Even if you don’t have an unlimited budget for your upcoming Orlando vacation, you’re probably not dwelling much on admission costs or meal plans. You’ve already spent or allocated for those. It’s the smaller, unplanned and discretionary expenses that worry you. Little extras and impulse buys can add up and eat away at your wallet. But how many times do you want to tell your kids ”no”?
The theme parks get your concern. So they try to stretch your budget with freebies. By helping create or enhance vacation memories for your family at no extra cost to you, they put some of your hard-earned money back into your pocket. And if you’re interested in saving even more, check out this amazing Orlando Vacation package.
Let’s look at some of the best theme park freebies you’ll find…
A little detective work can get you discounted admissions for almost every major Orlando-area park. Free admissions are harder to score—unless you’re on active duty in the U.S. military. If that’s the case, you and up to three family members are eligible for free-one day admission per year of duty at SeaWorld®Orlando and its sister park, Busch Gardens® Tampa as part of their parent company’s Waves of Honor program. All that’s required is proof of your service.
Members of another valued group can get free admission to SeaWorld and to another Orlando-area park, Legoland® Florida. SeaWorld’s Teacher Study Pass program entitles certified Florida K-12 educators a one-day free admission. Legoland, 45 miles southwest of Orlando in Winter Haven, offers that same group an even greater perk through its Florida Teacher Pass program—free admission for a full year, to both the complex’s theme and water parks. Both programs require three forms of proof—a current pay stub, photo ID and photocopy of a valid state teaching certificate. The SeaWorld program enables advance online registration at the website mentioned above, but teachers can obtain passes via both programs by bringing the required documents to the front gates of the respective parks.
Meanwhile, you don’t have to be a teacher to take advantage of various buy-one-get-one and child-gets-in-free admissions to Legoland offered by third-party advertisers. Be on the lookout for these limited-time opportunities.
And if you’re traveling with someone who wishes to accompany the group but not go on rides, consider Fun Spot America. Rides and amusement passes or armbands can be purchased online at discount, but nobody pays to enter. Parking is free, too. More intimate than major parks, this park has locations in Orlando and Kissimmee.
Mobile apps are practically musts these days for visits to major theme parks. Some apps are indispensible, especially those that forecast the weather, update you on wait times, help you navigate your family around a park or share a park’s latest news and deals. Some free apps cover all major Orlando theme parks, but if you’re visiting Walt Disney World®, the Universal Orlando® parks or SeaWorld Orlando, your best bet is to download an app released by the particular park.
The best free Disney app is My Disney Experience. You can download it for both i0S and Android devices.
The best free Universal app is The Official Universal Orlando® Resort App. You can download it for both i0S and Android devices.
The best free SeaWorld app is the SeaWorld Discovery Guide. You can download it for both i0S and Android devices.
What child (or adult) doesn’t love wearing buttons—especially big buttons, and especially on special occasions? If you’re visiting Disney World or Universal Orlando to celebrate a birthday, you can get a button that marks your special day just by asking for one. In fact, Disney World offers buttons for other special occasions, too, such as anniversaries and weddings.
Cast members in all parks at both venues are always on the lookout for these buttons and ready to shower anyone wearing them with extra attention—and sometimes even more free stuff. At Disney, you can visit City Hall in the Magic Kingdom or Guest Services at the other parks to get your button. At Universal, visit Guest Services at either Universal Studios Florida or Universal’s Islands of Adventure. (And if your visit isn’t on the actual birthday, it’s no big deal at either Disney or Orlando. You still get your button.)
Club Cool Drinks
Club Cool is a must-stop in Epcot. Take a break from your trek through Future World to taste, for free, eight different Coca-Cola soft drink products from around the globe. These drinks aren’t marketed in the United States, and you can sample them all. You’ll find drinks from Brazil, Greece, Japan, Peru, South Africa, Thailand and Zimbabwe in addition to the Italian drink called Beverly. If there’s a bucket list for Disney World activities, sipping a Beverly probably deserves a place on it—in spite of this non-alcoholic aperitif’s bitter taste.
You can buy free refill packages or get otherwise discounted refills at Disney World, Universal and SeaWorld, but there also are a handful of Disney World restaurants where the free refills come without upgrades. Those include Tortuga Tavern in Magic Kingdom, Sunshine Seasons in Epcot, Backlot Express in Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Restaurantosaurus in Animal Kingdom.
Drawings from Disney’s Animation Academy
Children can attend classes in Disney World and take home their own hand-drawn cartoon characters for free. Half-hour classes take place daily at Animation Academy in Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
Eats, for Kids
All kids under 3 eat for free at Disney World buffets and full-service restaurants. Meanwhile, restaurants in Universal CityWalk at Universal Orlando are among those all across Orlando that honor a Kids Eat Free Card available for purchase online. The cards entitle children under 11 to a free meal when accompanied by a full-price adult meal. Various Orlando ticket resources online market the cards, so Google away until you find the price that helps round out the ideal Orlando vacation package for you.
Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival
More than 100 spectacular topiary sculptures are on display every March through May at Epcot in this free signature Disney World event.
Epcot International Food & Wine Festival
Another popular Disney World event takes place at Epcot every fall. Some of the activities are free as part of normal park admission. Those include the concert series, featuring top musical artists, called Eat to the Beat!
In 2014, Disney World expanded Fastpass+, its free virtual reservation system, making it available to all park guests. You can manage your Fastpass+ account on the My Disney Experience app.
These free nightly finales at Magic Kingdom, Epcot and Hollywood Studios at Disney World, and Universal Studios Florida at Universal Orlando, are truly grand. And they’re worth the wait.
Ghirardelli Chocolate Squares
Talk about a sweet deal at Disney World—a free Ghirardelli Chocolate Square. Ask for a sample when you visit Ghirardelli Soda Fountain & Chocolate Shop in Downtown Disney (which in 2016 will be renamed Disney Springs).
Hot Rod Cruise
Old Town in Kissimmee isn’t technically a theme park anymore now that new ownership has removed rides to restore the original emphasis on dining, eclectic shopping and throwback entertainment. (Of course, the Kissimmee Fun Spot location is next door.) But apart from taking sidewalk strolls, you can entertain yourself by watching one of the famous Old Town classic car cruises four days every week. The most popular is the Saturday Nite® Cruise featuring pre-1980 hot rods, street rods and antiques. If you’ve driven yours to Orlando, you can even join in.
Ice Water (and Other Water Refills)
Ask any refreshment or food stand attendant at Disney World for a free cup of ice water. At Universal Orlando, visitors are permitted to bring their own water bottles to the park and may refill them for free at soft drink machines.
Jedi Training Academy Souvenir
Signing up your 4- to 12-year-old to participate in the Jedi Training Academy at Disney World requires being near the front the line when Hollywood Studios opens in the morning and then beating similarly motivated families to ABC Sound Studio when the green flag drops. This sounds stressful, but the reward is great if your child secures a time slot in this first-come, first-serve free-for-all—including a free, take-home certificate to commemorate victory in those duels with the Dark Side.
Kidcot Fun Stops
One of the best free Disney World activities for keeping younger children engaged is “Duffy the Disney Bear,” a cardboard souvenir available at any Kidcot Fun Stop in Epcot. There’s a Fun Stop in every country pavilion where kids can color or decorate Duffy using Kidcot supplies. Click here for an Orlando vacation package that includes nonstop Disney fun!
Kids under 3 don’t need admission tickets to Disney World or Universal Orlando. Kids 5 and under can enter SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa for free after they’re signed up online for a 2015 Preschool Pass. Note that a certified copy of a birth certificate must be presented on the child’s behalf at the gate.
LEGO® Imagination Center
LEGO® Imagination Center in Downtown Disney/Disney Springs is a fascinating experience for everyone, and free—at least until it’s time to make a call on souvenirs from this LEGO store. Before that point, your whole family can enjoy giant likenesses of Disney built with LEGO pieces, and your kids will love the play area where there are enough LEGOs to satisfy their wildest imaginations. If you have the parental patience, here’s one free Disney World activity you can stretch for hours.
Macy’s Holiday Parade
That symbol of Thanksgiving in New York City, the Macy’s Holiday Parade, “snowbirds” at Universal Orlando every December—Santa Claus included. You can see St. Nick, and enjoy all the music, floats and pageantry, daily in Universal Studios Florida from the first week of December through the end of the month. And it’s all included in your regular park admission—there’s no extra charge.
Universal Orlando’s family-friendly version of Mardi Gras, one of the premier theme park festivals anywhere, takes place every February through April at Universal Studios Florida. The fun and musical entertainment includes live concerts from top national acts and real New Orleans musicians. This, too, is covered by your regular park admission.
Sometimes on really hot days, a cold drink just doesn’t do the job—the only way to cool down is a good misting. At Universal Orlando, specifically Islands of Adventure, you’ll find a misting station in the Marvel Super Hero Island section and two wet-play stations for younger children in Toon Lagoon.
Narrated Nativity Story
Holidays Around the World — Candlelight Processional is a beloved Disney World seasonal tradition that costs nothing extra to attend. All around Epcot, indigenous traditional characters from around the globe share holiday customs from their native lands in Holidays Around the World. The Candlelight Processional, in which a major celebrity narrates the Nativity story with choral and orchestral accompaniment, takes place three times every night.
Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights
Here’s a spectacular nightly seasonal Disney World event included in park admission. Every winter, Disney’s Hollywood Studios sparkles with a gigantic showcase of holiday lights synchronized to music.
Whether you’ve come to see Princess Elsa or SpongeBob SquarePants, Disney World and Universal Orlando character parades are among the daily highlights at both theme parks.
Quintessential Disney Characters
It’s no different in 2015 than it was in 1971 when Disney World opened—the first time a youngster shakes hands with Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse or Donald Duck is a magical moment never to be forgotten—and would be even if character meet-and-greets weren’t free. If you’re looking to show your kids the magic of Disney, you’ll find a great vacation package deal here!
Remembrall! Harry Potter!
The Celebration of Harry Potter™ draws thousands to Universal Orlando for a weekend of wizardry every year. It’s bigger than ever now, with the opening of the Diagon Alley™ in Universal Studios Florida to complement the Wizarding World of Harry Potter™—Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure. Each year, different actors from the spectacular film adaptations of J.K. Rowling’s bestsellers mingle with fans informally and at Q&A sessions. There also are dueling demonstrations, revelations of behind-the-scenes production secrets, and much more. Upgraded accesses and opportunities are available at an extra charge, but the basic experience is included in normal park fees.
Star Wars Weekends
One of the biggest Disney World spring-summer events every year, this series of tributes to the newly revived Star Wars film series includes character parades and meet-and-greets as well as free prizes and more. As with the Harry Potter extravaganza, upgraded experiences are available. But general access to Star Wars Weekends-related activities comes with your regular Hollywood Studios admission.
This free Disney World service enables you to request souvenir purchases inside any theme park to be delivered to a pick-up location near the park’s front gate for pick-up as you leave the park.
Tribute Bands in Concert
If you enjoy classic rock tribute bands and you’re planning an Orlando vacation in the summer, allot time for a session of the annual Sounds Like concert series at Disney World. At no extra charge, you can relax at America Gardens Theatre in Epcot and enjoy tribute acts that pay homage to the likes of Billy Joel, U2 and others. Acts change weekly, so be sure to check ahead of time.
There’s no charge for store browsing or people watching at CityWalk, whether you spend significant time there to shop, dine or savor the nightlife, or are just passing through—as you must—on your way to and from Universal Orlando parking.
Few free Disney World bonus activities are more fun than creating a brief personalized video from “Project Tomorrow” at the Spaceship Earth exit in Epcot and emailing it to friends like a digital postcard.
Wi-Fi is free at Disney World, Universal Orlando, SeaWorld Orlando and both Fun Spot locations.
Cyclops and other crime-fighting mutants are among Marvel Super Heroes characters who appear in various locations around Islands of Adventure at Universal Orlando for free meet-and-greet sessions and to pose for photos.
Yeti Badge (and Other Badges)
Kids can become Wilderness Explorers at Disney World and collect more than 30 free badges for completing various assignments that take them all around Animal Kingdom—including tracking down information on the Yeti.
OK, OK, Zebra Domes at Disney World aren’t free. These fabulous, gooey ganache desserts at Animal Kingdom cost something like $3.69 for a box of five. But if you follow even half of the tips provided here, you ought to be able to spring for one.
Interested in embarking on a magical Orlando vacation? Here’s your chance to enjoy it for free!