Attractions: Top 10 Free (Or Almost-Free) Things to Do in Central Florida
By Taylor Ferrera
Nothing beats a magical day at the theme parks. Whether you prefer Universal Orlando Resort, SeaWorld, or Walt Disney Resorts, no one can dispute the euphoria one feels when one escapes reality and spends the day immersed in magic.
The definition of an attraction is “a place which draws visitors by providing something of interest or pleasure.” As difficult as it may be to fathom, Orlando had plenty of exciting attractions long before the theme parks came to town, and most of them ran from cheap to free.
Whether you want to stay in the theme park area or focus your fun closer to Downtown Orlando, here are a few suggestions that will go easy on your pocketbook.
1. Universal CityWalk
Theme parks charge a pretty penny for their magic, but you can visit Universal CityWalk entertainment complex for free. It costs $26 to park during the day, but if you can wait till 6 p.m., parking is free, excluding Halloween Horror Nights. Universal CityWalk is an entertainment complex with an impressive variety of shopping and restaurants. Spending the day people-watching and catching some exciting entertainment is fun and free. universalorlando.com
2. Tibet-Butler Preserve
Just around the river-bend from Walt Disney World is the Tibet-Butler preserve. If you’re a Disney Animal Kingdom fan, this is the place for you.
This wildlife haven boasts miles of immaculately maintained hiking trails featuring a variety of habitats. Check out the environmental center for a tutorial on the wildlife and what you may experience on your hike. The preserve includes a picnic area and butterfly garden—and it’s free. floridahikes.com/tibetbutler
3. Supernatural Sights at Spook Hill
Whether it’s an optical illusion or a gravity hill, a thrill by any other name is still a thrill. An authentic relic of an attraction from pre-Disney days, visitors come from far and wide to experience this spooky encounter in Lake Wales. You simply drive to Spook Hill, park your car in neutral, and prepare to be astonished as your car appears to roll uphill. Some old-timers say this hill is haunted. You be the judge. The verdict and admission are free. spookhill.info
4. Discover Church Street Station
Once upon a time, there was an entertainment complex called Church Street Station. While the complex closed in 1990, the historic station still stands. Church Street Station, once called the Old Orlando Railroad Depot, is a historic train station built in 1889 and is a fascinating and historic venue home to some of Orlando’s top restaurants and bars. visitchurchstreet.com
5. Lake Eola Park
Lake Eola Park is a misnomer, as it’s actually a 23 feet and 8 inches deep sinkhole. Albeit shallow, nothing can diminish the beauty that sits in the heart of Downtown Orlando.
Lake Eola is a 43-acre oasis that puts the “Beautiful” in “The City Beautiful.” The sidewalk around the lake is filled with families and dog walkers and is excellent for jogging or a contemplative walk. Swan paddle boats are for rent. There is a weekly farmer’s market on Sundays, visit the Chinese pagoda, or attend a concert or play at the Walt Disney Amphitheater. Lake Eola Park is free. orlando.gov
6. Secret Gardens
Tucked in the back roads of Winter Park is one of our favorite parks, Kraft Azalea Gardens. Called Florida’s “Secret Garden,” it’s open all year round from 8 a.m. till dusk. Kraft Azalea Gardens is a must-see park featuring a stunning Greek exedra monument with a semicircle of white colonnades, views of Lake Maitland, and trees laden with Spanish moss. Usually secluded, many choose this location for their wedding, engagement, senior and prom photos. It’s that gorgeous and free. cityofwinterpark.org
7. Disney Springs
From hot-air balloon rides to an eclectic mix of shops and dining experiences, Disney Springs could easily turn into an all-day affair. Formerly known as Downtown Disney, Disney Springs offers a free day of entertainment and extras, like a trip to the famous World of Disney® store. The balloon rides and shopping may put you back a pretty penny, but admission and parking are free. disneysprings.com
8. Museums and Gallery Hopping
In historic Eatonville, The Hurston Museum explores the life and humble beginnings of author and cultural anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston. From 19th-century furniture crafted by slaves to contemporary paintings by local children, the museum showcases the work of many African artists. Admission is free. zoranealehurstonmuseum.com
The Downtown Arts District manages this eclectic art gallery. They change exhibits every third Thursday of the month, so check their website for opening nights and events. With a commitment to exhibiting local and regional art, CityArts produces quality programs. Entrance is free Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. until 6 p.m. downtownartsdistrict.com/cityarts
9. Theatrical Freebies at Orlando Fringe
Famous for being “The Longest Running Fringe Theatre,” Orlando Fringe is also known for being one of the top cheap things to do in Central Florida.
The Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival is a 14-day annual arts festival held in May. Tickets range in price from free to $12. There are loads of shows for kids and adults. orlandofringe.org
10. For the cost of a drink
The Kitty Beautiful
Relax with a cup of joe, tea, or pastries while soaking up some playful kitty vibes. It’s a coffee house and a cat adoption center all in one. Research says playing with a cat releases all the right chemicals in the brain, which decreases anxiety, so hang with the cool cats. Pay $12.78 to access the cat play area for one hour! Reservations recommended. thekittybeautiful.com
The Grand Bohemian
It’s glamorous. It’s posh. It’s the Grand Bohemian Hotel. Slip into their jazz lounge, where you can enjoy a cocktail listening to Orlando’s finest live jazz music. It’s a free concert for the cost of a drink. kesslercollection.com/bohemian-Orlando