10 Free things to do around Villa Levi Style
1 Lake Eola Park
A true glittering city centerpiece, Lake Eola Park’s myriad activities — whether walking or jogging the lake’s verdant circumference, feeding its multitude of water fowl (there are bird-food dispensers near the playground; please don’t feed them bread or popcorn!), enjoying the shade of the live oaks, perusing the wares of the Sunday farmer’s market — or some other cultural event, as there are many — are enjoyed by visitor and local alike.
2 Enzian Theater
One of Orlando’s enduring charms is its weather, a feature taken advantage of on a weekly basis at the Enzian Theater during its Wednesday Night Pitcher Show. Yes, that is a play on words but no, the beer isn’t free. The movie is, though, and shown outside under the stars, surrounded by the centuries-old live oaks standing sentinel around the property.
The Enzian’s Eden Bar is on-hand for drinks soft and hard and its kitchen is open for eats, but if you’re handy with film trivia you might win yourself a Jell-O shot. Bring chairs, blankets, friends and family and enjoy the features, which range from classic to kitsch, suspense to sci-fi. Check the Enzian’s website for what’s playing. (407-629-0054, 407-629-1088)
3 Orlando Brewing
“Organic” and “local” are all kinds of foodie buzzwords these days, but throw the word “beer” into the mix and you might prick up a few sets of ears that were previously tuning you out. Orlando Brewing is Florida’s only USDA-certified organic brewery and its lovely, long list — blonde, red, brown and well beyond, with sassy names like Miami Weiss and Pompous Ass (at 7.4% ABV, that last one may well turn you into one if you’re not careful) — is sure to have at least one beer for every member of your taproom-visiting party. That said, the beer’s not gratis, but the awesome brewery tour — held Monday through Saturday at 6:00 p.m. — most certainly is!
What’s more, Orlando Brewing welcomes families, so feel free to bring the kids along and enjoy darts, board games and live music on Friday and Saturday nights. (407-872-1117)
Fort Wilderness Resort is home to some cozy Disney digs, perhaps none as rustic, however, as its cabins and camping sites, but even if you’re not camping Mickey-style, you can pop on over to enjoy the company of a classic Disney duo as they lead a fireside cowboy sing-a-long to delight of all ages and host a good old-fashioned marshmallow roast. As dusk turns to darkness, participants turn their attention to the giant screen to enjoy a classic Disney flick beneath the Florida stars. Benches are provided for seating but feel free to bring along a blanket or camping chairs and customize the experience.
Needless to say, this is an outdoor event. It may be free, but it’s also subject to cancellation if the weather’s not cooperating. For movie schedules, call (407) 939-7529. ((407) 824-9000)
5 CityArts Factory
CityArts is downtown’s largest collective of art galleries where guests will find local and international works of art. This 20,000-square-foot destination welcomes 50,000 visitors a year. There are six independently owned art galleries including the Kiene/Quigley community gallery and the Orlando Magic Classroom, which offers studio space to working artists.
The best part is, admission is free Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Check the events calendar for live music, new exhibitions and even holiday-themed events such as the popular Dia de los Muertos Exhibit, which features art, live performances and other great entertainment. And for a few good laughs, check out the comedy group housed in the same building. One thing’s for sure: You’ll walk out with a smile on your face. ((407) 648-7060)
6 Little Big Econ State Forest
Technically, this venue isn’t entirely free. Boxes at the various trailheads around the forest request honor donations of $2 per person (free for children age 6 and under) but you’ll find the majesty of this truly unspoiled wonderland of Florida wilderness well worth it.
Whether you’re here for hiking or mountain biking, canoeing or an equestrian excursion, trails are well-marked and take journeyers through scrub forests and along rivers where wildlife — river otters, raptors, deer, wading birds, bobcat and more — abounds and peace is the word. One such hike (many crisscross the forest’s 9,563 acres) is the Kolokee Loop, which encompasses parts of the Florida Trail along the Econlockhatchee River and the bridge where it meets up with the Flagler Trail. (407- 971-3500)
7 Downtown Disney®
Downtown Disney is the umbrella name for this walkable, lakeside strand of shopping, dining and entertainment within the Walt Disney World complex. Its World of Disney shop alone makes a great place to while away time trying on all manner of “ear” hats (Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and the like) and doing any preliminary window shopping, particularly if you’ve just started your visit, while holding out to see where the deals are best. Restaurants, of course, abound. T-Rex is particularly fun with the kiddies; animatronic dinosaurs, breathtaking fish tanks and regular “meteor showers” are highly entertaining.
There’s even an “amateur paleontologist” pit where kids can unearth fossils for fun — free of charge. The train and carousel will cost you a few shekels, but hands-on fun at the Lego Store won’t cost a dime. Gorgeous lake views come free of charge, as well. ((407) 939-6244)
8 Fort Christmas Historical Park
This beautiful historical park — about 20 miles east of Orlando and an easy stop on the way to or from Kennedy Space Center — boasts many beautiful features common to wilderness areas of the region: massive shade trees, lovely hiking trails, a well-kept playground and rentable picnic pavilions suitable for very large gatherings. But it also boasts something the others do not: a full-sized replica of a fort constructed in 1837, one of about 200 built during the second Seminole Indian War, which raged from 1835-1842.
In addition to the related film and exhibit, Fort Christmas Historical Park is home to seven restored “Cracker” homes representing the common architecture of this area from the 1870s to the 1930s. Whether you’re an American history buff or a nature enthusiast, this is a win-win, free-admission attraction. (407-254-9310)
9 Harry P. Leu Gardens
No, Harry P. Leu Gardens isn’t free all the time, but plan your visit just so and you’ll enjoy gratis admission, available on the first Monday of every month from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm with last admittance at 4:00 pm. Fans of phenomenal flora delight in Leu Gardens, where cycads and azaleas, philodendrons and bromeliads and other exotic offerings — some with harder-to-pronounce names than others — grow and flourish and pose colorfully for photographers’ cameras.
The Leu House Museum, a beautifully restored 19th Century home, is open for guided tours on the hour and half-hour. Fine art fans will find a multitude of sculptures dotted among the horticultural offerings, as well. (407-246-2620)
10 Lakeridge Winery & Vineyards
Fifty thousand gallons of wine come out of Lakeridge each year — it’s Florida’s largest — and locals visit and revisit all the time. Not just when friends and family come to town, but because the winery hosts an abundance of family-friendly festivals and free live music events all year long with food, crafts, even fun photo-ops. That said, even if you don’t happen to make it during one of their larger shindigs, Lakeridge runs free tours and tastings all day long, every day of the week, every 20 minutes or so.
You’ll start off with a short film about the vineyard’s history, then move on for a stellar view of the vines and wrap it up in the tasting room. The whole thing takes about 45 minutes. And of course, you can your favorite by the bottle — or the case — before you head out. (352-394-8627, 800-768-9463)