question while continuing to offer points most would put in the “plus” column: centralized mailboxes to promote community interaction and underground power lines that are aesthetically pleasing and hold up better in inclement weather. And, of course, that Lakewood Ranch has its own post office.
On the way back to the visitor center, Verdel highlights points of interest, such as doctors’ offices, grocery plazas and even a local brewery and distillery. Some passengers are vocal with their “Ah-ha, that’s where that is” moments, while others furiously write notes on the villages that piqued their interest — and heed Verdel’s advice to cross out the ones that didn’t make the cut.
“Lakewood Ranch is a melting pot of people from all over,” Verdel says.
Passengers on today’s tour hail from Naples, Marco Island, Chicago and Maryland. A few are Lakewood Ranch residents.
“We get a lot of residents, and not only do they want to know the lay of the land themselves, but they want to know everything else that Lakewood Ranch has to offer for their friends,” Verdel says.
Until today’s tour, Leslie Forsythe, my seat mate who works at the Naples Soap Co. on Main Street, had narrowly ventured outside her work-to-home boundaries since she moved to Lakewood Ranch two years ago.
“I think every current resident should [take the tour], just so they know what is coming up,” she says. “What the future of Lakewood Ranch looks like.”
A couple behind us has owned a home in Country Club for three years but spend part of their year in Maryland. They were hoping to get a better grasp of the area. With her mother visiting, the tour was a way for them to both learn about the area.
Turns out the buses do way more than help prospective buyers choose a ’hood. As people disembark, Verdel says they are thus anointed in the ways of the Ranch.