ORLANDO, Fla. -- It costs close to $100 a person to enter the gates of the Magic Kingdom or board the Hogwarts Express. But there are plenty of things to do in the Orlando area that are free, and none of them has anything to do with theme parks.
Unlike coastal Florida, where tourists and locals often mix it up, Orlando's tourist district is distinctly segregated from where locals tend to go. Free activities require tourists to venture beyond the hotel-tourist attraction-industrial complex that stretches from Universal Studios to Walt Disney World.
Metro Orlando debuted a light rail system this month, but a car will be required to cover distances between these activities.
Lake Eola Park
Lake Eola Park is the geographic and sentimental heart of Orlando's downtown. At the center of the lake is the city's official icon, a green, multitiered fountain. Every night, passers-by are treated to a six-minute water show from the fountain featuring multicolored bursts of water timed to music. Eight mammoth sculptures were recently added to the park, including a 20,000-pound limestone sculpture of a Greek muse half-covered in grass and a 25-foot aluminum flock of seagulls lifting off from the lake. Surrounded by recently built residential high-rises, Lake Eola offers the best people-watching experience in downtown Orlando. On any given day, you can witness a wedding, march in a parade, shop at an art fair, run a 5K race, buy produce at a farmers market, walk your dog, feed swans, ride in a swan-shaped paddle boat, grab a beer at the park's outdoor cafe, read a book in the shade of the many moss-covered oak trees or leisurely stroll around the nearly 1-mile sidewalk along the lake.
Winter Park's Park Avenue and Farmers Market
Grab your preppiest clothes and head to tony Park Avenue in the Orlando suburb of Winter Park. Park Avenue is likely the only place in central Florida where you will feel self-consciously underdressed in the standard Florida uniform of T-shirt, shorts and flip flops. So don those loafers, flip up your polo-shirt collar and stroll up the best window-shopping avenue in town. While some upscale national brands have shops on Park Avenue, the street is home to predominantly locally owned stores and restaurants.
The avenue has some of the area's best restaurants, and, on most days, patrons dine at sidewalk tables, watching a parade of well-heeled customers see and be seen. The avenue is dog-friendly and most blocks have silver water bowls for canine-strollers. On Saturdays, a farmers market is held at a restored brick train depot a block from Park Avenue featuring produce, pastries, bagels, cheese and something you don't find at most farmers markets, orchids.
With nice weather year-round, the Orlando area has plenty of places to catch a free outdoor movie. Chief among them is the film-buff haven of the Enzian in the suburb of Maitland. The Enzian's farmhouse-like structure puts the "house" in movie house, and its adjacent outdoor cafe offers fine wine and dining underneath towering oak trees. For the Wednesday Night Pitcher Show, the Enzian screens kitschy classics like "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" and "Videodrome" on its front lawn, without charge, every other week. Free Jell-O shots are given out for answering movie trivia questions correctly before the screening. The Enzian also shows free movies once a month in a park along Winter Park's Park Avenue.
Watch a rocket launch
Although they take place 50 miles to the east at Cape Canaveral, rocket launches can still easily be seen from anywhere in metro Orlando, provided it's a clear day and you're not standing under a tree. Although the space shuttles stopped flying in 2011, launches of satellites and private-sector supply vessels to the International Space Station continue to liftoff on a regular basis. So if you're outside and you suddenly see people looking eastward to the sky and pointing, chances are you, too, will catch the fiery flashes from the rocket and the plumes of smoke left behind.
Sit in on a trial
In the last several years, two of the nation's highest profile court cases have been in the Orlando area: the Casey Anthony trial at the Orange County Courthouse in downtown Orlando and the George Zimmerman trial, up Interstate 4 at the Seminole County Courthouse in Sanford. Round-the-clock media coverage of the trials turned members of central Florida's legal community into semi-celebrities, at least for the Nancy Grace-set. At the Orange County Courthouse, you can sit in on a trial presided over by Judge Belvin Perry, who was the jurist at Anthony's 2011 trial. Or you might bump into Mark O'Mara, one of Zimmerman's defense attorneys, in the elevator of the Seminole County Courthouse.