1. Stroll around Winter Park on a Sunday
Winter Park, a swanky-ish neighborhood a short drive northeast of downtown Orlando, offers a Sunday Funday’s worth of activities that starts with a farmer’s market where you can snag just-harvested vegetables, fresh-cut flowers, local honey, and more. Afterward, cut through the area’s Central Park, featuring fountains and a rose garden, to stroll along South Park Avenue, where you’ll find a mix of high-end retailers, art galleries and restaurants, some of which offer everybody’s favorite brunch deal – bottomless and BOGO mimosas. Add some culture to your afternoon by visiting the Cornell Fine Arts Museum on the Rollins College campus, where you can enjoy a docent-led tour of the Alfond Inn at no charge; there’s no admission at the museum either. Best of all, abundant free parking is available just west of the Winter Park train station.
2. Hike the Disney Wilderness Preserve
While not technically in Orlando, the free-to-visit-and-park Disney Wilderness Preserve, in Poinciana (one hour south of the city), is home to more than 1,000 plant and animal species on 11,500 acres. Hikers can enjoy several well-maintained trails that range from an easy half-mile trek around an upper pond to a six-mile hike that covers a large swath of The Nature Conservancy’s land (pack your sunscreen because most of the hike is under open sky). There’s a welcome center with all the information you’ll need to make the most of your time, plus clean restrooms, and plenty of shaded lawn space to practice your bird-watching skills (I spotted a yellow-breasted chat while I was there) and throw out a blanket for a relaxing picnic.
3. Visit the swans at Lake Eola Park
There are several features you’ll love at Lake Eola Park, including the Walt Disney Amphitheater (which hosts community events and performances on occasion), a fountain, playground and Chinese pagoda (a nice backdrop for selfies), but what you might be most surprised by is the abundance of gorgeous swans and other waterfowl that call the lake home. When I visited in February, I spotted several duckling families and clusters of eggs in nests, which signify a healthy breeding ground for these birds that can’t be found in many places. Take a lap around the park to enjoy this inner-city gem then pop into World of Beer right off the paved loop for a refreshing pick-me-up.
4. Resort hop at Walt Disney World
I’m not a huge fan of Disney (don’t take away my gay card), so my trip to Orlando wasn’t going to include waiting in endless lines at its overpriced parks. But I did want to experience at least some of the “magic,” so I researched how to do Disney for free and produced two options: Disney Springs and the Disney Boardwalk, both of which offer free parking – no park pass or resort stay required. Once parked, you can explore these areas on foot, which feature restaurants and other entertainment options (I saw a movie at the AMC Dine-In at Disney Springs with a free pass I had saved). You also can travel from resort to resort via Disney’s seven-month-old Skyliner, free (and super fun!) to ride, which will zip you between five stations, including three resorts.
To access resorts not served by the Skyliner – like Animal Kingdom, where you can view safari animals, like giraffes, zebras and gazelles – take one of Disney’s buses or boats (completely free) to create an entire day of fun without spending a dime.
Oh, and here’s a pro-tip if you’d like to have cocktails during your travels: Prepare your drinks ahead of time, bring along your favorite Disney-branded cup, and ask for free ice at restaurants when you’re ready for a fill-up. Nobody will check your bag for your stash, and Disney allows open-carry adult beverages throughout its resorts.
5. Watch a movie with Chip ’n’ Dale
Want to sing along and watch a movie with Chip ‘n’ Dale? Head to the Disney Wilderness Lodge and tell the parking attendant that you have a reservation at the Whispering Canyon Café or Trail’s End Restaurant. They’ll direct you where to park for free. Instead of going to the restaurant, however, hop a free shuttle bus to the Fort Wilderness Campfire and Movie area, where you’ll join the sing-along and enjoy a visit from the beloved chipmunks. A full-length Disney movie will follow. A food truck is on premises along with a camp store that sells snacks and booze, but there’s no rule about bringing your own. Stock your backpack ahead of time, then sit back and enjoy the show.