Cheap but Classy in the Jacksonville-Orlando Area
A friend asked a totally innocent question on Facebook: what are some cheap fun things to do in the Orlando area? Did she mean free or simply not too expensive? The theme parks are definitely too expensive, but there are tons of things you can do and take your kids that don't have to break your wallet. There are regular families living in Central Florida, too, that do other things besides the theme parks. You just have to be creative, willing to walk, swim, cook, and just plain have fun!
Coming down from the north, the first thing you should do is stop at the big Florida Welcome Center. They have a huge display of coupons and booklets with very useful information, maps, and friendly faces. Next drive down to Jacksonville, discover the city at night and see it light up in purple and walk the waterfront or visit their Riverside Art Market under the Fuller Warren Bridge held every weekend. The market has over 160 artists, food vendors, a farmer's market, and live entertainment. Next day go to St. Augustine and visit the oldest city in the continental United States. They have tons of things to do there, including an old Greek Orthodox church, the oldest schoolhouse, Castillo San Marcos, Ft. Matanzas, and much more. Eat fish in one of their restuarants near the pier.
Then go south to George Washington Oaks Park to enjoy a picnic under the shade of an old oak tree with Spanish moss, or stroll on a sandy shore, or literally smell the roses in their lovely rose garden. You will also be able to pinch your nose when you smell sulfur in other areas of the park which helps to make for a funny balance. Cross the street from the main entrance and there is a small beach full of shells and great for swimming. It is just two miles from Marineland on A1A.
Next stop, I mean, drive, simply drive through Daytona Beach and be amazed with the all American beach town shops and activities. In Daytona Beach you can actually drive your car on the beach and it makes going to the beach amazingly easy. No dragging or hauling your beach chairs, umbrellas, food, etc. Fourth of July is a great time to go if you enjoy tons of fireworks that don't seem to stop while sparkling in the blackness of the night and shimmering in the water. While there walk the pier or fish on a sectioned areas either on the pier or next to one of those huge bridges that span the intercoastal waterway. Don't forget to walk downtown or the marina where there is much to do, too.
If the "beach town" isn't your thing just go down the road a piece where you will find two options. First you can see Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse, the tallest lighthouse in Florida at 175 feet and aside from the wonderful breeze you get a fabulous view which will blow you away. They have reasonable rentals, secluded beaches, and many restaurants for all budgets, including one of my favorites, Down the Hatch Seafood Company. Second you can continue south to New Smyrna Beach, voted best Florida beach by Orlando Sentinel readers because it is family friendly, has beach access for cars, and covered public areas, clean bathrooms, and changing rooms.
Continuing south on I-4, you can stop in Deland and stroll through its picturesque downtown with Old Florida homes, see the Pioneer's Mural, find homemade ice cream, a favorite in our hot Florida climate, visit the Stetson College campus, or stop at the Main Street Grill, which has the best cinnamon rolls and grilled salmon in the area. Continue on to De Leon Springs to enjoy their famous pancakes at the Old Spanish Sugar Mill Restaurant or to Blue Springs State Park to see the manatees. Next stop is Sanford. Sanford has a quiant downtown filled with antiques, a riverfront area on Lake Monroe with spectacular fireworks on the Fourth of July, and it also sports the Central Florida Zoo with fresh attractions and interactive activities for the kids, at a third or fourth the price of Animal Kingdom. Nothing against Animal Kingdom but it is a real option for those budget minded.
Paralell to I-4 is 441. So cut through Route 46 to Mt. Dora, the highest elevation in Florida, and enjoy the largest Flea and Antique Market in the South: Renniger's, or go downtown and enjoy driving around Mt. Dora, stopping in their shops, seeing the art galleries, enjoy a play, eat homemade ice cream or sensible frozen yogurt, and then walk the nature boardwalk (free) on their nature island where you can safely see wildlife, including raccoons, egrets, and gators in the water. Either in Mt. Dora or in Tavares you can go for a boat ride for a reasonable fare.
Drive south on 441, the state's Orange Blossom trail, and go through country communities such as Tangerine, Sorrento, Lake Ola, Zellwood (famous for its corn festival) and get the feel of the real Florida while avoiding the crazy drivers on I-4. You might catch a fresh fruit stand and buy honey, boiled peanuts, and on the way see actual orange groves. Go to Apopka, the foliage capital of America and find Wekiva Springs Park. Go south on 441 where it merges with Semoran Boulevard (436) and continue to Wekiva Springs Road on left. The park will be about two miles on your left. This is a great stop if you have kids and like hiking, swimming in a natural pool, or going canoeing. Great for picnics, too. Bring your bathing suit and be ready to have fun.
Go back to and connect to South 441. Travel south through town, and then in South Orlando you can find Gatorland which is as wild and exciting as ever, and reasonable too. They recently added a zip line for those of you who want to add a little thrill to your life, zipping across gator laden pens.
I didn't mention shopping at the outlet malls in St. Augustine or in Orlando, nor did I say anything about the dollar theater in Altamonte Springs, or even Leu Gardens, the Farmer's Market, or Main Street Winter Park. Neither did I mention Christmas, Titusville, Cocoa Beach, the Kennedy Space Center, the Air Museum in Titusville, because I would never end, but each one is an option. Now, it will not be a matter of money but of time.
Have a great stay!