Mission Critical Strategy for Visiting the Kennedy Space Center

Amid flight simulators, moon rocks and even a space station, our author develops a launch plan for making the most of a family trip to Cape Canaveral.

Last week, my husband was trying to figure out a fun place to meet some friends who were visiting Florida from their home in Zurich, Switzerland. The old childhood friend, his wife and their two young sons chose to meet at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. I hadn’t been in ages, since before my 3-year-old daughter was born, so a trip with kids would be a new experience. For those of you unfamiliar with the Kennedy Space Center: it’s a museum and theme park located at famed Cape Canaveral, and it's dedicated to the history of NASA and American space exploration. The center is home to the original launch pads that sent the first American into space, moon missions using Saturn V rockets and Space Shuttle missions. It’s still a working launch site today with various rockets launching satellites to orbit and transporting cargo to the International Space Station.

I’ll admit up front: it’s not the first destination you may pick for wee folk. Sure, the rocket garden with real rockets and life-size replicas are impressive, but some of the more science-oriented parts of the attraction definitely appeal more to older kids and adults. That said, we made it work so everyone had a good time. Use these five tips to make your visit to the space center exceptional:

Tip #1: Visit the Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit. The shuttle is the real deal; it’s the very same vehicle that flew 33 missions, including the final mission to service the Hubble telescope in 2009. The attraction is designed in stages to maximize the impact of seeing Atlantis in person. You don’t simply walk into a room to see it. The audience is ushered to a room to watch a Hollywood-style mini-movie, complete with soaring music and poignant moments about the NASA engineers who toiled for decades to create a reusable vehicle that could be launched many times. There is excitement at the beginning of the project, frustration, despair and, finally, hope: the day to watch the first mission launch in 1981 arrives.

That’s where the next stage happens; the audience is led to a cozy room that is draped in the colors and sounds of the wild Florida landscape surrounding the launch pad with Atlantis ready to fly. The countdown ends, and you feel as if you are soaring: Success! With tears in your eyes (trust me), a curtain opens, and there she is: Atlantis in all her impressive glory. The room also holds everything you could hope to learn about life on the shuttle, including, yes, a space potty. Everyone wants to know, right? That certainly made for an interesting photo op.

Tip #2: Take the younger kids straight up to the second floor where they can enter a model of the International Space Station made just for them. They’ll love crawling through its hallways and tunnels. For big guys, head to the Shuttle Launch Experience, which simulates the experience of being launched into space, complete with feeling the rumbles and the compression of escaping the Earth’s atmosphere.

Tip #3: Take a break for lunch. By this time, the kids with us were squirmy and hungry. There are a few cafés serving the usual burgers, fries and pizza, plus healthier options such as pre-made wraps and salads.

Tip #4: Allow for playtime. While the dads went off to the IMAX and the Mars exhibit, the rest of us stopped at the awning-covered playground capsulated in netting (think of a Chick-fil-A playground on steroids). If you do some planning in advance, consider taking the kids’ swimsuits along—there’s a splash pad off to the side of the rocket garden.

Tip #5: Schedule a nap. Perhaps a bit more than the kids could handle was a bus tour leading out to the launch pads and then to the area housing the Saturn V rocket and the exhibit about the moon missions. My daughter fell asleep, but the boys had a good time looking for alligators on the side of the road. (The area surrounding KSC is more than 100,000 acres of protected natural land home to birds, wild hogs and our famous toothy friends.) Once there, you can touch a moon rock and gawk at the sheer enormity of the Saturn V rocket and the teeny-tiny capsule where the astronauts sat on top of nearly a million gallons of rocket fuel (gulp).

We managed to milk a whole day out of our trip to the space center. It’s only an hour away from Orlando (and just over two hours south of Jacksonville), so go—even if you don’t think you are a space nerd. Who knows? You might even the leave with an adult-sized flight suit; they're sold in the on-site gift shop.

Slideshow: Visiting the Kennedy Space Center

(Photos by Shelley Preston)