It’s not a theme park as such but it IS a massively impressive attraction, and the Kennedy Space Center can also boast an in-depth look at the past, present and future of space exploration in a unique and thrilling way. It has been heavily refreshed and enhanced in recent years, notably with the addition of the Heroes and Legends Exhibit, a special showcase of the icons of space travel and the stories of the first forays into space. It probably won’t hold the attention of young children for a full day but it does reward enquiring minds and those looking for the real world after the fantasy of the theme parks.
What not to Miss
There is only one out-and-out ride at the Space Center’s Visitor Complex, but it is a big production, as the Shuttle Launch Experience is a wonderful recreation of the sights, sounds and feelings of a shuttle lift-off. However, the main ‘ride’ is the full KSC Bus Tour, an extensive excursion around much of the modern Space Center, with a drive-by view of the former shuttle launch pads, a chance to experience the historic Apollo 8 launch and a stop at the breathtaking Apollo/Saturn V Center, where you can marvel at the size of a full Saturn V rocket.
While the Shuttle launch Experience is a simulator, it is nowhere near as intense as something like Mission: Space at Disney’s Epcot park. If you are worried about it at all, you can view it from the bypass room, where you can see what happens without the motion. For the main KSC Bus Tours, which depart every 15 minutes from 10am to 3.30 or 4.30pm (depending on season), you need to allow at least 2½ hours, especially as you can easily spend more than an hour at the Apollo/Saturn V Center with its array of exhibits and 2 shows.
This is where the Space Center excels, with 2 impressive giant-screen IMAX 3-D films detailing the work of the Shuttle and the International Space Station, narrated by Tom Cruise and Leonardo Di Caprio. There is also the daily Astronaut Encounter, a chance to hear first-hand from one of NASA’s shuttle and space station veterans, and ask questions about life in space. Exploration Space: Explorers Wanted then combines theatre, interactive experiences and multimedia presentations to inspire the next generation of space explorers.
You will want to take in at least 1 of the IMAX films, which both last 45 minutes and provide an epic view of the earth from the International Space Station on the giant, five-storey screen. The Astronaut Encounter typically lasts around 30-35 minutes and occurs 2-3 times a day.
Space Shuttle Central
The special exhibit hall for Space Shuttle Atlantis is the emotional heart of KSC, with a big multi-media presentation into the history and life of the shuttle programme and then a stunningly dramatic ‘reveal’ which brings visitors into the heart of the exhibit. It is full of shuttle memorabilia and hands-on activities and will easily demand an hour or more of your time. There is a giant slide and play area for kids, too.
Just for kids
Children are definitely not forgotten at the modern KSC and there are several attractions especially for them, in addition to the films and Exploration Space. Older children will love the opportunity to learn how to pilot a space shuttle in the astronaut training simulators while the smallest explorers will want to try the Children’s Play Dome, where they can expend plenty of energy on this space-themed playground.
There are another 6 main exhibits at the Visitor Complex, of which the Rocket Garden – complete with an amazing array of real rocket technology – is a must-see, as is the Early Space Exploration Hall. And try to make time for the sombre-but-essential Astronaut Memorial, commemorating those who have died in the cause of space flight.
In November 2016, the Heroes and Legends exhibit opened at Kennedy Space Center, revealing the stories behind the early explorations into space and the heroes who took great risks to help us understand more about the universe we live in.
This is also your chance to meet a real-life astronaut in the Astronaut Encounter - so don't miss it! The full experience takes about 45 minutes and is included free with your KSC ticket.
Rocket launches still happen at regular intervals throughout the year, even though the Shuttle programme has ended. In fact, with both NASA’S own Space Launch System in testing and private contractors like SpaceX, Lockheed Martin and Boeing all working at KSC, there is more activity than ever to take notice of, and it’s worth checking in advance if there is a launch during your visit.
- Dates: Various, throughout the year.
- Tickets: Official NASA launches do offer tickets for a nearby KSC viewing area but must be purchased in advance.
Spend half a day finding out what it takes to be an astronaut with a series of hands-on training exercises designed by NASA’s own experts. It includes operating a full-scale shuttle mock-up and taking the helm at Mission Control, as well as a first-hand briefing from a veteran astronaut. There is a Family version for younger children as well as the full programme for those 14 and up (14-17s must be accompanied by a full-paying adult). Must be booked in advance.
As well as the KSC’s regular bus tour (included with general admission), there are three additional extra-fee add-on enhancements that take visitors into other areas of the Center. Choose from the 2½-hour Launch Control Center Tour, the 3-hour Cape Canaveral: Then And Now Tour and the 2-hour Explore Tour, which provides an insider’s view of the Center’s role in space exploration. These can be booked in advance online or when you arrive at the KSC.
Lunch With An Astronaut
This daily programme is a fantastic opportunity to meet one of NASA’s real-life astronauts, hear all about their career in space, ask questions, have your photo taken with them AND enjoy a great buffet lunch. It must be booked in advance.
Estimated Visit Time
Kennedy Space Center: One day.
The Kennedy Space Center can be found about 45 minutes to an hour east of Orlando, along the (toll) Beachline Expressway (Highway 528), State Road 407 and 405. The Visitor Center Complex is located 9 miles along the 405, after turning right from the 407. There is a parking fee these days (it used to be free) but admission also includes the historic US Astronaut Hall of Fame, which is a separate attraction on State Road 405, just before you cross the NASA Causeway.
While this isn’t fine dining territory, you can still get a decent lunch at the Orbit Café (salads, sandwiches, pizza, pasta and burgers) and the Rocket Garden Café (sandwiches, salads and flatbreads) at the Visitor Complex, while the Apollo/Saturn V Center on the bus tour also features the Moon Rock Café (salads, sandwiches, pizza and burgers). There are another 3 snack kiosks dotted around the Visitor Complex.