Taking a family —or hell, even a solo— trip to Orlando, aka the "Theme Park Capital of the World," is no cheap affair. With roundtrip airfare, hotel costs, and Disney World tickets that ring in around $100-$120 a pop per day (depending on when you visit), you'll likely be in need of some less-costly activities to round out the remainder of your itinerary. Here, we've scrounged up a hearty handful of gratis experiences for your next trip.
Looking to cash in on some of Disney’s most magical sights without coughing up the big bucks? Then the Walt Disney World Resort Monorail is a win-win (that also provides some stellar AC).The monorail runs two different routes which make stops at Magic Kingdom, Disney’s Contemporary Resort, Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort, Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, and Epcot. You can hop on at any of the listed locations, or at the Transportation and Ticket Centers at Magic Kingdom and Epcot.
Try the monorail out during the day, but board again in the afternoon and head to the Polynesian’s beach. Toes and butts comfortably in the sand, you’ll catch the Wishes Nighttime Spectacular—Magic Kingdom’s newest firework show—music and all (as the resort pumps in the soundtrack), admission free.
Alternatively, if sing-a-longs, free movies under the stars, and s’mores (BYOB ingredients—but there’ll be a fire, weather permitting) are more likely to keep your kids entertained, then head to Chip ‘N Dale’s Campfire Sing-a-Long at the Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground.
In Orlando’s Downtown Arts District, the 20,000 square-foot CityArts Factory displays a collection of local and international art throughout six individual galleries. Drop by Tuesday through Saturday, 11am to 6pm, when free admission grants you access to visual and performance art of every genre.
Have a scholar in your midst? For ID carrying college students, tickets to the Cornell Fine Arts Museum— on the Winter Park campus of Rollins College, overlooking Lake Virginia—is always gratis. Present your ID and you’ll be able to explore collections (antique and contemporary) of American and European art, including pieces by Winslow Homer, Herman Herzog, Gilbert Stuart, Thomas Gainsborough, and more.
Twenty-miles east of Orlando, the Fort Christmas Historical Museum & Park presents an admission-free afternoon for American history buffs. Based on the typical pioneer architecture that surfaced in the 1870s right on through the 1930s, the park has seven restored “Florida Cracker” homes, as well as a school and its lunchroom on display.
Three meals a day plus alcoholic beverages can really run up a tab on vacation. That’s why we’re all about free tours and tastings at local breweries, vineyards, and farmer’s markets. No matter your schedule, you should be able to fit in a visit to Orlando Brewing as they offer free tours Monday through Saturday at 6pm. Head’s up: the tour is completely free but there aren’t any tastings. If you want to sip while you walk around, you can grab a happy-hour-priced pint in the taproom prior.
To keep the complimentary tours (and tastings, this time!) coming, head to Lakeridge Winery & Vineyards in Clermont—about 30 minutes from Disney. Seven days a week, mid-morning to 5pm, visitors are welcome to sip on Florida-grown varieties (dry, sweet, sparkling—you name it) on 45-minute tours of their estate.
If you’re looking to keep it family-friendly, the Winter Park Farmers’ Market is probably a better fit. Spread out in Winter Park’s old train depot, the market sets up shop every Saturday from 7am to 1pm. Stop by to peruse the fresh-cut flowers, local produce, baked goods, coffee, and get in some prime people watching. Don’t be afraid to ask for a sample or two—most vendors are more than happy to let you test out their wares.
The first Monday of each month, it’s time to head to Harry P. Leu Gardens. From 9am to 5pm guests are blessed with complimentary access to the grounds' annual blooms. Come spring and summer, that means bright and fragrant hibiscus, gardenia, and hundreds of rose variations. Plus, you can always pop by the drought-tolerant arid garden to fulfill your succulent dreams.
If gardens are kind of your thing, you can continue the theme with a visit to Kraft Azalea Garden, a 5ish-acre Winter Park spot that’s open to the public all year. Whether the azaleas are in bloom or not, visitors can enjoy the breeze blowing off of Lake Maitland as they roam the romantic grounds under the shade of enormous cypress trees.
Meanwhile, in the heart of downtown Orlando, Lake Eola Park is an equally ideal spot to spend an afternoon. Visitors can follow the sidewalk along the eponymous lake’s (read: sinkhole’s) edge, catch community-hosted concerts at the Walt Disney Amphitheater, or relax with a picnic lunch and watch the swan boats make lazy circles in the surf. Stick around till nightfall and you’ll find that the water comes to life as the park’s iconic fountain puts on a choreographed light show (each is 6 minutes and runs from 8:30 pm to 9:30 pm). The park also hosts a weekly Sunday market (think: local produce, homemade baked goods, and regional brews) and seasonal activities like July 4th Fireworks at the Fountain and Fiesta in the Park—a two-day arts and crafts festival that takes place in both the spring and fall.
If you’re looking more for day trip material, then try the Ocala National Forest on for size. Located about an hour north of downtown Orlando, the southernmost continental US forest covers 607-square-miles of the Sunshine State with hundreds of lakes, rivers, springs, and hiking and biking trails perfect for year-round exploration.
If you’re a fan of live music, then you’re in luck when it comes to Orlando options. Stop by Disney Springs—day or night, Monday through Sunday—and you’ll find everything from full bands to DJ’d kiddie dance parties along Lake Buena Vista.
Over in Old Town—Kissimmee’s walking district, just down the road from Disney, Universal, and SeaWorld—the Trophy Row Stage hosts live music nearly five nights a week. If you think you’ve got chops, you can even perform in front of everyone on karaoke night (every other Tuesday).
If your musical tastes lean more towards classical and jazz or bluegrass and folk, then Music at the Casa (aka Casa Feliz) is what you’re after. The Winter Park historic Spanish farmhouse (designed by esteemed architect James Gamble Rogers II) welcomes guests to complimentary tours and Sunday afternoon concerts. Drop by between noon and 3pm, and you’ll be treated to string quartets and guitar, violin, and harp soloists in the house’s main parlor.
In 2017, a couple of movie tickets a medium popcorn can tip the scales at $50 or more. If you’re looking to avoid exorbitant evening prices, fit in a picnic-friendly showing with Popcorn Flicks in the Park. Hosted by Enzian Theater in Winter Park's 11-acre Central Park, screenings are free and open to the public the second Thursday of every month. Upcoming family films include Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Beauty and the Beast, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
If your Thursdays are booked, opt instead for Movieola on the last Friday of the month. The Lake Eola Park outdoor series welcomes families and their furry friends for showings of current blockbusters, classics, and sing-a-longs, plus pre-movie karaoke sessions, costume contests, and lawn games. Pop by at 8:15pm prompt for this summer's showings and you’ll catch Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Gremlins, Sing, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
Looking to wrap up the week with some movie downtime under the stars? Just minutes from Disney, Kissimmee's Old Town hosts family movie night every Sunday March through August. This summer, the al fresco series has a fun lineup that's sure to please tots and parents alike with flicks like Footloose, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Back to the Future, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Despicable Me.