Try these fun, beyond-the-theme-park ideas that won’t break the bank.
Millions of visitors flock to The Sunshine State every year to explore the most magical place on Earth: Orlando! While Central Florida’s theme parks provide unrivaled fun, they can get pricey. That’s why savvy travelers spend time exploring the many free things to do in Orlando. And as a long-time Orlando area resident, I know just where to go. I often recommend these activities to out-of-town visitors looking for some affordable, beyond-the-theme-park-gates fun.
Enjoy No-Admission Theme Park Experiences
You don’t need an admission ticket to visit the sprawling dining, shopping, and entertainment complexes near Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando theme parks. Plus, parking is free! Visit Disney Springs, a bustling area filled with plenty of people-watching opportunities, beautiful landscaping and architecture, live performances, and family fun. Explore your creative side at The Lego Store, watch a hot-air balloon soar above the crowds, and take a free ferry ride to various Disney properties. Pop over to Disney’s Boardwalk for old-fashioned charm, reminiscent of 20th-century Atlantic City. Stroll along the promenade, relax in a rocking chair, and revel in the fun of evening street performers. Head to the boardwalk for a great view of EPCOT’s spectacular fireworks. At the 30-acre Universal CityWalk, you’ll find everything from music and dance parties to kids’ splash zones and free water taxis. Escape from the crowd by taking a stroll along the quiet pathways to the waterfront area leading to Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, where you’ll feel the charm of an Italian seaside village.
Stroll Around Lake Eola
In the heart of downtown Orlando’s buzzing business district sits this beautiful public park and lake, with a picturesque fountain at its center. Here, you’ll find locals jogging, walking their dogs, and taking their kids to the playground. Take a leisurely stroll along the one-mile paved path that encircles the lake. Pack a lunch and grab a spot at one of the many benches along the way for some fantastic people-watching. Bring some extra bread to feed the ducks and swans that often gather near the shoreline. Enjoy watching visitors gliding through the lake on their pedal-powered swan boats, with the beautiful skyline as the backdrop.
Visit Local Attractions on Free Days
The Orange County Regional History Center offers free admission from 6 to 8 p.m. on the third Thursday of each month. Tucked into the heart of downtown and housed in Orlando’s historic courthouse, the renowned history center dives into 12,000 years of the region’s heritage, from Florida’s indigenous peoples and the growth of the citrus industry to the theme park era and the One Orlando Collection related to the Pulse nightclub tragedy. Explore four floors of interactive displays, special collections, films, artifacts, traveling exhibits, programs, and special events. You can also visit the stellar Orlando Museum of Art for free if you’re a Bank of America or Merrill Lynch customer, thanks to the Museums on Us program. This gives you free general admission to more than 150 museums in some 90 cities the first full weekend of every month—including the Orlando Museum of Art.
Take an Historic Walking Tour
Enjoy a 1.5-hour guided tour of Orlando’s Downtown Historic District on the first Friday of the month (October through May). Offered by the Orlando Downtown Development Board, the free walking tour highlights architectural standouts in The City Beautiful along with fun trivia, anecdotes, and historical background. This monthly event, which starts at 9:15 a.m., often reaches capacity quickly, so you’ll need to RSVP via the Downtown Orlando Info Center website.
Explore an Arboretum
Love being out in nature? At the University of Central Florida, you can take a free, self-guided tour of the seven-acre Arboretum Park, which is open from sunrise to sunset every day. Explore the gardens, trails, and natural areas to learn about the diverse plants that beautify the landscaping around campus. You might spot colorful American Beauty Berry, Bromeliads, Philodendron, and Firebush, as well as plenty of ferns, palm trees, and Spanish-moss-draped oak trees. Look for students working in this “outdoor living laboratory,” as they engage in hands-on learning. Good to know: The arboretum is also home to an organic community garden, with produce helping UCF students in need through the Knights Helping Knights Pantry. While you’re on campus, stroll along UCF’s nature trails to explore 14 miles of Florida habitat, such as basin marshes, wet prairie, and scrubby flat woods.
Visit the USTA National Campus
Located in the trendy Lake Nona section of Orlando, the U.S. Tennis Association features a sprawling, 64-acre complex with 100 lighted tennis courts as well as pickleball and padel courts. With a regular slate of events on the calendar (many of them free to attend), you can enjoy watching your favorite racquet sport throughout the year. Open since 2017, USTA also boasts the Nemours Family Zone, allowing free play for all ages—but you’ll need to preregister to reserve your spot.
Tour the Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive
If you want to escape the crowded tourist hotspots, head over to the Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive, open 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. (Friday through Sunday). Here, just hop in your car and wind your way through a one-way, 11-mile stretch of Florida habitat. You can even stream an audio-guided tour by following along on their website, allowing for key stops along the way. According to the website, at roughly 48 square miles in size, Lake Apopka is the fourth largest lake in Florida. With 360 bird species spotted on the property over the years, you might see a Bald Eagle, Great Blue Heron, Osprey, Red-shouldered Hawk, or Swallow-tailed Kite. And be on the lookout for other wildlife that make their home here, including alligators, bobcats, coyotes, otter, and turtles. Plan to spend about an hour on the drive.
Check Out the Local Art Scene
In the Downtown Arts District, soak in Orlando’s creative side at CityArts, a gallery collective featuring local art, exhibits, and special events. Free to the public, CityArts is open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. (Tuesday through Sunday). Hop in your car to tour some of the amazing murals sprinkled on buildings throughout the city, ranging from downtown and Thornton Park to Mills 50 and the Milk District. Nearby in Orlando’s suburb of Winter Park, Rollins Museum of Art offers free admission for visitors to admire more than 5,600 works of art that span centuries.
For more Southern Living news, make sure to sign up for our newsletter!
Read the original article on Southern Living.