The Year of Free Entertainment Experiment

My family usually receives annual passes to places like the zoo, aquarium, or children’s museum. Last year we had passes to a theme park. After going a few times my oldest child asked, “Do we have to go?” (first world problems, I know).

This year, I decided to forgo passes and avoid most places where tourists would go. Instead, we looked up the free (or nearly free ) events in our area and went to as many as we could. So how did our year of free entertainment experiment go?

I am bewildered by the number of people who spend over $100 on a hotel that’s less than an hour drive from their house to spend the next day paying hundreds of dollars more to stand in line with thousands of tourists in 90+ degree weather.

Sure it’s nice to experience a major theme park once or twice. But to spend the night in a hotel so close to home? I don’t get it! And to visit such places multiple times every year? We got bored with that. There are other places to explore!

Someone once wrote something to the effect that theme parks were designed for everyone to have the same experience. If you ask a group of people what “It’s a Small World” is like, you’ll likely get 10 similar answers.

However, if 10 people experience nature outdoors and you ask what they saw, you’ll likely get 10 different points of view.

So this year, we did not stand in lines, pay $20 for parking, spend $100s of dollars on passes, or stay the night in a hotel less than an hour from our comfy beds. We explored our city!

In addition to going to the pool, playgrounds, and hosting friends at our house, we made an effort to explore new things in our city.

I’ve lived in this city for over 30 years and was excited to find so many things that I had not tried. Here are some of the things we did this year. And it’s only September!

Things we tried this year

  • State Park (included boat ride, shows, & Mermaids) – $13 per adult, $8 kids >6, free for kids <7
    • I previously wrote about what happened with the peacocks


  • Nature’s Classroom – $10 per car donation to our county’s schools


  • University Botanical Garden Plant Festival (they had lots of cool kids crafts)- $5 per adult, kids free


  • The Library (the kids actually loved it and asked to go back) – free


  • YMCA (child signed up for swim lessons) -$100 for 6 classes
    • He was so good at it that he made a swim team! (the team is $80 per month)


  • Recreation Center (child signed up for gymnastics) – $34 for 8 classes (plus $15 annual rec center fee)


  • Historical Fort (who doesn’t love cannons)- $5 per car entry fee


  • Beaches – $2.25 per hour for parking


  • Forth of July Fireworks (kids were too young in years past) – free


  • Manatee Viewing center and Stingray encounter – free


  • Butterfly Garden – free


  • Art Festivals – free


  • Splash Pad Parks – free


  • EcoFest – free (and they gave away free LED lightbulbs & water saving devices)


  • Farmer’s Markets – free


  • Riverwalk – free


  • Downtown Trolley rides – free


  • Engineering festival (with flight simulators!) – free
If you look closely, you will see a child lying on the moving platform


  • New Park Opening (including bounce houses and balloon artists) – free


  • 1980s themed roller skating party – I paid the price in multiple bruises


  • Adults crashing a child’s pirate bounce-house water-slide party
    • I debated whether to share the video of this. I’ll leave it to your imagination, but there was a small child running for cover.


It was our first time visiting many of these places (our youngest hadn’t even been to the beach before).

We created great memories and had so much more fun this year! These are the types of things I want my kids to have.

Volunteers Get Free Admission

Many of the fairs, expos, and festivals we attended had volunteers working. And some of those volunteers got free lunches (I know because my friend Marianne and I were eyeballing that food).

As I mentioned in How to Make More Money, if you are interested in attending an event but can’t afford it, look into volunteering.

TIP: Free Museum Day is Coming!

Remember, the 14th Annual Smithsonian Magazine Museum Day is next Saturday 9/22/18. Participating museums throughout the USA will be offering free admission. I look forward to this day every September!

You need to get your free tickets on-line in advance.

The Verdict?

My kids didn’t once ask to go to a theme park this year. I say our year of free (or nearly free) entertainment experiment was a success! Having fun doesn’t have to be expensive!


What free events have you discovered this year?


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