Photograph by Blaine Harrington III, Alamy
With an ever evolving slate of attractions, such as Universal’s long-anticipated expanded Harry Potter experience and Legoland’s DUPLO Valley for little tots, Orlando always has something new to discover. 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 (both real and costumed)—that won’t cost you a thing.
The downtown CityArts Factory houses seven separate and diverse art galleries that showcase local and international art. Exhibitions rotate monthly. Attend art show openings at multiple venues from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m. on the third Thursday of each 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 community, conceived by Disney, is a blend of historic-themed architecture and modern 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 can even see (fake) snow falling in the winter months.
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 (November), an arts-and-crafts event where kids can create their own chalk masterpieces. Watch glassblowers at Arribas Brothers; visit the 4,400-square-foot (409-square-meter) Lego Imagination Center to compete in a "beat-the-clock" building contest, or see a 12-foot (3.6-meter) T. rex and 30-foot (9-meter) 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 spot where you should stop your car, put it in neutral, and watch as your car rolls 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, a ‘50s and ‘60s cover band, play doo-wop hits and lead the crowd in the Stroll, the line dance made famous on American Bandstand. Visitors must buy tickets for the amusement rides, but admission to Old Town, and its concerts and car shows, is free.
All Orlando visitors can enjoy free nightly Italian music performances at the picturesque Portofino Bay Hotel at Universal Orlando's piazza (weather permitting). The hotel has been recognized as one of the most elaborate themed hotel environments in the United States.
On Lake Jesup, Black Hammock Adventures has free live alligator and bird exhibits. Watch trainers feed the 12-foot (3.6-meter), 650-pound (295-kilogram) resident gator 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 (20-hectare) 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 (five kilometers) of paved scenic walkways after story time. Attractions include a butterfly garden, a two-acre (one-hectare) tropical stream garden, bamboo and palm gardens, and a house museum dating to the 1880s.
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 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 also has other free weekly specials, like their Tuesday two-for-one olive drinks.
The Orange Blossom Trail location of Knightly Spirits offers wine and/or beer tastings on Friday and Saturday nights. Knightly Spirits is rated Best Beer Retailer by www.Ratebeer.com.
Twenty minutes east of Orlando in Titusville is Fort Christmas Historical Park, a full-size replica of Fort Christmas, originally built for the Second Seminole Indian War (1835-1842). The Fort has several historical structures and many pioneer demonstrations (like musket and cannon firings) and 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 (100-hectare) park has camping, wildlife, hiking trails, and an abundance of recreational activities, both wet and dry. Check out their website or call +1 407 889 4179 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 (17-hectare) Lake Eola Park, located in the heart of the city. The lake is actually an 80-foot (24-meter) 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 (32-hectare) 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 (3.6-hectare) lake, or play a game of disc golf.
Each September, 6,900-acre (2,792-hectare) 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. Enjoy hiking, nature trails, fishing, swimming, campfires, and a nature museum and interpretive exhibit in the park's Nature Center. (Regular admission to the park is $6 per vehicle.)
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.
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 (its most famous alumni is Mister Rogers) 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. The nonprofit has hosted bands playing everything from country to classical. Previous concerts have featured New River Bluegrass Band, 5 O'Clock Charlie, Michael English, Percy Sledge, and the U.S. Air Force Academy Band.
Visit Winter Park on the second Thursday of each month for Popcorn Flicks, a free classic movie series (Ghostbusters in October, Miracle on 34th Street in late November/December) in Central Park. Get there early for a good spot, and be sure to bring your own blankets, lawn chairs, and movie munchies.
For More Information
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.
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