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February 26, 2017

REVIEW: Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex



I tend to geek out a bit when it comes to NASA and the space program. One of my favorite memories of growing up in Texas is gawking at a visiting Space Shuttle Challenger through the chain link fence at Kelly Air Force Base in 1983. I was so little, and it seemed so huge... larger-than-life! This amazing thing I was gazing at could blast off all the way to the moon - maybe beyond - but right now, it was less than a football field away from me. This whole concept just awed and astounded me at that very young age. Truth be told, it still does! 




It was this lifelong love of all things space that had me positively giddy over our recent visit to Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Cape Canaveral. I'm immeasurably ashamed to admit that in all my years of living in Florida, this was my first visit to KSC, and to the Space Coast area, in general. I loved visiting Johnson Space Center during my Texan years, but I've always heard that Florida's complex is quite a different experience. 

The short summary: I squealed, I gasped, I cried, I smiled, I took more than 500 pictures.

As for the expanded review - where to begin? Although I had been advised to plan on a lengthy, full day on-site, the 70-acre Kennedy Space Center Complex was much more than I imagined!. Even being there from 10AM until closing, there were things we missed! Unfortunately, one of those things was the new Heroes and Legends exhibit. (All the more reason for a return visit!) I will say that the exterior of the building is aesthetically spellbinding, however!
Just past the Heroes and Legends building, you'll find the Rocket Garden - a display of actual rockets from the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. Free 20 minute tours are offered throughout the day, but the Rocket Garden is open for self-exploration all day long as well. Frankly, I could spend hours right here and thoroughly enjoy every minute. Standing in the shadow of these mammoth rockets is beyond humbling.


Sprinkled throughout the rocket garden, you can get up close and personal with rocket engines and capsules as well. This will absolutely convince you that claustrophobia and space travel don't combine well together! The Rocket Garden is somewhat like Alice's adventures through the looking glass - whether you feel shrunken or gargantuan, your surroundings will consistently reveal an entirely unique perspective.


Of course, that perspective may also be that of an overgrown child, but this is perfectly okay! 


There are fascinating exhibits woven along the walkways and common areas of the complex, but themed displays and experiences are housed in individual buildings in a well laid out design. Pedestrian traffic flow is refreshingly different at KSC than what we experience at the Orlando theme parks. The complex wasn't barren by any means, but there was a noticeable absence of traffic jams and lengthy waits amidst impatient mobs of people. There was always somewhere to be that didn't feel overwhelming, or a show starting that still had accommodation. Most shows and films run 20-40 minutes in length, with some continuously ongoing, and others scheduled 2-6 times per day. Check schedules to make sure you plan for the experiences you want to prioritize!

Journey To Mars: Explorers Wanted features a brilliant combination of interactive "gaming", simulators, live Q and A, and mission replicas surrounding the exploration of Mars and the evolution of rovers. To go from the earlier phases of rockets to the more current rover explorations is genuinely an eye-opening progression when presented in such close proximity!


There are multiple areas to purchase souvenirs within the visitor complex, The Space Shop (across from Journey To Mars) is by far the end all, be all stop for your space-related purchases! They are not exaggerating when they say it is "the world’s largest store devoted to space memorabilia and NASA gear". I do feel compelled to note that the prices are very skewed across the board here. While you might expect an authentic iron meteor to be a pricey item ($10,000, in case you're curious), other, more common and less collectible items sometimes held higher pricing than I felt to be fair, BUT... there is a flip side to this coin.While some t-shirts were in the $40+ price range, others were bundled into packaged sets at stunningly decreased costs! There were also plenty of trinkets that could be purchased for a lower price, so there is no real reason to fear the inability to buy anything without a financial punch to the gut. The only thing that really left me scratching my head is that there seemed to be no real rhyme or reason to the pricing structures. The shirts that were packaged in bundles for a discount didn't appear to be of lesser quality or lesser physical appeal than those that were priced more than 100% higher! The sheer selection of items and the diversity in the products was very surprising and ridiculously tempting though. I could've easily spent a nest egg in this shop!


One other reason to pop into The Space Shop... It's one of the locations at KSC where you will have the opportunity to meet a living legend! There are multiple chances daily to meet an astronaut, attend a presentation hosted by an astronaut, and even have lunch with an astronaut!

The Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit was easily one of my favorites. It is incredibly immersive and thorough in its presentation of the shuttle program overall, and it pays such a wonderful tribute to a proud and accomplished period of our history. This building houses memorials, simulators, the famed Shuttle Launch Experience, and the American icon itself - Atlantis!

The Shuttle Launch Experience is incredible. A scenario is created that puts you directly into the astronaut's seat, and it's probably as close to this experience as most of us will ever come!

Continue your simulations as you crawl through a recreation of the International Space Station, then experience a shuttle landing... with you playing the role of the shuttle. These experiences are much better shared in video form.

Arguably, the highlight of a visit to Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex is the Bus Tour. The entire scope of this experience can easily justify two to three hours of time, but buses depart every 15-20 minutes for the one-way journey to the Apollo/Saturn V Center, where you disembark for self-paced exploration, until you are ready to catch a bus for your return to the main public areas of the Visitor Complex. The entire experience is a wonderful combination of an expertly-guided sightseeing excursion and a self-led mission of selective discovery, and there was so much to absorb and admire!


The Kennedy Space Center Bus Tour takes you behind-the-scenes to view the secured, off-limits launch pads and assembly buildings that hold prominent placement in many landmark historic events. Our tour guide was simply phenomenal, and this really enhanced the journey! You're provided loads of details, facts, and trivia tidbits along the tour - from both your guide, and pre-recorded video supplements. The in-depth knowledge you gain on this tour is priceless, and so much more than what you'll read in research books. We appreciated the fact that our guide paused at significant locations for photo opportunities. He was also quick to point out the alligators and birds we encountered on our path, including a Bald Eagle nest holding recent hatchlings within it. Special interest bus tours are also offered at an additional cost. 

The Bus Tour concludes at the Apollo/Saturn V Center - a colossal building chock full of history related to the Apollo program, centered around a restored Saturn V launch vehicle. It literally took my breath away to stand beneath this beast of a machine! My height is a running point of humor amongst my inner circle, but even those guests who had a foot or more advantage over me appeared awestruck as they marveled at the size of this behemoth.

Once you pick your jaw up off the ground, you'll find that there is much more to discover in this exhibit. There are fun educational stops scattered throughout the building, and genuine mission artifacts both around and above you. It's an inclusive and worthy tribute to the progressive accomplishments of the lunar mission series, and a thoughtful glimpse into the rapid growth and achievements of the Apollo program.

The Apollo Treasures Gallery is so appropriately named. There are some spectacular items stashed away in this exhibit, including spacesuits, astronaut journals and tools, salvaged mission artifacts, and the Apollo 14 crew capsule. Don't miss out on the chance to touch a genuine slice of a moon rock yourself!


A tremendous thrill - the Firing Room Theater allows you to relive the historic launch of the Apollo 8 (the first crewed NASA mission to orbit the moon) in the very setting that Mission Control kept watch from in 1968. This experience is exceptionally sensory - allowing you to see, hear, and feel the dramatic events leading up to, including, and following the groundbreaking launch. 


Outside of the Apollo/Saturn V Center, there is a gorgeous area that serves as a launch viewing location. This waterside spot features lush greenery, bleachers, individual covered tables, and stunning views of the launch pads, wildlife, and more. Grab a snack at the Moon Rock Cafe inside the Center, and enjoy some picnic time when the weather is right for it!


There is so much more to see and do at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex than what I've covered here. It's safe to say that you'll have your own highlight must-sees when you visit. There's nothing wrong with planning more than one visit either, for those who really like to get the maximum experience. Scheduled events and appearances vary greatly, so that alone is reason for return visits. The annual pass is not an unreasonable consideration, at a price that is less than two days' standard adult admission. The prepaid admission of an annual pass will also make it much easier financially to explore add-on enhancements and unique special experiences. 


Kennedy Space Center is open 365 days per year - hours vary. Daily admission is $50 for adults, $40 for children 3-11. A wide variety of add-ons and special experience packages are available. Parking is an additional $10 (for standard automobiles). For more information, follow Kennedy Space Center on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram