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.

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.

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.


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.

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.

Orlando Brewing
Photo courtesy of Orlando Brewing

"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.

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.

Disney Springs ®

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.

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.

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.


Meet A.D. Thompson

Amy Drew has spent nearly three decades as a professional writer and roughly half her life as a Floridian. The words, she has found, come easier with bare feet and rum.

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