A family trip to the theme park capital of the world can do serious damage to your wallet; Disney World tickets alone can cost nearly $90 a pop. Still, plenty of other Orlando attractions stick to the budget side of the spectrum. Check out free alligator-feeding demonstrations at a central Florida lakefront. Take advantage of discount airboat rides through Florida marshlands. And enjoy a day of low-cost entertainment during a visit to a farmer’s market and the Disney-made village of Celebration. So start packing for a frugal and fun Orlando vacation.
Get up close and personal with Florida wildlife -- without paying a cover charge -- at this cool lakefront attraction east of Orlando. A 35-year-old, 650-pound alligator named Hammy dwells in a spacious cage, where trainers feed him chicken legs during a free show every Sunday. Plenty more Florida reptiles are ready to greet you, including 9,000 alligators. Pose with their baby gators and a ball python named Squishy at Black Hammock’s free wildlife exhibit and show the world how gutsy you and the kids really are.
Frugal family fun is yours in the Central Florida town of Winter Park. The centerpiece is a farmers market set in and around an old train depot. Sample freshly-pressed sugar cane juice, shop for fresh Florida citrus and strawberries, and purchase cool gifts like a caterpillar about to make a cocoon and reemerge as a butterfly. Later, stroll a few blocks to Park Avenue, Winter Park’s main shopping promenade. Get some shade in a grassy area with lots of live oak trees, and spread out a picnic of your purchases to enjoy with your crew.
Most visitors who only make it to Orlando’s theme parks don’t realize they’ve actually not even been to Orlando itself; the city proper is located about a 20-minute drive west of the theme park corridor. Explore Lake Eola Park, in the heart of downtown Orlando, and the surrounding neighborhood of Thornton Park, where you’ll find hip boutiques such as ZouZou and Marie-France, as well as inexpensive family restaurants such as WildSide BBQ Bar and Grill. Hit the Sunday farmer’s market (don’t miss the beer garden!) and rent a big kitsch plastic swan-shaped boat ($15, per half-hour) to pedal around Lake Eola.
About a 20-minute drive from the Magic Kingdom, the town that Disney built back in 1996 now has a population of 9,000 people. It’s also home to a quaint downtown area, with colorful pink, yellow and blue buildings that house boutiques and international restaurants, such as Japanese, Thai and Cuban. Kids love to splash around in the town’s interactive outdoor fountain, where liquid jets shoot into the sky. And seasonal festivals feature fake snowfall, pie eating contests and live music on the waterfront.
For a world of Orlando discounts, get an Orlando Magicard. Among the many cost-cutting perks are a $10 discount off airboat rides from Big Toho Airboat Rides, 50% off dinner theater tickets, $5 off admission to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex and a $39-per-night hotel rate at the Comfort Inn Universal Studios Area. With the money you’ll save, you can easily splurge on something else -- namely, your next set of airline tickets or gas money to Orlando.
Plan the perfect balance of theme parks and free perks, and not only will you save money -- you’ll experience a side of Orlando that most visitors miss.
Based in Cocoa Beach, FL, travel writer Terry Ward’s favorite free Orlando-area activity is watching a rocket launch from nearby Cape Canaveral while sitting on her oceanfront balcony.