DUNEDIN — Chris Kelly spent parts of his boyhood summers in the village of Put-in-Bay, Ohio, on Lake Erie’s verdant South Bass Island. Because the island was accessible only by boat or plane, it had few cars; most people there drove golf carts. To young Chris, this was undeniably awesome.
Decades later, Kelly had just become a dad and was looking for a new home. Dunedin matched the leisurely pace he wanted for his family. It also checked a crucial box on his wish list, one that roused his inner kid: It’s a “golf cart community,” where city codes make it easier for residents to drive carts on roads.
And these aren’t the carts of his Put-in-Bay days — “old, dusty, gas-guzzling, noisy, slow, squeaky things,” said Kelly, 45. “Now golf carts are cool.”
Long a staple in its namesake sport and in retirement communities, the golf cart is now at the center of a local boom in Tampa Bay, driven by younger enthusiasts, insiders say.
Pinellas County contains the most registered, street-legal golf carts in Florida, according to state data, and Hillsborough ranks 12th among the state’s counties.
With so many on the road, golf carts sometimes make the news, too: Tampa Police Chief Mary O’Connor resigned this month after she was caught on body camera video flashing her badge and talking her way out of a traffic stop over an unregistered cart near her Oldsmar home.
Nearby Dunedin might be the local epicenter of golf cart culture, a world of sound systems and on-board mini-fridges, of custom paint-jobs and tiki-bar-style roofs — a terminally chill echo of muscle-car shows or motorcycle rallies. Kelly credits the city’s golf-cart friendly environment to the lobbying of Dunedin Goes Carting, which began as a local blog and transformed into a loose organization behind events such as a popular Christmas golf-cart parade. A few years ago, its founder handed over the keys to a group of residents, including Kelly.
The year he moved here, he said, several dozen carts drove in the parade. When this year’s incarnation rolls out on Dec. 17, he expects more than 300.
You can find cart-heads in the communities of north Pinellas and the beaches; the sprawling suburbs of northern Hillsborough and southern Pasco; the mansion-lined streets of Davis Islands and the senior mecca of Sun City Center.
This summer, a golf-cart rental company opened in downtown Tampa. In St. Petersburg, the carts were once largely confined to Snell Isle (home of the Vinoy Golf Club) but have started showing up on and around Central Avenue, said St. Petersburg police Sgt. Michael Schade. This year, his agency has handed out twice as many golf-cart citations as it did last year — just a dozen, but still.
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It’s hard to quantify just how many people cart here. In Pinellas County, 1,900 street-legal golf carts are registered with the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, the agency said — some 756 more than next-most , Volusia County. But that number is incomplete because places like Dunedin require carters to register only with the city, not the state, and because some drivers flout the rules and drive without any kind of registration.
Not everyone likes golf carts, Kelly conceded, especially when they’re stuck behind one crawling at 10 mph. And amid the boom in popularity, not everyone follows the laws.
Statewide, that means license, registration and insurance, plus features including turn signals, a windshield and a parking brake; places with local ordinances may require fewer bells and whistles and hoops, but don’t expect to get on any road with a speed limit greater than 35 mph.
Some of the rule-breakers are newbies who don’t know the laws, Kelly said, and some just don’t care — he estimated it’s a 50-50 split. Dunedin Goes Carting tries to educate cart owners, on social media and in-person, but Kelly is quick to tell people: “We’re not the golf cart police.” This is a hobby where, after all, being laid-back is paramount.
“Sometimes,” he said, “Dunedin is best taken in doing 18 miles an hour on an open air golf cart.”
Golf is a famously old game, its origins so dated that historians have struggled to pin down a moment of invention. (It was mentioned in writing as early as the mid-15th century.) Golf’s favorite motorized vehicle, on the other hand, is younger than basketball, the television and the three-color traffic signal. A 1930 issue of Popular Mechanics featured a short item on an “electric auto as caddy … to assist a one-legged golf player.”
Within a few decades, the device was ensconced in the sport and spreading outward. An association between golf carts and senior citizens was born by the 1990s, with communities from Florida’s The Villages to Palm Desert, California, adopting them as key methods of transit.
In certain places, golf carts have long been a given for people young and old. Take Put-in-Bay, or Peachtree City, Georgia, an Atlanta suburb where golf carts, often used by teens to get to school, have been street legal since the 1970s. But the local explosion of golf cart culture, driven by younger buyers, many with kids, has been more recent, sellers say.
Ethan Luster has owned Discovery Golf Carsin Clearwater for 16 years. He started noticing a trend toward recreational use, street-legal golf carts around seven years ago. The pandemic also increased their popularity, with sales at his store increasing by about 30% since 2020. So did the influx of new residents to Florida, drawn by a lower cost of living and remote jobs.
“Some of our out-of-state customers, they haven’t even been to their new house yet and they’ve purchased a golf cart on their way over,” Luster said.
When Peter Texiera, a co-owner of Bayside Custom Golf Carts Sales, Service and Repair in Tampa, got into the business five years ago, his customer base mostly consisted of retirees. Now it’s families, and they want features. They want stereos. They want lifts that make the carts look like little monster trucks. They want more room.
“Our number one selling cart right now is a six-seater,” Texiera said.
Kelly described himself as the median cart owner in the community centered on Dunedin: 40s, a couple of kids. The average age seems to have dropped even in his few years in town. There are plenty of retirees in his circles, he said — but plenty of people in their 20s and 30s, too. He sees dozens of them on any given evening at the Dunedin Boat Club.
They’re people with time and money to spend. Luster said street-legal carts roll out the door at an average of $10,000 to $13,000, and sometimes as high as $20,000. At the Christmas parades, Kelly said, “these aren’t golf carts with a couple strings of lights on them anymore. These are full-blown floats.”
And they might be the future. Advocates point to the environmental benefits of carts, which are often electric. In 2015, the Harvard Business Review predicted that it would be “neighborhood electric vehicles” like street-legal golf carts — not Teslas — that end up disrupting the auto industry because of their relatively low cost and ease to drive.
Meanwhile, golf may need golf carts, but it no longer seems that golf carts need golf.
Their boom has come even as the sport itself struggles, with one-tenth of U.S. courses closing since 2006, and more shuttering than opening nationwide every year in that period. Earlier this year, Peachtree City’s mayor told Slate that the city removed the golf clubs that had been on its logo because “we decided we’re more of a golf-cart city than a golf city.”
Kelly actually does play golf, unlike many in the Dunedin scene.
His cart has the wrong tires, though. So when he wants to play a round, he drives his cart to the Dunedin Golf Club, parks it outside and rents one for the day.