The happiest Orlando vacations are all about structure and balance. Have a plan and stick to it if possible. Make sure your plan balances activities so that everyone gets to do something they enjoy. And likewise, make sure your plan is sensitive to your budget and offsets big-ticket stuff with activities that require no ticket.
But is it even possible to find appealing vacation activities in Orlando that cost nothing? You’d be surprised. Free things to do in Orlando, range from outdoors activities to museums to children’s exhibits. Most concierges can provide you with a longer list, but let’s look at five.
LEGO Imagination Center®
Not to be confused with Legoland® Florida, a theme park an hour southwest of Orlando in Winter Haven, LEGO Imagination Center is a company store in Downtown Disney®. It’s just as fun for parents as it is for children to stroll together among the many giant sculptures built with LEGO® products. You’ll see famous Disney characters, and then there’s the dragon in the adjacent lake whose body arches in and out of the water. The sculptures stimulate creativity in children—who can then act on their urges inside the store, in an interactive free-play area with all the LEGO pieces at their disposal that they desire. Admission to Downtown Disney is free, so depending on how much time you want to devote, LEGO Imagination Center can work as either a “destination” or one stop in a larger exploration.
$$ Tip: It’s worth repeating: LEGO Imagination Center is a store, loaded with shelf after shelf of LEGO products. If walking out with a purchase isn’t in your plan, set clear expectations for your children before you enter.
Black Hammock Adventures
Nature and wildlife lovers will enjoy Black Hammock Adventures, particularly those fascinated by alligators. This outdoors complex on Lake Jesup in Oviedo, just east of Orlando includes a restaurant, bar and gift shop, marina with pontoon rentals, and airboat rides. The free activity is a wildlife and alligator exhibit featuring an array of colorful birds and reptiles headlined by Hammy, an adult 12-foot gator.
$$ Tip: For a charge too small to pass up the opportunity, you can hold a baby gator and pose for photos. $$ Tip, Part II: If you’ve never ridden an airboat, it might be worth considering here and weighing whether to build the expense into your budget. Lake Jesup has the largest alligator population in Florida, over 9,000, but the tours—which depart every half-hour, no reservation necessary—also visit the busy colony of wading birds on Bird Island.
A combination of good planning and good timing can allow families to enjoy a free movie night under the stars. Two nearby cities show movies once a month on outdoor screens at their local parks. Winter Park offers “Popcorn Flicks” the second Thursday of every month at Central Park, while Ocoee offers a movie night at Bill Breeze Park every third Friday.
$$ Tip: You’re invited to bring your own goodies to either event, but note that the Ocoee series is part of “Food Truck Fridays” and you buy dinner or snacks from an array of vendors who over the years have served everything from Cuban to cupcakes.
Fort Christmas Historical Park
Families fascinated with history don’t mind the 20-mile drive east of Orlando to tour the full-size replica of a fort built during the Second Seminole Indian War (1835-42). At Fort Christmas Historical Park also includes restored homes that offer curious tourist a glimpse of barely settled central Florida life from the 1870s to the 1930s. The park also provides pavilion shelters ideal for enjoying packed picnic lunches, as well as playground where children can play on swings, climb the jungle gym or shoot baskets. $$ Tip: The gift shop, where you can buy pioneer and American Indian jewelry, toys and crafts among other items, takes cash only. The gift shop supports the park.
Lake Eola Park
There’s even something free for the family to do downtown. Lake Eola Park is 43 acres of nature in an urban setting. The park includes a .9 sidewalk the loops around a lake famous for its nighttime fountain show set to music and its many varieties of graceful swans. More recently, visitors have been drawn to the park by eight conversation-starting, new modern-art sculptures. One of the most popular, especially among children, is “Muse of Discovery.” She’s a 40-foot reclining female figure, partially buried in under mounds of earth, whose cupped palm is big enough to sit in and thus becomes an instant photo-op.
$$ Tip: You’re allowed to feed the swans, provided you stick to their restricted diet. Unless you carry lettuce or duck pellets with you, your best bet is to buy swan food from dispensers at the park. $$ Tip, Part II: For a small fee, you can rent pontoons and boats shaped like swans.
These and other free activities can stretch not only vacation budgets, but also the boundaries of vacation-planning imaginations.