Columbus is full of opportunities for inexpensive fun

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

We interviewed travel experts, moms and bargain hunters to help you find ways to have a great time without going broke. Locating the best deals and fun opportunities requires a bit of research, the experts said. But it's time well spent.

The experts recommend reading newspapers, reviewing event calendars and visiting the websites of area attractions. Here are suggestions of where to start looking for good times in town.

Membership has its privileges:

Consider buying a membership to the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, COSI or other central Ohio attraction. The more you visit, the more you save. Most organizations also offer members special discounts, free parking or other perks. Plus most have reciprocal agreements with similar attractions in other cities or states -- allowing you to visit those sites for free or at a reduced cost.

Check the calendar:

Many central Ohio organizations have event calendars that list hundreds of free or inexpensive family activities. Travel specialists recommend visiting the calendars often because new events are added daily.

Can't miss calendars:

Become an in-town tourist:

Visit your local convention and visitors bureau and pick up fliers geared for tourists. Let your children select attractions that appeal to them. Find special bargains geared to visitors by logging on to Experience Columbus' website (, clicking on Play Here and then selecting Special Offers.

Head to the library:

The Columbus Metropolitan Library offers hundreds of activities every summer in conjunction with its Summer Reading Club. During the program, which runs from June 5 to July 31, the library branches offer events ranging from animal visits to science experiments to musical performances. The free programs are open to all children.

Explore area parks:

The Columbus Metro Parks also offer a wide variety of free programs. Activities include walks and hikes, lessons about wildlife and craft projects. Many parks also feature shelter houses for picnicking or lodges for exploring and learning about nature.

Check out neighboring towns:

Most central Ohio cities offer interesting one-time and ongoing programs for residents through their recreation departments. Non-residents can often participate as well. Visit the websites of cities near you to find out what activities are offered. Activities range from sports teams to sports lessons to craft classes to drop-off programs for older children.

Be sure to check out cities like Westerville, Dublin and Groveport that have recreation centers.

Find festivals and fairs:

Join friends and neighbors in celebrating the tomato, banana splits and much more at some of Ohio's many festivals. Almost every weekend during the summer you can find a festival or fair within a short driving distance from Columbus. Most cost little or nothing to attend.

Hang out at a playground:

Visit community parks and neighboring schools to see what fun stuff is on the playgrounds. Have your kids keep a log of the playgrounds they visit and develop a ranking system of the best equipment.

Visit a factory:

Central Ohio is home to several manufacturing plants that offer tours of its facilities. You and your family can watch workers make Anthony-Thomas candy, or whistles at the American Whistle Corporation in Columbus. Other tours are available within a short drive.

Pick your own:

Take the kids to a farm to pick strawberries, blueberries or other seasonal fruits and vegetables.

Kids will love to sample warm fruit fresh off the vine (just be sure to pay first).

Go bargain hunting:

Give the kids a few dollars and take them to neighborhood garage sales. Have the kids pull out a map and locate the sales. Then ask them to plan your driving or biking route. The exercise will teach them the value of budgeting and reusing items.

Get wet:

Check out area parks and places with water features for kids to play in. Our moms-in-the-know recommend Easton Town Center, Ballantrae Park (6350 Woerner Temple Rd. in Dublin) and Earlington Park (5660 Dublinshire Dr. in Dublin) It's also fun to check out community swimming pools in neighboring cities. Most pools sell day passes for non-residents.

Host goofy Olympics:

Ask your kids to help come up with a list of silly sports challenges and invite the neighborhood kids over to participate. Have kids make medals to hand out at the end of the day.

Play games:

Visit the websites of area bowling alleys, miniature golf courses and arcades to see if they are offering any specials. If nothing's online, call to ask if they have any coupons in area papers.

Cool off at the movies:

Several area theaters offer summer movie series or discounted tickets for children. Check local listings and visit the theater's website.

CAPA, Drexel Theatres

Parents' night out:

Some area kid-oriented businesses will host evening drop-off events designed to entertain the kids while Mom and Dad enjoy some grown-up time. Prices range from free to $10-$40 per child. Organizations like the YMCA, kid and adult gyms, recreation centers and churches are good places to find these programs.

Look for live entertainment:

Some organizations present plays and musical performances meant for kids at wallet-friendly rates. It's a great chance to expose kids to the arts without worrying that they will interrupt the show. Here are some places to check out:

The Abbey Theater of Dublin,

PBJ & Jazz, / Columbus Children's Theatre,

Go geocaching:

Take your children on a real treasure hunt using your GPS. Called "geocaching," the activity involves programming coordinates of a hidden box or container into your GPS, traveling to the location and walking around the area searching for the item. Geocache enthusiasts hide the treasures and post their locations at The boxes contain a logbook in which finders record the date that they located the treasure. Many also include trinkets that you can take -- as long as you replace it with a similar item.

Melissa Kossler Dutton has worked as a reporter for more than a decade. She's a frequent contributor to a variety of Ohio publications. She lives in Bexley with her husband and two sons.