Space Florida and the Space Coast Office of Tourism introduced their Pop-Up Launch Parties in June of this year, and they’ve been a big hit with locals and tourists alike. Anyone can attend, no reservations necessary, and they’re completely free.
The parties start 2 hours prior to launch time, and they “pop up” at different locations around Cocoa Beach, Titusville and Port Canaveral, including, so far, Fish Lips Waterfront Bar & Grill in Port Canaveral, and Space View Park in Titusville. The party we attended on 23 July was at the Hilton Cocoa Beach Oceanfront, with a beautiful expanse of white-sand beach for families to enjoy while waiting for launch time.
Local DJ Waylon Duff got the party started with beach tunes and games for the kids—a big boon for parents who would otherwise have to endure 2 hours of antsy children whining, “Is it time yet?” Every visitor who Liked WeAreGoFl on Facebook or Twitter was given a free tee-shirt, and there was plenty of free bottled water on hand to keep everyone hydrated. Food and a full bar (not included with the party) were available at the Hilton’s outdoor Tiki bar, where the convivial atmosphere continued with diners sharing past launch memories over a cold brew and a juicy burger.
As launch time drew near Waylon tapped into the countdown, and in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, launch pad SLC 37B lit up with a massive blaze that rose higher and higher against the blue-gray dusk, leaving a billowing white vapor trail that could be seen in Orlando and beyond. We had an excellent view of the Delta 4 rocket as it ascended, and even after it was obscured by a cloud we couldn’t help watching the sky for a bit longer as we waited for the sound waves to reach us. Nearly a minute later the booming repercussion arrived, and everyone on the beach stood still, letting it wash over us. It was an immense experience, and an essential addition for those lucky enough to be visiting Florida on a launch day.
We spoke with Dale Ketcham, Chief of Strategic Alliances at Space Florida, and Eric Garvey, executive director of the Space Coast Office of Tourism, after the launch. Ketcham told us about upcoming launches, and the importance of reminding visitors that the space programme didn’t end when the Space Shuttles retired. “We will have a launch roughly every ten days to two weeks in 2016, so we are telling the story to everyone coming into Florida—stick around and you’ll see something special! This is where it all started. If people watch a launch they get inspired and they go back home and become big supporters of the space programme.”
Garvey added, “One launch every two weeks works perfectly for our party purposes and is ideal for the international market, so people can enjoy the theme parks and then come to the Space Coast for a couple of chill-out days and a launch party.”
How did the idea of Pop-Up Launch Parties come about? “The idea came about as we were meeting as a staff when I first arrived last year, and we were talking about launches,” Garvey told us. “We were discussing how there’s a perception that the space programme has shut down, but there are more launches now than ever before, so we need to be celebrating that. Some of the staff said this is what they used to do with the Shuttle launches, so I said ‘Why don’t we do it again?’ I think it is definitely worth celebrating. Some people may take these launches for granted, but it is only here that it happens, so we need to make a big deal out of it.”
We agree; there is nowhere else in the world that can offer the experience of standing on a beach amid a sea of matching tee-shirts, with the strains of We Are The Champions picking up where the roar of the rocket’s engines left off. And there are few things more thrilling than witnessing the connection between Earth and space through the dedication of human endeavor.
Check out WeAreGoFl.com to see if there are any launches during your next visit to Central Florida, then head to their Facebook page (Space Coast) or @FLASpaceCoast on Twitter for party locations (announced 2 days before the event) and updated information on the day’s launch.
Want to make a 1- or 2-day event of it? An airboat excursion makes an ideal addition to a Space Coast day, especially if the launch is an evening launch. Florida’s scenic Saint Johns River is home to several airboat companies, offering half-hour tours, hour-long tours, 90-minute tours, and private tours. While wildlife sightings—including gators, eagles, wild hogs, cows, and a vast array of waterfowl—are the main attraction, the thrill of flying across the water at speeds up to 45mph is an experience in itself, and children are especially delighted by the banked turns and occasional spray of water on a hot day. Don’t worry about getting soaked, though; it’s perfectly safe to bring your camera, as guides have perfected the spray technique so that’s it’s refreshing rather than drenching.
Early morning and late night launches are best enjoyed with an overnight stay in the area, in which case we highly recommend a visit to the Brevard Zoo as a break from the Orlando hustle-bustle. Along with the obvious zoo encounters, there are optional experiences such as the Treetop Trek aerial adventure course, with tightropes, swinging bridges, nets, and ziplines, and paddleboat tours. This time we tried out the new Kayak Tour at the Brevard Zoo, the only one in the country that allows guests to kayak around animal exhibits.
It’s an easy, gentle experience and great fun to see the animals from an alternative vantage point. Choose from launch points at Kayak Beach in Expedition Africa section of the park, or Wetlands Kayaking in Wild Florida from the Wetland Outpost. Depending on the tour you take, you’ll see giraffe, zebra, storks, lemurs, ostrich, rhinos, cranes, impalas, and klipspringer (tiny antelope). Ages 5 and up (under 13s with an adult; single and double kayaks available), and it’s only $8! To avoid disappointment due to weather or other conditions, tickets can only be purchased at the zoo.