With an ever-evolving bundle of attractions in Florida, for example Universal’s newly expanded and highly-anticipated Harry Potter ride or the Legoland’s DUPLO Valley for toddlers. No matter what it is, Orlando will always have something new to discover and experience. But the theme park capital has much more to offer than pricey entertainment and roller coasters, with heaps of activities, from art museums to animals that won’t cost you your entire savings!
The CityArts Factory located in Downtown Orlando contains seven separate and distinct art galleries used to display local and international art submissions. Exhibitions often change monthly, at multiple locations from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m on the 3rd Thursday of every month! Sponsored by the Downtown Arts District, the gallery hop starts at CityArts. Normally $5 for adults, admission to the Cornell Fine Arts Museum is free for 2014 thanks to the generosity of the Bessemer Trust (Students who show their I.D. always get in free). Be sure to see Cosimo Rosselli’s “Madonna Enthroned Nursing the Christ Child” (circa 1470) and Albert Bierstadt’s “Shoshone Indians-Rocky Mountains” (1859), both on display in their permanent collection. Closed Mondays. Whether or not you’re splurging for a night’s stay at the Grand Bohemian Hotel, you can tour the Grand Bohemian Gallery at no cost. Conveniently located downtown, the gallery has everything from local contemporary art glass and jewelry to European paintings from the 19th and 20th centuries.
Stroll along Disney’s BoardWalk, a re-creation of a 1930s-style Atlantic coastal village. The quarter-mile promenade alongside Crescent Lake is known for its nightclubs and entertainment hot spots, but all visitors can enjoy the many street musicians, magicians, and performers for free. Walk the streets of the picture-perfect town of Celebration. The civic area has a blend of a historic style with contemporary technology. Admire the architecture, from neo-traditional to the Philip Johnson-designed welcome center, and let the kids play in the interactive fountain. Stop by the farmers market at Lakeside Park. Visitors will be able to experience snow falling in during the winter, although it is not real!
You don’t need a Disney World ticket to enjoy Disney shops and entertainment. Stroll the streets of Downtown Disney Marketplace for an array of boutiques and eateries for every budget. Check out their Festival of the Masters, an arts-and-crafts event where kids can create their own chalk masterpieces. Watch glassblowers at Arribas Brothers; visit the 4,400-square-foot Lego Imagination Center to compete in a “beat-the-clock” building contest, or see a 12-foot T. Rex and the 30-foot sea serpent, both made of thousands of pieces of one of America’s favorite toys. Even if you’re not in the park, the Magic Kingdom fireworks can be seen from other areas. Leave your car in the main parking lot and take the free tram to the Transportation and Ticket Center (TTC) for the best up-close views of the nightly fireworks. If you are staying in a Disney-operated resort, hop on the monorail for free and get off at the Magic Kingdom entrance to watch the show.
Just north of Orlando is the largest flea market in the U.S., FleaWorld, where more than 1,700 vendors sell bargain-priced items ranging from orchids to reptiles. Open Friday-Sunday; free admission.Each year, thousands of tourists who visit Orlando go to Lake Wales, Florida, to see if the old Indian Legend of Spook Hill is true. A sign marks the location where you should stop your car in neutral, and behold as your car begins to roll uphill.
Just south of the Orlando International Airport is Old Town, a unique amusement park, and shopping area. Old Town comes to life on Saturdays with a vintage car parade starting at 1 p.m. On Wednesday evenings, The Dukes, the ’50s and ‘60s cover band, play doo-wop hits and lead the crowd in the Stroll, the line dance made famous on American Bandstand. Although anyone who enjoys amusement parks must pay for admission tickets, admission to the Old Town is free of charge! All Orlando visitors can enjoy free nightly Italian music performances at the picturesque Portofino Bay Hotel at Universal Orlando’s piazza if the weather permits. The hotel has been recognized as one of the most elaborate themed hotel environments in the United States.
Family Adventure Trips
On Lake Jesup, Black Hammock Adventures offers free live alligator and bird expeditions on Lake Jesup where you can watch trainers feed the 650 pound, 12-foot alligator named Hammy on Sunday afternoons. At the restaurant, listen to free live music every Friday and Saturday night. Visit the Orlando Public Library’s Children’s Library for storytelling, arts-and-crafts activities, Third Thursday family movie night, board games, and musical events.
If you’re staying in or near any of the resorts on Seven Seas Lagoon and Bay Lake (including Disney’s Polynesian Resort, Grand Floridian Resort, Wilderness Lodge, Fort Wilderness Resort, and Campground, or Contemporary Resort), you can see the nightly Electrical Water Pageant. Watch King Triton and other sea-themed floats glitter past in an array of sparkling lights. The show starts at 9 p.m. near the Polynesian Resort and ends near the Contemporary Resort about an hour later.
On the third Monday of every month, the Harry P. Leu Gardens has free storytelling for young children. Bring children under 18 months at 10 a.m., toddlers at 10:20 a.m., and three- and four-year-olds at 10:40 a.m. for storytelling in the park. Admission to the 50-acre park is free from 9 a.m. to noon on Mondays, so take your child for a stroll along any of the park’s three miles of paved scenic walkways after story time. Attractions feature a two-acre tropical stream garden, a magnificent butterfly, bamboo, and palm garden, and a house museum from the 1880s.
Food and Drinks
Opened in 1935 in Orlando, Chamberlin’s Market & Cafe is more than an organic grocery store. Stop by for free classes and guest speakers year-round. “Leave your manners at the door” at the Howl at the Moon, the “dueling piano sing-along bar” and a hot spot for over 21 parties. Booking a Happy Hour Party in advance gets you free admission before 11 p.m., complimentary buffet from 6-8 p.m., half off select drinks before 8 p.m., and your first drink free. The Moon has other weekly specials, like their Tuesday 2 for 1 olive drinks. The Orange Blossom Trail location of Knightly Spirits offers wine and/or beer tastings on Friday and Saturday nights.
Twenty minutes east of Orlando is the Fort Christmas Historical Park, which is a full-size replica of Fort Christmas, originally built for the Second Seminole Indian War from 1835 to 1842. The Fort has several historical buildings and many pioneer tools such as the musket or cannon firings, often hosting craft fairs throughout the year. Closed Mondays and holidays. Take a dip in the free-flowing natural spring at Kelly Park, Rock Springs. The 245-acre park has camping, wildlife, hiking trails, and an abundance of recreational activities, both wet and dry. Check out their website or call for special events. Admission isn’t free but it’s minimal: $3 for a vehicle of one to two people; $5 per vehicle of three to eight people.
Take a breather from downtown Orlando and visit the 43-acre Lake Eola Park, located in the heart of the city. The lake is actually an 80-foot sinkhole. Enjoy a concert or play in the amphitheater, check out the view of the Orlando skyline, or, on Sundays, stop by the farmers market.
See some 600 plant species at the 80-acre University of Central Florida Arboretum. The Arboretum, opened in 1983, has at least eight natural ecosystems. Visitors can admire the Swamp Habitat, walk or bike along the 9-acre lake, or play a game of disc golf. Every September, 6,900-acre Wekiwa Springs State Park honors International Literacy Day by offering free admission to those who bring their library card, donate a book, or show a checked-out library book. Regular admission to the park is $6 per car, here you can enjoy hiking, nature trails, fishing, swimming, campfires, nature museum, and informative display in the park’s Nature Center.
Whether you want to take a rejuvenating walk or play an intense game of volleyball, Winter Park has something for everyone. Take the kids to one of many playgrounds, browse for goodies at the Saturday Farmers Market, enjoy the blooms at the Kraft Azalea Garden, or learn about the park’s history at the Winter Park History Museum.
Theater or Music
The Bach Festival Society of Winter Park frequently hosts free concerts, like their “July 4th Celebration in the Park,” or “Christmas in the Park.” The society’s choirs and instrument ensembles have been performing regularly in the Annie Russell Theatre (1931) and the Knowles Memorial Chapel (1932) at Rollins College since the 1930s.The Fred Stone Theatre at Rollins College has a student-produced “Second Stage Series” that is free. Evening performances are Wednesday to Saturday, with matinees on Saturday and Sunday. The shows are general admission and the audience is seated on a first come, first-served basis. The 4,000-seat Friends of the Bandshell in Daytona Beach (an hour’s drive from Orlando) has been offering free concerts since 1937. This nonprofit organization hosts a wide range of genres from country to classical, featuring concerts with New River Bluegrass Band, 5 O’Clock Charlie, Michael English, Percy Sledge, and the US Air Force Academy Band.
If you’re in Orlando during the third week of the month, a variety of venues in downtown and Thornton Park participate in the city’s Third Thursdays, a night where merchants and cultural venues feature new artists and exhibits, often with free food, drink, and/or entertainment. Many hotels in Orlando offer free bonuses. For instance, the Portofino Bay Hotel at Universal Orlando gives its guests two free Express Access passes to skip ahead of the lines at Disney and Universal. Check with several hotels to see what they offer for free before settling on a place to stay.