Close Encounters

From America’s amazing space program to the wonders of unspoiled
natural areas, Florida’s Space Coast offers many memorable experiences.
By Dennis R. Heinze

With the far reaches of our galaxy being probed, the depths of the oceans being scoured and even the limits of excitement being pushed with each new roller coaster that’s unveiled, there are precious few frontiers left.

Rockets

Above: The Rocket Garden at Kennedy Space Center recalls the history of the U.S. space program.

Below: The Space Coast offers 72 miles of beaches along the Atlantic Ocean. Space Coast Office of Tourism photo

Coast

Yet on a family vacation last summer to east-central Florida’s Space Coast, we did our best to explore the boundaries of space, sea and spine-tingling fun. We may not have gone where no man has gone before, but we brought an astronaut’s sense of adventure to an area that features the compelling juxtaposition of high-tech wonders and unspoiled ecosystems.

During our vacation–which we split between the Cocoa Beach and Orlando areas–our 8-year-old son tried coconut shrimp for the first time (and liked it), while his older brother climbed on a surfboard for his premier ride (and stayed up). And my wife paddled her first kayak (and didn’t tip over). They might have been small steps for some, but for us they were giant leaps on our mission of making lasting vacation memories.

Surf’s up

Located only 35 miles east of Orlando, Florida’s Space Coast stretches for 72 miles along the Atlantic Coast and is comprised primarily of the cities of Titusville, Cocoa Beach, Melbourne and Palm Bay. We stayed in Cocoa Beach because it was central to all the attractions we wanted to experience, including surfing.

Coming from the Midwest, the closest our family had come to a surfboard was stopping momentarily on Elvis Presley’s “Blue Hawaii” while channel surfing. But to make the most of our adventure, we signed up for a lesson at the Ron Jon Surf School on Cocoa Beach. Our patient and knowledgeable instructor, Jonathan Mayberry, once taught surfing in Maui and had a passion for the sport that was infectious. He spent about 15 minutes on the beach teaching us the proper stance and how to pop up on the board. And then we accompanied him into the waves.

“You might pop up on your first try or it might take you 10, 20, 30 tries,” he said. “But the most important thing is to have fun.”

Standing in the water, Mayberry would hold our boards and then push us into the wave, yelling “pop up” when it was the right time. We had varying degrees of success actually popping up–and staying up–but we all had fun in the process. After surfing, we checked out the nearby Ron Jon Surf Shop, a must-see attraction.

The 52,000-square-foot store, which boasts to be the world’s largest surf shop, was filled from floor to ceiling with everything for the beach lifestyle, from apparel and beach gear to home decor and jewelry. Just walking in will make you feel like a beach bum.

There are thousands of rooms to choose from in the Cocoa Beach area, including hotels, condominiums and cottages. The Resort on Cocoa Beach was a great choice for us because it offered a view of the ocean and had a kitchen so we could cook some of our meals to save money. It was only a short walk from the beach, and the washer and dryer came in handy because our boys are, well, boys.

Gateway to space

After our day at the beach, we dove into the history and future of America’s storied space program at the colossal Kennedy Space Center, which is the only place in North America to blast humans into space. Through the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Space Shuttle programs, the NASA preparation and launch facility has fed our imagination for the farthest reaches of space. As the epicenter of mankind’s greatest adventure, the complex inspires and humbles with an array of attractions, exhibits and interactive programs.

In one of the many videos shown at the center, President John F. Kennedy is seen proclaiming that we chose to go to the moon not because it was easy but because it was hard. Getting a close-up look at the Launch Control Center, launch pads, Vehicle Assembly Building and the mind-boggling NASA aerospace technology, the challenge of space travel was readily apparent.

One of the most impressive stops on the bus tour through the complex was the Apollo/Saturn V Center where a fully restored Saturn V moon rocket serves as the centerpiece. Visitors can walk under the belly of the 363-foot rocket–the most powerful rocket ever built–that is suspended horizontally above the floor.

Historic pieces of the space program are everywhere throughout the complex, including the Rocket Garden where eight vintage rockets stand as if ready to blast off. Visitors also can see the current mode of space travel with a full-size replica of the Space Shuttle Explorer.

After seeing the shuttle, we got a sense of what it’s like to take a journey in the craft in the Shuttle Launch Experience, a motion simulator that immerses visitors in the sights, sounds and feelings of a 17,500 mph shuttle launch. In the ride, which was designed under the guidance of veteran Space Shuttle astronauts, the seats rumbled and shook until we reached orbit, when the payload bay doors opened to reveal a view of the Earth from space.

Visitors can time their trip to the Space Coast when an actual shuttle launch is scheduled, but take note that the Space Shuttle program is retiring in 2010 so only a handful of missions remain.

At the center, there are also two IMAX® screens that show films about space exploration, and guests can can attend half-hour interactive question-and-answer sessions with veteran astronauts. To learn more about the astronauts, the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame about six miles west of the main visitor complex has the world’s largest collection of personal astronaut memorabilia, as well as historic spacecraft, hands-on activities and training simulators.

Admission to the Kennedy Space Center is $38 for adults and $28 for children 3–11. For more details and future launch schedules, call (321) 449-4444, or click on www.kennedyspacecenter.com.

Nature and nurture

After exploring the wonders of outer space, we decided to experience Florida’s wonders of wildlife at the Brevard Zoo. Located in Melbourne about 45 minutes south of Cocoa Beach, the small zoo features hundreds of native and exotic animals set in a lush, unspoiled Florida habitat. Shaded boardwalks lead to areas dedicated to the animals of Africa, Australia, Asia, South America and Florida.

One of the highlights was the area called Expedition Africa, where we saw rhinoceroses, antelopes, gazelle and an island full of lemurs. From an elevated boardwalk, we were at eye level with a family of giraffes, and got to hand-feed the gentle giants.

We gained a different perspective of the giraffes on a kayak tour around Expedition Africa. Brevard Zoo is said to be the nation’s only zoo with on-site kayaking, and the journey made us feel like we were in the Dark Continent. We rounded a bend on the guided tour to see a giraffe walking lazily along the water’s edge. The zoo also offers a kayak tour of a 22-acre restored wetlands.

Admission is $11.50 for adults, $10.50 for seniors and $8.50 for children 2–12. The zoo is open daily 9:30 a.m.–5 p.m. Call (321) 254-9453, or visit www.brevardzoo.org.

For another natural adventure, visit the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, which encompasses the Kennedy Space Center complex. The 140,000-acre refuge has seven distinct habitats that provide a home to 500 species of wildlife, including manatees, loggerhead turtles and alligators.

Start at the visitor center, located on Scenic Route 402 about five miles east of U.S. Route 1 in Titusville. There you can pick up maps to guide you through the refuge, which has hiking trails, a manatee observation deck, beach access and a seven-mile wildlife drive. Call (321) 861-0667 for details, or visit www.fws.gov/merrittisland.

To sustain us on our adventures, we nurtured our bodies with plenty of local cuisine. Dixie Crossroads in Titusville was our favorite spot. The family-owned restaurant specializes in shrimp, serving half a ton of rock shrimp on any given day and more than 3 million sugar-dusted corn fritters each year. Rock shrimp have a harder shell than other varieties, as well as a distinctively sweet taste. “It’s the shrimp that tastes like lobster,” said Laurilee Thompson, a one-time commercial fisherman who took over the business from her father.

Another good choice was the Atlantic Ocean Grille, located near the end of the Cocoa Beach Pier, which stretches 800 feet over the ocean. Local newspapers have aptly named it the “best restaurant with a view” for several years. We dined on broiled scallops and stuffed flounder while we watched surfers catch waves below us until the sun set.

Creative Coasters

We couldn’t go to Florida with our sons without spending some time at a theme park, and because they enjoy Shrek, the Simpsons and the children’s television network Nickelodeon, we spent two days at Universal Orlando Resort. The resort’s two theme parks–Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure–feature cutting-edge rides and attractions based on pop-culture icons, Hollywood films and hit television shows.

The Terminator 2: 3-D show wowed us with live-action stunts, 3-D filmmaking and great special effects. The Incredible Hulk Coaster took our breath away with its twists and loops, while flames and ghouls greeted us in the Revenge of the Mummy coaster ride. And the Simpsons Ride placed us in the middle of an incredible animated adventure through dizzying motion simulation.

Debuting this spring will be the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, which will be one of the most technologically advanced coasters in the world. The ride will reach 65 mph and climb 17 stories over Universal Studios. Guests will be able to choose a song to play during the ride and then customize footage from the ride into a take-home music video. Then in 2010, Islands of Adventure will unveil The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, a themed area that will enable guests to visit locations in the Harry Potter books and movies, including Hogwarts castle.

While at Universal Orlando, we also enjoyed the Blue Man Group, a show that combined music, comedy and multimedia theatrics in a party atmosphere. Primal drum rhythms had our toes tapping in a high-energy romp featuring plenty of props and audience participation. Tickets are $59 for adults and $49 for children 3–9.

Making our experience at Universal Resort more enjoyable was staying at the Hard Rock Hotel, one of three on-site hotels. We were only a short walk from the theme parks, but we usually took the free water taxis that transport guests from the three hotels to Universal CityWalk, which offers access to the two parks and an array of restaurants, shops and clubs.

From high-tech coasters and spacecraft to the region’s technology-free marvels of sand, surf and scenery, the Space Coast provides a galaxy of delightful diversions. When our boys couldn’t decide what the best part of their vacation was because everything was fun, it was proof enough that our trip had been a successful mission.

Dennis R. Heinze is regional editor of the AAA Midwest Traveler magazine.

Jan/Feb 2009 Issue

BEFORE YOU GO
For details, contact Florida’s Space Coast Office of Tourism at (321) 433-4470, or visit www.space-coast.com.

To visit the Space Coast, first stop by a AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks® and TourBook® guides.stop by a AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks® and TourBook® guides. Offices to serve you

Visit www.universalorlando.com for details about the resort. AAA offers discount tickets to Universal. Save more than $20 off multi-day ticket prices when buying in advance from AAA online or at participating offices. Click on www.AAA.com/savings for details.

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