Photograph by Diana Zalucky, Disney
Best known for Walt Disney World and Universal Studios, Orlando has much more to offer than mouse ears and roller coasters. With over 5,300 restaurants and 2,000 lakes, the city's nightlife and wildlife are both thriving. But don't be dissuaded by Mickey Mouse's expensive taste buds. Orlando offers heaps of activities—from art museums to entertainment to animals (both real and costumed)—that won't cost you a thing.
Check out 20th-century works of Albin Polasek at the Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens in Winter Park. While the galleries and museum are closed for annual renovations during the summer, the sculpture gardens remain open and are free of charge.
Said to hold the world's most comprehensive collection of works by Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933), the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art in Winter Park has everything from famous Tiffany lamps and pottery to jewelry and art glass. Don't miss the chapel interior he designed for the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Free admission from 4 to 8 p.m. on Fridays, November through April. The museum also has free concerts on Friday nights in November and December.
The downtown CityArts Factory houses five separate and diverse art galleries. Visit Keila Glassworks Gallery in the historic Dr. Phillips building for handblown glass by Charles Keila; the Pound Gallery for music and art fusion by Jim Faherty and Gene Zimmerman; and the Zulu Exclusive Gallery for 100 years of African sculpture.
Students who show their I.D. get into the Cornell Fine Arts Museum on the Rollins College campus for free (adults $5). Be sure to see Cosimo Rosselli's Madonna and Child Enthroned (c.1475-80) and J. B. Leprince's The Seasons (1763), both on display in their permanent collection.
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.
Enjoy the sights and smells of tropical plants at A World of Orchids in Kissimmee. The 22,500-square-foot (2,090-square-meter) conservatory has orchids as well as many other species of exotic flora. Walk along the path and admire natural exhibits with flowers from Southeast Asia, Indonesia, Australia, and Central and South America. Closed Sundays.
Walk through A World of Orchids, a huge conservatory filled with tropical plants from around the world.
Stroll along Disney's Boardwalk, a re-creation of a 1930s-style Atlantic coastal village. The 45-acre (18-hectare) waterfront district 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 town, conceived by Disney, is a blend of historic-themed architecture and modern technology. Admire the old-fashioned properties and let the kids play in the interactive fountain. Stop by the farmers market on Sunday mornings or check out the many free events (author readings and signings) offered by Reading Trout Books. 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 and Funworld have more than 1,700 vendors selling bargain-priced items. The venues showcase acrobatic shows, circus and magic acts, and exotic animals. Fleaworld is open Friday-Sunday; Funworld is open on weekends only. Both have 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. Over 700 motorcyclists rally through the streets on Thursday nights. On Streeaturday nights Old Town comes to life with a vintage-car parade with over 300 cars. While the park offers live entertainment every night at 7:30 p.m., its Saturday night show (7 p.m.) plays exclusively '50s and '60s rock 'n' roll. 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. 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 special readings, 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 3-4 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.
Twice a day visitors can see the famous March of the Peabody Ducks at the Peabody Orlando hotel. Watch as the ducks are escorted to the tunes of John Philip Sousa from the hotel (at 11 a.m.) along a red carpet to the Royal Duck Fountain. At 5 p.m., watch as the ducks are escorted back—with a gourmet meal of worms, lettuce, and carrots—to their $100,000 palace. Sometimes kids can be Honorary Duck Master for one of the shows. Parents should call Duck Master David Robinson at The Peabody to nominate their child. Being an Honorary Duck Master is popular, so call as soon as you've booked your tickets to Orlando.
The Republic Promotion Company offers free beer and music at two Orlando clubs. Join underground music deejays at the electronic music venue Firestone for Club Firestone on Thursdays, which features free admission and free beer before 11 p.m. If electronic music isn't your style, check out Crush at Back Booth for an eclectic mix of indie, rock/pop, and Motown on Monday nights for free beer. Cover charge is $3 for 18- to 20-year-olds, but free for those 21 and up.
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; if you're visiting in September, check out their Fall Harvest Festival for free samplings of organic food.
"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.
Knightly Spirits offers free beer every other Thursday from 6 to 9 p.m. Stop by their Metro West location in Orlando to test one of their 700 beers at the free beer tastings. Knightly Spirits was rated Best Beer Retailer in 2007 by www.Ratebeer.com.
Check out Orlando City Beat for other restaurant and bar listings and events.
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. Children under five get into the park for free. All others pay $1 admission.
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 amphitheatre, 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 $5 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 Historical 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 Thursday-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 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 a free movie. Popcorn Flicks showcases classic films (Ghostbusters in October, Miracle on 34th Street in late November/December) in Winter Park's 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: The Portofino Bay Hotel at Universal Orlando gives its guests two free Disney/Universal park passes with four nights' accommodation; guests at the Hilton Grand Vacations Club on International Drive can participate in paddleboat races and a Ping Pong tournament. Check with several hotels to see what they offer for free before settling on a place to stay.
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