How one Canadian theme-park company is redesigning retirement living

Toronto-based Forrec has designed attractions for Legoland, Dollywood, Canada‘s Wonderland and more. Now it aims to remake retirement communities

Illustration of “Retirementland” theme park

(Illustration by Luke McGarry)

Paulette Johnson is turning 70 this year. She lives by herself in a modest garden home in a retirement community in Hamilton, Ont.,  where she organizes dance sessions and karaoke blowouts, and writes for the community’s biweekly bulletin. Johnson moved to the neighbourhood, St. Elizabeth Village, six years ago, after her husband passed away. “The first six months, I was rather quiet,” she says. “And then I started getting involved. Now I’m so involved I have too much on my plate.” By that measure, St. Elizabeth is a successful retirement complex: On any given day, more than a dozen classes, social events and recreational activities are scheduled for the 900 residents of the 114-acre site.

But St. Elizabeth Village isn’t content to stop there. In April, the developer behind the facility, NovaCore Communities Corp., announced an $800-million renovation that will transform the site. The population will surge to more than 3,000, with the goal of turning what’s a rather typical active living complex into a themed lifestyle community. That might sound like marketing jargon, but the plan really is to build the revamped community around a theme—a fictional storyline, more accurately.

Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that the company handling the master plan is better known for roller-coasters and waterslides than shuffleboard courts. Toronto-based Forrec Ltd. has designed theme parks around the world, including a massive water park in Beijing, and is now bringing its approach to St. Elizabeth. The company will remake the retirement community into a pastoral mill town, complete with a spinning water wheel and old-time windmill, and carry the aesthetic throughout the development. Forrec says the theme will imbue St. Elizabeth with a sense of history, strengthen community ties and emphasize that the site is a real town—not merely a collection of homes for people living out their final years. Forrec completed a themed retirement complex once before, and it’s now one of the most prominent in the U.S.

“We don’t like to call it a ‘retirement community,’” says Gordon Dorrett, Forrec’s CEO. “As soon as you say that, you think it’s a bunch of old people sitting on couches watching TV. And that’s the exact opposite of what we’re working on.” Indeed, Forrec’s previous project is listed under “resorts” on its website, alongside luxe vacation compounds in Mexico, Singapore and Thailand.

The first phase of the renovation at St. Elizabeth, which includes a town square, is slated to be completed by the end of 2017, but the entire expansion plan will take roughly a decade to finish. The ambitious plans reflect the huge market for quality seniors’ housing anticipated to develop in the future. By 2051, retirees are expected to represent a quarter of Canada’s entire population, and by 2030, roughly 80% of new housing demand will come from people entering retirement, according to the Conference Board of Canada. Forrec’s bread and butter might be theme parks, but when a market is that big, it makes sense for Forrec to transfer its skills into a new domain. Retirement living comes in many forms, of course, running the gamut from condos that allow independent living to assisted-living facilities. Forrec is dabbling in the “adult lifestyle community” category, which offers a more suburban feel situated close to nature. There are nearly 300 such communities in Ontario alone.

Indeed, as demand grows and projects get off the ground, differentiation will be key for developers to attract residents. Living spaces for seniors have gone from bare-bones and institutionalized to upscale, stocked with amenities and designed to facilitate independence for as long as possible. Now developers are thinking more creatively. Some are going niche, providing communities targeted at specific demographics. Forrec, with its expertise in planning attractions and storytelling, can give developers a novel feature with which to market their projects. “As far as I know, this is something unique in Canada,” says Laurie Johnston, CEO of the Ontario Retirement Communities Association (ORCA).

For residents, what Forrec provides is a bit of fantasy. The story it has crafted for St. Elizabeth involves a mill owner founding the town many decades ago, lending some whimsy to what would otherwise be a group of homes and apartments on a patch of land just outside Hamilton. To even entertain the concept requires suspension of disbelief—much like a trip to Disney World. But if ever there were a time to indulge in escapism, it’s in our twilight years.

Forrec, with its portfolio of theme parks and other attractions, might seem like an odd choice to plan a retirement community. But a look at its design philosophy should eliminate any confusion. The company has roots in landscape architecture, as a firm that started under the name Sasaki Strong & Associates in the 1960s. (It was changed to Forrec, meaning “for recreation,” in 1998.) Forrec’s turn to entertainment started in earnest with the idea to add a carousel to the West Edmonton Mall. “Nobody out there was doing attraction design at the time,” says Dorrett. “So we hired architects and signage folks, and built our network of people who understand rides and attractions.”

Forrec ended up designing the five-acre indoor water park at the mall in 1985 (the biggest of its kind at the time), which attracted attention and brought in new business. The company broke into the U.S. in a big way by handling the master plan for Universal Studios in Orlando, followed by a Six Flags amusement park in Texas. Today, theme parks make up the bulk of the company’s projects, and it’s worked on everything from Legoland Deutschland to the Happy Magic Water Cube in Beijing. (Ironically, Forrec’s global presence means it’s virtually unknown in Canada. “An ex-mayor once described us as one of Toronto’s best kept secrets,” Dorrett sighs. “Our problem is literally 95% of what we do is outside North America.”)

Forrec’s work with Universal Studios led to an unusual client for the company—H. Gary Morse, who had developed a prosperous retirement community in Florida, later dubbed The Villages, complete with pools and golf courses. He had a vision to build a town centre (most of the residents came from small towns) that would also provide a change of pace from the monolithic shopping malls in the area. Morse learned about Forrec through a supplier who had worked with the company on Universal Studios Florida, and he was impressed with its ability to create imagined environments that feel authentic. “Gary Morse didn’t want retirement living to be where people wait for the rest of their years to go by, but rather a place where you could celebrate every day,” says Steve Rhys, executive vice-president of Forrec, who oversaw the project.

In some ways, Forrec started small in working on The Villages. The company drew inspiration from St. Augustine, a Florida town founded in the 1500s by Spanish settlers. Forrec borrowed the architectural feel of the place and created buildings in a Spanish colonial style for the town square. More challenging was figuring out what should happen in the square—an architectural style alone isn’t enough to create a community. In that sense, designing for a retirement complex is not far removed from planning a theme park. “The only difference is that you’re only at a theme park for a day, whereas you can be at The Villages 365 days a year,” Rhys says.

Forrec planned the square to accommodate live entertainment, automotive shows and other kinds of performances. That required a keen eye for detail, such as installing garden walls that serve a decorative purpose during the day but can used as seating for a nighttime performance. “We made sure the sound systems and everything needed to support any kind of entertainment—jugglers or square dancing or a book reading event—are there,” Rhys says. Morse, meanwhile, courted restaurants and shops, opened a movie theatre and installed doctors’ offices to ensure that behind the Spanish colonial facade, The Villages functioned just like a traditional town.

The square, dubbed Spanish Springs, was a novelty when it opened in 1995 and helped attract hordes of new residents. “When we started marketing that to our pipeline of clients, interest just went crazy,” says Villages vice-president Tracy Mathews, who is also Morse’s daughter. “We were really lucky to find Forrec. Their creativity really helped us put our vision into bricks and mortar.” Homes closed at the rate of 5,000 per year. The Villages decided to expand and recruited Forrec to design a second—and then a third—town centre.

Forrec crafted more elaborate backstories for these projects. Lake Sumter Landing taps into the nostalgia for small town America and is designed to resemble a seaside village. For Brownwood Paddock Square, which opened in 2012, Forrec drew on Florida’s history as a home for cattle ranches. Sculptures of longhorn cattle dot one sidewalk, not far from a silo painted with the face of a steer. There’s a movie theatre in a barn and a stage for live performances fashioned out of a log cabin.

Forrec’s work has played no small role in helping The Villages grow. Today it spans 82 square kilometres, with 55,000 homes and more than 120,000 residents. (The preferred method of transportation seems to be golf cart.) In 2014, Forbes named it the fastest-growing small city in America. Despite Forrec’s success with The Villages, the company hasn’t actively pursued other retirement community projects. But Forrec knew there is a market for this type of work—especially after St. Elizabeth’s owner, NovaCore Communities, got in touch. Tony DiFruscio, the company’s president, wanted to renovate St. Elizabeth with a town square and felt Forrec’s approach aligned with his vision. DiFruscio visited The Villages and came away impressed. The success of St. Elizabeth could now determine whether Forrec has a whole new line of business on its hands.

Every project at the company starts with a narrative. Sometimes Forrec draws inspiration from the client’s brand, or the history or culture of where the development is situated. That story informs every design decision, helping to establish the look and feel of the place and to ensure a consistent visitor experience. “A story about a place is critical in the work we do,” says Dorrett. “A lot of times, the client and the visitor will never see the story, but that doesn’t matter. It allows us to constantly think about why we’re doing these pieces.” At its Toronto head office, Forrec runs a creative studio where nearly 20 illustrators, 3D renderers and other artists not only help visualize new developments but weave the backstories as well. (The company’s lead creative director, James Anderson, has an architecture background, but he’s billed as the “chief storyteller expert.”)

For St. Elizabeth, the team turned to local history and the fact that the Hamilton region was home to a number of mills. The story it concocted involves a settler constructing a mill near the water, falling in love with a local woman and, together, building the mill into a viable business. As it grew, the settler doled out plots of land to his workers to build cottages, thereby marking the beginning of the town. The renderings for St. Elizabeth show a mill (naturally), a water tower and wells, and wagon wheels casually strewn about the town centre. “You don’t have to read the story, but when you get there, you’ll feel like there’s a reason this place exists,” Rhys insists.

In many ways, it feels like a promotional hook. “I think the theme is just a fun add-on,” says Johnston at ORCA. But it’s also a real differentiator. Those in the retirement living industry are quick to tout upscale amenities they offer—swimming pools, gourmet food, personal trainers and so on—to counter the stereotype of seniors’ homes as sterile, lifeless and depressing. The reality, though, is that such amenities are becoming the norm. That’s partly why other complexes are exploring unique concepts.

Aegis Living operates three communities in California that cater to Chinese seniors. The facilities follow feng shui design principles, staff members are bilingual and activities such as tai chi, calligraphy and mah-jong are offered. The Escapees Care Center in Texas lets RV enthusiasts live in their vehicles, while providing access to dining facilities and medical care.

ShantiNiketan, meanwhile, caters to Indian immigrants and has been a hit since it opened in Florida a few years ago. The founder, an immigrant himself, created the retirement community to resemble an Indian village. There’s yoga, Bollywood movies and Indian cuisine on-site. ShantiNiketan is undergoing a $115-million expansion, including 1,000 more living spaces, and is also planning a new branch in California. For residents, the big draw is the opportunity to be around other Indian immigrants, according to a story by NPR last year. That report drew a somewhat unpleasant conclusion about aging: We gravitate toward people like us, and think more negatively about other cultures.

That tendency to withdraw in old age is something Forrec’s designs fight against. “What they’re actually creating is a social model,” says Johnston. “I believe [that’s] what people will be attracted to.” Such communities in the U.S. tend to be gated, whereas St. Elizabeth, with its town square and retailers, could actually entice outsiders to visit. In that way, it’s much more integrated with surrounding towns, encouraging socialization and hopefully preventing residents from feeling cut off. That’s part of the reason The Villages has been successful—the community actually attracts curious tourists.

For Rhys at Forrec, the St. Elizabeth project is more than just work. As he approaches retirement himself, he hopes the overhaul can serve as a model for other seniors’ communities. And if it’s successful, Forrec could lead the way. “The boomer population doesn’t think they are getting older,” he says. “They are looking for places that have a buzz of activities, and it’s amazing for them to see that can be made into reality.”

As a resident of St. Elizabeth, Johnson is looking forward to the changes. What she’s particularly excited about is the prospect of new coffee shops and restaurants opening up—the only eatery currently on-site closes at 4 p.m. For all the elaborate storylines and faux authenticity crafted by Forrec, sometimes it’s the simplest things that matter most.