The Kennedy Space Center visitor complex in Cape Canaveral, Florida is an awesome attraction for the whole family. Space enthusiasts and casual visitors alike can easily spend a whole day immersed in the exhibits about spaceflight, the history of the center’s many manned missions throughout the years, and the future of space travel that might even take us to Mars. Located just an hour from Orlando, this is the perfect day trip for a break from the theme parks or an exciting and educational day to mix into a beach vacation. Keep on reading for a detailed guide to help you plan the best visit to Kennedy Space Center.
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Kennedy Space Center attractions
Space Shuttle Atlantis
When the US space shuttle program was ended in 2011, the three remaining shuttles were retired and put on display in different museums around the country. The California Science Center in LA got Endeavour, the Smithsonian got Discovery, and Atlantis remained at the Kennedy Space Center where it had launched from so many times throughout its service life. The shuttle is displayed with its payload doors open and its robotic arm extended to give you an idea of how it functioned in space. We spent a full two hours in this exhibit, and loved every inch of it.
The exhibit begins with a two part movie about the shuttles. The first part is a “regular” movie, and after watching that, you move into a second room with screens displayed around you. There are signs recommending that people with motion sickness skip that, but it didn’t bother me at all and there were no spinning or fast motion effects. The end of it features a great reveal too.
The main attraction in the gallery is obviously the space shuttle itself, but there are plenty of other things to learn about. There are some interactive games where you can pretend to be an astronaut on a spacewalk performing tasks like repairing solar panels. There is, of course, the requisite display showing how astronauts go to the bathroom in space, which is a constant source of fascination for many people.
Kids (and fun adults) will love the mini replica of the Space Station that they can crawl through. It’s a bit hard on the knees, but the clear tunnel suspended over the lower level is lots of fun to cross if you’re brave enough.
One of my favorite parts of the exhibit was showing how the shuttles slow down when approaching the landing. They come in a lot faster than your average plane and use a series of S-shaped turns to cut down their speed. They’re demonstrated with banked walls that you can walk through to see how the turns slow you down. The final part of the area is a slide (which you can bypass for stairs or an elevator) that is built at the shuttle’s steep angle of final approach – again, much steeper than your typical plane’s would be. It’s actually one of the better slides I’ve been on and you actually pick up a bit of speed. I may or may not have gone back up to ride it again like the overgrown kid that I am. It’s totally acceptable for adults to do the slide, so don’t be like the grumpy lady who gave the space center a 1-star review on TripAdvisor because it took her “three minutes” to run down to meet her son at the bottom despite there being a flight of stairs right next to it. Of course, she hated just about everything about the place, so I think some people just can’t be happy.
The Atlantis building also has a substantial simulator ride that simulates a shuttle launch. No personal items are allowed in the queue or on the ride, but the Kennedy Space Center provides free lockers to use while riding. It begins with safety briefings and an explanation of your “mission.” We really didn’t know what to expect from it or how intense it would be, but I found it to be way less intense than Mission: Space at Disney World if you’ve ridden that before.
Make sure you also take a few minutes to wander through the memorial to the two space shuttle crews that were lost in the Challenger and Columbia. Each member of the crew has a display commemorating their careers and personal interests.
Kennedy Space Center bus tours
The other top attraction at the Kennedy Space Center is the bus tours that take visitors to the restricted areas and end at the Saturn V building. These tours are included with your regular admission ticket, so don’t miss out. Another bonus with the bus tours? You stand a pretty good chance of spotting wildlife along the way, including eagles, alligators, and turtles. We saw a gator, two large turtles, a few egrets, and the largest eagles’ nest in the wildlife refuge along the route.
Pro tip: try to snag a seat on the passenger side of the bus (the seats to the right as you face the front of the bus) because most of the sights are on that side and the buses don’t stop for photos. The first leg of the trip takes about 45 minutes, so make sure you use the bathroom before you get in line if you need to.
The massive Vehicle Assembly Building doesn’t seem nearly as gigantic as it turns out to be because there isn’t much around it to give it scale. It turns out that the American flag painted on the side is 24 stores tall though and the four massive doors leading to its bays are the largest in the world. The building was built to – you guessed it – assemble vehicles. It’s large enough that the massive Saturn rockets that took men to the moon could be built vertically and then moved out to the launchpad.
Your tour will also allow you to view different launch sites from a much closer vantage point than you’d otherwise get. It’s so cool to see the structures built to send human beings hurtling into outer space. You can also see the track that the rockets and shuttles took on the massive crawler to get to the launchpad.
The tour bus drops you off at the Saturn V center which houses one of the enormous rockets that the Apollo missions used to get to the moon. Your visit there begins with a short movie about the Apollo 1 mission in which three astronauts were killed and how that failure reshaped the program, and then you move into a room with the actual mission control set-up from the Apollo 8 launch, which was the first manned mission to orbit the moon. You get to relive the final minutes leading up to the historic launch and marvel at the feat NASA scientists accomplished with technology that seems so outdated now.
The Saturn V rocket on display is real, but was never flown. There were free guided tours of the building offered periodically, so we joined a group led by a very enthusiastic guide who told us about what each different section of the rocket did and other info about the Apollo program. They run periodically throughout the day and it’s definitely worth checking out to get a bit more context about the rocket.
The Saturn V center also features a tribute to the astronauts lost in the Apollo 1 mission. It only takes a couple minutes to walk through and you can see artifacts representing their careers and interests. There is a short movie about the Apollo 11 mission that landed on the moon and a little piece of moon rock that you can touch.
Kennedy Space Center IMAX theater
The IMAX theater at the Kennedy Space Center is currently showing two different 3D films about space (as of January 2019). The theater is included in your regular admission, so there’s no extra cost to see a show. Journey To Space includes footage of outer space and interviews with astronauts, and A Beautiful Planet is narrated by Jennifer Lawrence and features video of the earth taken from outside the atmosphere.
The Rocket Garden
The first thing that will catch your eye when you walk into the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex is the Rocket Garden which houses some of the rockets NASA created to launch manned and unmanned space missions. There was a free tour starting in five minutes, so we waited around and learned what each rocket had been used for. There are also a couple of different replica capsules that you can climb into to pose for photos.
Heroes and Legends and the Astronaut Hall of Fame
This building is one of the first things you’ll pass when you enter the space center. The exhibits inside pay tribute to the men and women who have traveled to space as part of NASA’s programs. Artifacts include space suits and a Gemini capsule, plus plenty more. The Hall of Fame highlights astronauts selected by a special committee for the honor and includes some of the most widely known names in the history of spaceflight.
Meet an astronaut
Every day, visitors have the opportunity to attend a presentation with an astronaut who has been to space. You’ll get a chance to hear about their experiences and ask questions of your own. You can even take pictures with them if you want. Make sure you check the daily schedules when you arrive so you don’t miss out.
The future of NASA
Another exhibit covers the journey to Mars that is expected to happen in our lifetimes. You can see what scientists have learned about the planet thanks to the data the rovers have been sending back – it also features replicas of the rovers. The exhibit includes a live presentation covering what kind of research and planning are going on at NASA now. There are a whole bunch of interactive simulators that you can play with, though we didn’t have time to really experience any of them. We did find time to send digital postcards of ourselves from the Moon though. I love a cheesy photo op.
The Space Mirror Wall
This simple but beautiful memorial to the men and women who have died pursuing the exploration of space is located above a quiet pool. The super polished granite is designed to reflect the sky and includes the names of those who have died. Stop by for a few minutes to pay your respects.
Things to do at the Kennedy Space Center for kids
There are lots of interactive games throughout the exhibits. We didn’t have any kids with us, but the multitude we saw seemed to be eating them up. One of the things I particularly liked was that many of the display cases had questions targeted to specific age groups ie. “Hey, middle schoolers…” They may be intended for school groups that visit, but they’re great for families visiting on their own too.
The Atlantis building has a couple of fun areas for kids that I mentioned above. They can crawl through a tiny replica of the International Space Station or take a zippy ride down the short slide to the lowest level of the exhibit. The very top level there contains a replica cockpit from the shuttle where all kinds of buttons and switches can be touched (they don’t do anything) and photos can be taken. The Rocket Garden also features a couple replica space capsules that they can climb into for pictures or to pretend to be flying.
The Kennedy Space Center also has a kids play area so they can run around a bit if they’re getting antsy. In all honesty though, the few times we visited as kids, we were so enthralled with the exhibits that we never got bored.
Additional Kennedy Space Center tours and activities
While the tours and exhibits included in your regular admission can easily fill a full day, there are additional Kennedy Space Center tours or training experiences that you can add on to your visit. I didn’t try any of them, so I’ll just list the options available with a brief description. The website recommends pre-booking them as soon as possible as they frequently sell out prior to the date of the tour.
- KSC Explore Tour – A two-hour tour that gets you closer to the launchpads and Vehicle Assembly Building than the regular bus tour and includes stops where you can take photos.
- Cape Canaveral Early Space Tour – This three-hour tour takes you to the early launch sites at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and a visit to the Air Force Space & Missile Museum.
- Dine with an Astronaut – This package includes a buffet-style lunch with an astronaut so you can chat and ask questions over your meal.
- New Astronaut Training Experience – Using interactive simulations, you get to train like you’re going to be one of the first astronauts on Mars.
- Mars Base 1 – You get to simulate life on Mars and manage base operations in the way NASA imagines that real life astronauts will in the not so distant future.
- Mars Exploration Training Simulator Stage – Take a ride on the surface of Mars in this full-motion simulator experience that feels like you’re driving on the Red Planet.
- Spacewalk Training Stage – You get to practice working in outer space in a simulated micro-gravity environment in this special experience.
- KSC Smart Guide – The most affordable option of the paid extras, this is an enhanced portal that gives you extra insights into the displays around the space center.
- Cosmic Quest – You can get 1-day or year-long passes for these interactive games that teach you how to fly rockets, redirect asteroids (I thought we learned that in Armageddon), and more.
Dining at the Kennedy Space Center
There is plenty of food available at the space center, and while it’s not on the cheap side, it’s actually pretty decent. We had a meal and a light snack at the Orbit Café, located in the main visitor center area. Their mac & cheese claims to be made in house and whether or not that’s true, it was really good. Pro tip: it’s worth the extra cost to add bacon. Other than that, they have some burgers, chicken fingers, Little Caesars pizza, and a build-your-own salad option. We also quite liked their warm chocolate chip cookies. Tears were nearly shed when we dropped the last one on the ground outside. They also have the fancy Pepsi machines that allow you to mix and match flavor add-ins.
The Saturn V center also houses a restaurant with a menu full sandwiches, melts, burgers, wraps, pizza, and salads. We didn’t dine here, but I kind of wish we had because you can see the Saturn V rocket while you’re eating, which is a pretty cool view.
The Rocket Garden Café has both breakfast and lunch and includes an outdoor seating area overlooking the rocket garden. The breakfast menu features classic American breakfast items, eggy quesadillas, and pastries. The lunch menu is full of sandwiches, burgers, and salads.
Ice cream, Dippin’ Dots-like frozen treats, drinks (including beer), and popcorn (for the IMAX) are also available at various stands around the complex.
Getting to the Kennedy Space Center
The space center is located in the Cape Canaveral Wildlife Refuge along Florida’s east coast. It’s super close to the popular Cocoa Beach area, so you can mix it into a relaxing beach vacation if you’re staying in the area. It’s about an hour from the main Orlando attractions, so it makes a perfect day trip. The closest airport is in Melbourne, though the drive from the Orlando airport is just about the same length timewise at approximately 50 minutes (it’s 12 miles further, but has faster speeds). I’d recommend Orlando as there are way more flights operating. If you’re staying at Disney World or Universal Studios, the drive should be somewhere between 1:00-1:10 without traffic. The fastest route from Orlando is toll road Florida 528. Be sure to have cash with you if you don’t have the SunPass for tolls. It cost us around $6 for the trip from the space center back to Orlando. It’s about a three-hour drive north from Miami and two hours south from Jacksonville if you’re not visiting Orlando.
There is no public transportation available to the space center, though there are a couple of tour companies that run buses from Orlando. The official website requests that you use “Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex” for your GPS directions as just putting “Kennedy Space Center” in will lead you to the restricted area. They recently opened a new entrance for the visitor parking lot, so once you get close, be sure to pay attention to the signage because as of late December 2018, Google Maps was still trying to route me the wrong way into the lot and kept rerouting me when we left because it thought I was driving on roads that didn’t exist. Parking at the visitor center costs $10 and can be paid via cash or card.
Tips for visiting Kennedy Space Center
- I didn’t think we’d need a whole day to visit, but I’m glad we got there early and did the full day. One day is enough to be satisfied, but if you want to see every last exhibit, you might want to add a second day to your itinerary. If you plan your visit for a non-holiday weekend and avoid launches, you’ll run into fewer lines and may be able to cover more ground.
- Get there as early as possible to skip the lines.
- Buy your ticket in advance to get through the gates as quickly as possible. We bought ours through Undercover Tourist, which offers them for a few dollars cheaper. (The official website’s price looks lower, but they add taxes and processing fees at checkout, which are already included in Undercover Tourist’s price.)
- Guests are required to go through bag checks and metal detectors when arriving. Be prepared to have your items searched and don’t bring anything illicit.
- Food and drinks in a soft-sided cooler (no glass containers) can be brought into the space center if you’d prefer to picnic instead of eating at the cafeterias.
- You can come and go throughout the day if you get a hand stamp on the way out. It’s probably not worth it for more than running out to your car for food or forgotten items though, because the visitor complex is sufficiently far away from anything else that the time you’d waste trying to find somewhere to eat would cost more than just paying an extra couple of bucks per meal at the on-site restaurants.
- Wear comfy walking shoes. Aside from the movies, all of the exhibits require walking and there aren’t many benches around for taking a break along the way.
- Hours vary throughout the year, so check them out on the official website when you’re planning your visit.
Ready to visit?
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