Free Reigns! Hit Your Budget-Travel Sweet Spot In Orlando
Let’s face it: amusing yourself can be expensive if you’re not careful. The best-laid plans of frugality – with the added caveat of an exciting, new locale – can go awry quickly, ending in a splurge of epic proportions. It’s easy to do in Orlando, where tempting venues come in the form of high-priced theme-park tickets and all the spoils that lay within – souvenirs and restaurants and upsells that get you to the head of the lines. The list is endless. That’s why it’s great to punctuate any vacation with something off a great list of go-to inexpensive attractions. And if you can find free ones? That’s the Holy Grail on a filler day (especially if you’re traveling with kids!). In Orlando, free fun comes in many forms – from the subtropical trails of the Little Big Econ State Forest to the rolling, grape-laden hills of the Lakeridge Winery and even at Disney, where you and the family can enjoy a fireside sing-a-long and marshmallow roast with classic characters Chip and Dale – then follow it up with a classic movie under the twinkling stars.
Fifty thousand gallons of wine come out of Lakeridge each year – it’s Florida’s largest – and locals visit and revisit all the time. Not just when friends and family come to town, but because the winery hosts an abundance of family-friendly festivals and free live music events all year long with food, crafts, even fun photo-ops. That said, even if you don’t happen to make it during one of their larger shindigs, Lakeridge runs free tours and tastings all day long, every day of the week, every 20 minutes or so. You’ll start off with a short film about the vineyard’s history, then move on for a stellar view of the vines and wrap it up in the tasting room. The whole thing takes about 45 minutes. And of course, you can your favorite by the bottle â” or the case â” before you head out.
Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Sure, Lakeridge offers free tours and tastings, but its unique location in one of Florida’s “high elevation” regions makes for some sweeping vistas, as well.
A.D.’s expert tip: Check the Lakeridge Winery website for its year-round calendar of events, such as chocolate tastings, Christmas markets, free concerts and more, that the entire family can enjoy.
No, Harry P. Leu Gardens isn’t free all the time, but plan your visit just so and you’ll enjoy gratis admission, available on the first Monday of every month from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm with last admittance at 4:00 pm. Fans of phenomenal flora delight in Leu Gardens, where cycads and azaleas, philodendrons and bromeliads and other exotic offerings â” some with harder-to-pronounce names than others â” grow and flourish and pose colorfully for photographers’ cameras. The Leu House Museum, a beautifully restored 19th Century home, is open for guided tours on the hour and half-hour. Fine art fans will find a multitude of sculptures dotted among the horticultural offerings, as well.
Recommended for Free Things to Do because: I’m no doctor, but I suspect Leu Gardens’ 50-acres of botanical splendor may drop your blood pressure a few points on arrival.
A.D.’s expert tip: Leu Gardens also offers free admission for moms on Mother’s Day and dads on Father’s Day. Check for plant-sale days, too, on which admission may also be free.
This beautiful historical park â” about 20 miles east of Orlando and an easy stop on the way to or from Kennedy Space Center â” boasts many beautiful features common to wilderness areas of the region: massive shade trees, lovely hiking trails, a well-kept playground and rentable picnic pavilions suitable for very large gatherings. But it also boasts something the others do not: a full-sized replica of a fort constructed in 1837, one of about 200 built during the second Seminole Indian War, which raged from 1835-1842. In addition to the related film and exhibit, Fort Christmas Historical Park is home to seven restored “Cracker” homes representing the common architecture of this area from the 1870s to the 1930s. Whether you’re an American history buff or a nature enthusiast, this is a win-win, free-admission attraction.
Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Educational, outdoorsy and free, Fort Christmas is a log-cabin time machine to the era of Pioneers.
A.D.’s expert tip: Around in early December? Come for “Cracker Christmas,” an annual festival featuring BBQ, crafts an antique tractor display and all kinds of Pioneer demonstrations, from blacksmithing to spinning to quilting and more. You can even get your holiday cards hand-stamped from Christmas by the local post office.
Technically, this venue isn’t entirely free. Boxes at the various trailheads around the forest request honor donations of $2 per person (free for children age 6 and under) but you’ll find the majesty of this truly unspoiled wonderland of Florida wilderness well worth it. Whether you’re here for hiking or mountain biking, canoeing or an equestrian excursion, trails are well-marked and take journeyers through scrub forests and along rivers where wildlife â” river otters, raptors, deer, wading birds, bobcat and more â” abounds and peace is the word. One such hike (many crisscross the forest’s 9,563 acres) is the Kolokee Loop, which encompasses parts of the Florida Trail along the Econlockhatchee River and the bridge where it meets up with the Flagler Trail.
Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Orlando is well known for man-made wonders but too few explore those made by Mother Nature. Hikers and nature lovers: this one is for you.
A.D.’s expert tip: The Kolokee Loop is an easy-to-moderate hike with gorgeous scenery. Watch for roots. Bring a snack to enjoy at the Flagler Bridge (roughly the halfway mark) before looping back.
CityArts is downtown’s largest collective of art galleries where guests will find local and international works of art. This 20,000-square-foot destination welcomes 50,000 visitors a year. The lovely building houses downtown Orlando’s largest collection of galleries, including the Kiera & Scarlett Kiene Community Gallery, the Redefine Gallery and the Magic Gallery. The art on display here ranges from local to international and is rotated on a monthly basis. What’s the best part? Admission is free Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Check their expansive and colorful events calendar for live music, new exhibitions and even holiday-themed events.
Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Venues like CityArts Factory make art accessible to everyone, which is when art is really at its best.
A.D.’s expert tip: Every third Thursday, CityArts host a gallery hop that includes several downtown locations. Stick around afterward to check out the area’s restaurant and bar scene.
“Organic” and “local” are all kinds of foodie buzzwords these days, but throw the word “beer” into the mix and you might prick up a few sets of ears that were previously tuning you out. Orlando Brewing is Florida’s only USDA-certified organic brewery and its lovely, long list – blonde, red, brown and well beyond, with sassy names like Miami Weiss and Pompous Ass (at 7.4% ABV, that last one may well turn you into one if you’re not careful) – is sure to have at least one beer for every member of your taproom-visiting party. That said, the beer’s not gratis, but the awesome brewery tour held Monday through Saturday at 6:00 p.m., most certainly is! What’s more, Orlando Brewing welcomes families, so feel free to bring the kids along and enjoy darts, board games and live music on Friday and Saturday nights.
Recommended for Free Things to Do because: If we must stretch past the tantalizing “free” and “brewery tour” aspects, Orlando Brewing’s taproom is casual, friendly and the beer happens to be excellent.
A.D.’s expert tip: This is a brewery, not a brew-pub, so eats are minimal, but you’re welcome to order in from a number of area restaurants. They have plenty of menus on-hand.
Fort Wilderness Resort is home to some cozy Disney digs, perhaps none as rustic, however, as its cabins and camping sites, but even if you’re not camping Mickey-style, you can pop on over to enjoy the company of a classic Disney duo as they lead a fireside cowboy sing-a-long to delight of all ages and host a good old-fashioned marshmallow roast. As dusk turns to darkness, participants turn their attention to the giant screen to enjoy a classic Disney flick beneath the Florida stars. Benches are provided for seating but feel free to bring along a blanket or camping chairs and customize the experience. Needless to say, this is an outdoor event. It may be free, but it’s also subject to cancellation if the weather’s not cooperating. For movie schedules, call (407) 939-7529.
Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Chip ‘N Dale’s Campfire Sing-A-Long has it all: character interaction, music, sweet treats and a classic Disney film, all amid the great outdoors.
A.D.’s expert tip: Bring your own marshmallows, graham crackers and the like (this practice is allowed, fear not) or else you’ll be queuing up for a S’Mores Kit at the on-site Chuckwagon Snack Bar.
Have you been to Disney Springs lately? If not, you are in for a serious treat. Formerly known as Downtown Disney, this exciting and ever-expanding district has upped its ante considerably, holding onto some of its gems (T-Rex Cafe and World of Disney to name a few) while expanding its dining and shopping offerings. A whole new look has made the place pretty stunning, as well. Outdoor entertainment offerings abound and newer restaurants, from the magnificent Morimoto Asia to the waterfront allure of the Boathouse, to places like Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill and the Edison tempt diners and drinkers with all kinds of delicious fare. Looking to spend? Brand names repped include Havianas and Art of Shaving along with a host of others. And of course, exclusive Disney merchandise runs rampant. New walkways and a state of the art parking lot are making getting in, out and around a breeze.
Recommended for Free Things to Do because: With its massive roster of new additions, beautiful upgrades and free, outdoor entertainment, Disney Springs is a must.
A.D.’s expert tip: It may be difficult to make this a reality, but if you have the will power avoid spending at shops and restaurants, you can visit Disney Springs entirely free of charge! Even the parking is free!
One of Orlando’s enduring charms is its weather, a feature taken advantage of on a monthly basis by the Enzian Theater during its Popcorn Flicks in the Park. Generally held on the second Thursday of each month on the soft grass of Winter Park’s Central Park, the films are open to the public and typically run at 7 or 8 p.m., but may not happen until sunset to ensure optimal viewing for attendees. No matter, though, you’ll be cozy with friends and family amid chairs and blankets. Be sure to bring snacks and enjoy the spoils of the cinematic arm of this fair city’s arts community.
Recommended for Free Things to Do because: The Enzian Theater is the area’s only art-house venue and much beloved. Free outdoor movies just serve to further sweeten the cinematic pot.
A.D.’s expert tip: Dress appropriately for the weather and/or bug factor depending on the season.
A true glittering city centerpiece, Lake Eola Park’s myriad activities, whether walking or jogging the lake’s verdant circumference, feeding its multitude of waterfowl (there are bird-food dispensers near the playground; please don’t feed them bread or popcorn!), enjoying the shade of the live oaks or perusing the wares of the Sunday farmer’s market to name a few, are enjoyed by visitors and locals alike. Even during the work week, Lake Eola buzzes with activity as 9-to-5ers escape the office for a few and those enjoying leisure time might be paddling about one of its signature swan boats ($15/half-hour; each boat holds up to five adults). Twice-nightly light shows coordinated to music showcase the gorgeous cascading fountain at the center of the lake.
Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Lake Eola Park is exceptionally beautiful, entirely walkable, hosts dozens of free events and is beloved by locals from all walks.
A.D.’s expert tip: Peek over the rail into the lakeside plants across from Relax Grill and you may be treated to a “bird’s eye” view of a duck or goose nest.