Orlando

Disney on a dime? How to do Orlando theme parks on a budget

No one wants to come back from vacation and be shocked by a credit card bill far larger than expected. But that happens all too often after a trip to the theme park capital of world, Orlando.

Unless you're staying for a few weeks, know before you go that you won’t be able to see everything. Take a virtual tour with the kids in advance and prioritize what everyone wants to do most. Stay on property—either at Walt Disney World (enjoy “extra magic” hours and book your most popular rides 60 days in advance with your My Disney Experience app and FastPass+) or Universal Orlando (stays at certain properties allow early park admission).  An extra fee allows you to bypass lines at Universal Orlando with the Express Pass.

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To avoid paying big bucks everyday, don’t spend all of your time in the theme parks. Adults can play golf (there are more than 170 courses and 20 golf courses) or hit the spa (you have your pick of day spas or those at luxury resorts.)  Browse your way through a fancy mall like The Mall at Millennia or find some deals at the Orlando International Premium Outlets.

But there’s even more to do in Orlando that won’t bust the budget-- and you'll earn bragging rights for discovering something different:

1. Rent a bike from West Orange Trail Bikes and Blades and head to Plant Street Market, in historic  downtown Winter Garden where you’ll find goods from 20 vendors and an on-site brewery, Crooked Can Brewing Company.

2. Shop 'til you drop at the newly imagined Disney Springs—formally Downtown Disney. You don’t need a theme park ticket to enjoy yourself here. There are over 150 shops, 60 restaurants, bowling, movies, music, street entertainment and Cirque du Soleil. Buy a cupcake from a cupcake ATM. Have your Tom’s hand-painted. Check out the food trucks and Margarita stand.

3. Take a dip. Orlando’s hotels typically have big pools, often with water play areas, plenty of lounge chairs and a pool bar. They’re  usually not too crowded during the day because a lot of people head to the parks. Besides themed pools at the theme park resorts, you’ll find lazy rivers and more at Grand Lakes Orlando and Wyndham Bonnet Creek, plus two waterslides and a Splash Zone at the Four Seasons.   

4. Get three attractions for the price of one ticket at I-Drive 360. Spend the day exploring Madame Tussauds, SEALIFE Aquarium, and the Coca-Cola Orlando Eye.  (Save $26 when purchasing the combo ticket, and parking is free.)  Stick around for a cocktail and some good eats at a restaurant below the Eye—The Tin Roof has live music too. 

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5. Check out the art in  nearby Winter Park, home of some of Central Florida’s best museums like the Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens (some of the country’s most prominent 20th century sculptors) while The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art (the world’s most comprehensive collection of works by Louis Comfort Tiffany). The Mennello Museum of American Art offers contemporary American folk art. The best part: admission is less than $10 at all three museums.

6. Go off road at Gatorland. The park’s newest attraction, the Stompin’ Gator Off-Road Adventure, features 12-foot high, custom-made, off-road monster vehicles. And for $34 you can spend the day safely observing and interacting with local wildlife, including alligators.

7. Get on the river canoeing or kayaking at Wekiwa Springs away from the crowds. Get cruising for just $19 for a two-hour canoe or single kayak rental.

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8. Discover new cuisine with a self-guided food tour of Orlando’s Mills 50 District. Try some pho, classic Vietnamese noodle soup, at Little Saigon, Malaysian street food  like coconut curry at Mamak, or empanadas at the Asian-Mexican fusion Tako Cheena, and more. Save room for a sweet drink at Orlando’s popular bubble tea spot, Chewy Boba.

9. Go for a long walk at Harry P. Leu Gardens, with three miles of paved scenic walkways, a butterfly garden, bamboo gardens and a museum.

10. Get your game on at the new United States Tennis Association National Campus in Lake Nona, where courts are free (on availability) at the Nemours Family Zone courts. You can also take a lesson.

Eileen Ogintz is the creator of the syndicated column and website Taking the Kids. She is also the author of the ten-book Kid’s Guide series to major American cities and the Great Smoky Mountains. The third-edition of the Kid’s Guide to NYC has just been released.