Now I know that when I asked if the Kennedy Space Center was appropriate for a 6-year-old, I was asking what might be the dumbest question ever. There is a whole universe of stuff for kids to do there.
I’ve been to the Kennedy Space Center once: in January 1986, the day after the space shuttle Challenger exploded during lift-off. I was producing a radio talk show hosted by Woody Paige (columnist for the Denver Post and on ESPN) for a radio station in Denver, Colorado. The plan was to spend a few days at EPCOT and then cover the launch. Adding to the pre-launch excitement, Christa McAuliffe was scheduled to make history as the first teacher in space.
Unfortunately for our crew, at the last minute management decided it didn’t want to spend $2,000 for the phone line we needed for the broadcast. No live broadcast meant no seat at the launch.
It was awfully cold that morning – so cold that we were all shopping for socks because our feet were freezing. We were told the temperature was too low for a launch and expected it to be cancelled so we went to lunch at a restaurant in EPCOT’s version of Japan.
Midway through the meal our visibly upset waitress told us that something had just gone terribly wrong with the launch. We raced outside to see all that was left of the shuttle: that horrible squiggly smoke plume in the sky. It was surreal being on a Disney property during a breaking major news event.
The next day the geniuses back in Denver at the radio station coughed up $5,000 for a phone line so we could cover the follow-up to the tragedy from the press box at the Space Center.
In retrospect, I am relieved we weren’t on the grounds for the launch. It was bad enough to see the aftermath from EPCOT. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to be surrounded by friends and family of the astronauts. My goal for this trip is to replace those memories and see what’s changed since I was last here.
My brother and his family moved to the Space Coast of Florida shortly before we arrived so this is new territory for exploration. We left my brother and his wife to unpack boxes and headed to Cocoa Beach and the Kennedy Space Center.
Hubby Mike, niece Jamie, her 6-year-old daughter A.J. and I went through security and the turnstiles a little after 11:00am. Big mistake. Pretty much every attraction has a 10:00 – 11:00 start time and nothing repeats until after lunch. There is no way to know this before we arrived because the schedule is nowhere to be found online. The only schedule we saw was the one that was handed to us with our ticket.
Besides the bus tour, our only other choice is the 11:30 tour explaining the Rocket Garden. But before that starts, A.J. wanted to see what’s in the Nature Center. We do a quick zip around the exhibit of stuffed Florida animals shown in their natural habitats.
The Rocket Garden tour was just getting started so we shuffled along with the group of tourists for a few minutes, craning our necks upwards towards the tiny capsules topping the missiles. We marveled at the bravery and trust it would take to climb into one of those things and then be blasted into space. I’m sure standing up close to these almost flimsy-looking projectiles has changed more than one mind formerly excited about space travel. The early examples are little more than tubes with a tin can for passengers on top. Immediately, I have even more respect for the rocket scientists who figured out how to blast people into space and for every astronaut who trusted those scientists with their lives.
To keep the little one engaged, we broke off from the tour and opted for a self-guided version. Jamie and A.J. took a moment to shimmy into in a replica of an Apollo spacecraft capsule. It sits just below the nose of the giant 223-foot (68 m) Saturn 18 rocket.
Next we followed in the footsteps of Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin as we walked across the same service arm that took them from the launch tower to the command module of Apollo 11 on their way to the moon’s Sea of Tranquility.
A.J. admitted that science is nice, but she likes to play. This said just before she made a beeline for the Children’s Play Dome: one of those large, padded, caged structures packed with ladders, slides and shrieking children.
Still imagining we were working our way towards the bus tour; we got sidetracked again, this time by the Angry Birds slingshot game and mirror maze. Though it has absolutely nothing to do with the Space Center except loosely teaching trajectory, kids love it and it is an energy burner.
Eventually, angry birds morphed into hungry birds so we wandered in search of food. There are several concession stands with space related names such as the G-Force Grill, where you can have a beer with a hot dog or turkey leg or the Rocket Garden Café, which has sandwiches and salads. And there’s a food truck called PERK or the Pastry Espresso Retrieval Kiosk.
The closest one in our path was the Orbit Café, cafeteria style dining with decent food. We spent about $38 on a cheeseburger ($7.59), hot dog ($6.39) and an adult ($7.29) and child’s ($4.99) order of chicken tenders and three bottles of water ($3.29 each). Meals come with fries or fruit, which on that day was sliced apples.
Though it was already after 1:00pm, with the last bus tour leaving at 2:30, we figured we could squeeze in a quick peek at the shuttle Atlantis exhibit. Entering the building, we had no idea what we were in for. The circular walkway ramp up to the exhibit was crowded with people. On a really busy day this might take a while. Like clueless cattle we walked to the end of the line and waited. It’s not long before we were herded into a large room. A slightly hokey black and white cartoon doesn’t reveal what’s to come.
I don’t want to spoil your experience. So, let’s just say that the sort of hokey 50’s time warp video used to explain the genesis of the Shuttle Program gives way to a dramatic and breathtaking introduction to Atlantis.
Surrounding Atlantis, is a multimedia mix that includes over 60 interactive exhibits and simulators. It is very well done. It’s almost too much to take in. We barely scratched the surface. No surprise, the 6-year-old was in overdrive.
Interactive kiosks explain each section of the spacecraft. Kids and adults alike clamor to sit in replicas of the Atlantis’ pilot seat where you’re at the yoke to land (or crash, or wander too far off-course) Atlantis. Others allow you to try your hand seeing what it’s like to move objects in space. They even have a space toilet with instructions on how it’s done with no gravity!
A kids-only space station exhibit with a clear tube that hangs about two stories above the floor freaked out A.J. She didn’t want to cross it because she was afraid it would break. Eventually she crossed the bridge; just before we were about to go in and get her. (Ten kids behind her crossed over without batting an eye.) All was quickly forgotten with a ride down a giant slide.
Jamie and I were lured into the launch experience. If you are 44” or taller and in reasonably good health, for six minutes you get to experience rockets firing, movement called twang, shaking and head banging and having your face smashed back to simulate G forces. Once in orbit the simulator tilts forward so you are kind of hanging, while the large top doors open allowing a view of the earth and stars. Mike missed it because we mistakenly thought A.J. wasn’t tall enough to ride. (Even though I didn’t see any signs, I was told no photography was allowed, but someone else didn’t get that message and posted a video of the complete experience.) I could easily have spent a couple more hours at the Atlantis exhibit.
No surprise. We missed the last bus tour. This truly bummed me out. I really wanted to see the LC-39 Launch Complex Observation Gantry and Apollo /Saturn V Center. If possible, I wanted to see where we broadcast from when I was there the last time.
Overall, considering what little we saw, our experience at the Kennedy Space Center was very positive. Jamie, an armchair scientist who flew into the living room one afternoon to hear a news update on the TV about the Comet ISON said it was “awesome.” Her daughter A.J. gave it a thumbs up. Mike and I were equally impressed with the whole experience.
But there were some kinks. I think we would have seen everything we wanted to see if the website was more helpful for trip planning. The “Plan A Trip” section (under “Info”) would be a great place to post the quarterly schedule of events, show and tour times with a link to the interactive map. But you won’t find any of that there. As a matter of fact, if there is a schedule online, I haven’t found it after weeks of searching.
What’s included in a General Admission ticket? Everything at the Visitor’s Center except Lunch with an Astronaut; the bus tour; and admission to the Astronaut Hall of Fame which is a couple miles away. I think I cobbled together what is included on the bus tour. I know it includes a stop at the Apollo /Saturn V Center. It looks like there’s another at the LC-39 Launch Complex Observation Gantry and a drive by the space shuttle launch pad. But don’t hold me to it. It’s just a guess. And I would love to know why the bus tours end so early.
The interactive map sheds a bit more light on what is included in each tour. But I didn’t think to look at the map (the link is on the front page) until after our visit. Specific tours are also broken down on a sign at the kiosks where you buy tickets.
Yes, prices are high but the Kennedy Space Center does not get taxpayer money. You can pick up discount coupons from any tourist spot including welcome centers, hotels and some restaurants. Those will usually knock $5 off the ticket price. Because I believe in full disclosure, the press office provided four comp general admission tickets normally $50 each for adults and $40 for children for my family and me. But free admission did not color my opinion. This is a fantastic way to spend a day and is well worth the price.
Learn from my mistakes. Get there when the gates open and head directly to the included bus tour to get a general overview and then see the Atlantis exhibit. That alone could take up most of the day. Only after you do those must-see exhibits can you choose what else time and schedules permit you to see. The Mega Tour has great reviews online and I imagine the rest of the tours are fascinating as well.
If you have an iPhone, use the Google map app to set your course. The iPhone ‘Maps’ app doesn’t route properly. It has two Kennedy Space Center listings and both take you miles from the Visitor’s Center.
In addition to your tickets, you will pay $10 to park a car, $5 for motorcycles and $15 for RVs. They take cash or credit cards.
Bottom line, to avoid missing anything, get to the Kennedy Space Center as early as you can. Better yet, plan on at least two days.
To bring the space experience full circle, yes, I now have a set of pleasant memories of the Kennedy Space Center.
I had hoped to end this post with video of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch that was scheduled to launch during our too-short visit. Twice on Thanksgiving, we all dashed outside with cameras in hand watching the countdown on cell phones. And twice the launch was aborted in the last seconds. The good news is that with more commercial rockets being launched, there’s a chance to plan a visit to the Kennedy Space Center around the launch schedule.