Families "Blast Off" for Space Coast Fun
(Jack Dinnigan looks at flags of nations represented in space travel from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, FL.*)
By Lizz Dinnigan
At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much happening at the Space Coast's Port Canaveral. It’s a flat, quiet port area on central Florida’s east coast, dotted with a few al fresco seafood bars in what’s called “The Cove.”
All you can really see from the ship’s deck are a handful of other cruise ships docked at various piers in the harbor.
But initial appearances can be very deceiving.
Just a short taxi ride from the pier leads to spectacularly unique possibilities -- from kayaking in a shallow lagoon peppered with manatees to soaring over the Space Coast in an open-cockpit bi-plane to buzzing on an airboat through the murky, grassy marshlands of alligator territory.
But Port Canaveral’s main appeal – especially to family cruisers – is that it’s close (a 90-minute drive inland) to Orlando’s major theme parks.
On our summer 2012 sailing onboard Norwegian Cruise Line's (www.ncl.com) Norwegian Gem, theme park shore excursions (which included roundtrip motorcoach transfers and general park admission tickets) were offered to multiple parks.
These included: Sea World Adventure Park ($149 adults/$109 kids), Universal’s Islands of Adventure ($164 adults/$124 kids), Universal Studios Orlando ($164 adults/$124 kids) or a choice of four Walt Disney World Resort parks ($164 adults/$124 kids).
Many of our fellow Norwegian Cruise Line passengers jumped at the chance to squeeze in a day in Orlando.
Blasting Off for Space Fun
(The massive Saturn V rocket is displayed for visitors who tour the Kennedy Space Center Visitor's complex.*)
We opted for something different, though. Instead of rushing through a theme park we’ve never been to before and feeling pressed for time, we viewed at our stop in Port Canaveral as an opportunity to visit the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral
A short 15-minute bus ride from the dock, the Kennedy Space Center was the perfect shore-side diversion for our active young family.
My husband Joe, sons Jack, 8, and Casey, 5, (all shown in the photo at left*) and myself had a blast experiencing this working space flight facility at our own speed.
This 6.5-hour Norwegian Gem shore trip included transportation and the cost of admission. This shore trip was priced at $89 for adults, and $69 for kids.
The exhibits were impressive, but families should remember that they may not have time to see absolutely everything -- a good reason to visit a second time on a later cruise or resort stay.
Kennedy Space Center Visitors' Complex has some amazing themed tours, so even repeat visitors will likely find something new and different to enjoy.
My boys’ favorite activity was the “Shuttle Launch Experience.” We climbed into a capsule, belted in and the stationary ride physically simulated the sensation of blasting off into orbit at 17,000 mph.
The ride wasn’t scary, except for our anticipation of what was yet to happen.
The visitor complex's outdoor Rocket Garden (shown in the photo below*) displayed the same rockets that first launched NASA astronauts into space.
Visitors are encouraged to climb into the cramped quarters of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo capsules.
Kids love movies. We opted to view "Hubble 3D,” one of two IMAX films that were showing.
Hubble 3D examined the story of the Hubble Telescope. It provided a sensation of floating alongside astronauts in space.
(The Dinnigan family - wearing 3D glasses -- is psyched about the space action they viewed in Hubble 3D*)
Families can pick and choose their fun. We enjoyed everything we selected, although we didn't have time for Astronaut Encounter, which allows visitors to meet an astronaut who has traveled in space.
Something is always going on at Kennedy Space Center. Right now, the facility is building a massive new exhibit to house the retired Space Shuttle Atlantis.
That permanent exhibit is set to open in summer 2013.
Viewing the Launch Pads
In addition to the Kennedy Space Center Complex, there’s a continuously running bus tour to the 60-foot-tall LC-39 Observation Gantry and Apollo/Saturn V Center.
En route, the bus also passes, but does not stop at, the eight-acre Vehicle Assembly Building, one of the largest buildings in the world. From a distance, it’s the only structure that can be seen on the low-lying horizon.
The Observation Gantry offers a 360-degree, bird’s eye view of the two Shuttle Launch Pads, 39A and 39B, as well as the Launch Control Center and the crawlerway used to transport the spacecraft to the launch sites.
(Casey Dinnigan is shown at left with one of the scopes for close-up views of a launch pad.*)
The next stop on the bus was to the Apollo/Saturn V Center.
Upon entering, you’re guided to an original control center that was used for an actual mission. The terminals light up, and recorded voices document was being said in the control room at the time of blast-off.
On display is Apollo 11, the craft used during Neil Armstrong and Buzz Armstrong’s moon landing.
The star of the show, though, is the largest rocket ever made, the Saturn V, which is suspended from the ceiling.
Visitors start looking "up" as they enter. Why? The rocket's sheer enormity is breathtaking.
(At right, Joe, Jack and Casey Dinnigan "look up" to view the massive Saturn V rocket.*)
The Kennedy Space Center is an extraordinary experience. But if you’ve already toured the space facility or visited the Orlando theme parks, there are numerous other activity options for families.
For example, Norwegian Cruise Line’s other Port Canaveral shore excursions offered on our voyage included “Kayaking at Manatee Cove,” “Cocoa Beach Shopping Shuttle,” “Ron Jon Surfing Lessons,” “Pontoon Cruise on the Banana River” and two airboat tours.
Kayaking Among Manatees
As soon as my youngest son is old enough, our family would love to try “Kayaking at Manatee Cove." Children must be 8 years old to participate.
Manatee Cove is home to one of the largest populations of manatees in the world. This endangered, backwater estuary also serves as a wildlife refuge for bottlenose dolphins, alligators, birds and native plants.
It's common for manatees, Florida's gentle maritime giants, to swim below a kayak and then pop their head out of the water nearby, almost as if to say "hello."
Norwegian's guide-led paddle excursion includes a stop at an uninhabited barrier island for a nature walk. Norwegian's shore trip prices for this option are $79 for adults and $59 for kids.
“The Cocoa Beach Shopping Shuttle," operated for guests of Norwegian Cruise Line, transfers beach-goers every half-hour to and from this popular beach tourist destination with its boutique-lined streets.
(The shopping area of Cocoa Beach is shown at right.*)
Cost for the shuttle shore excursion -- essentially roundtrip transfers -- is an affordable $12 for adults, $6 for kids.
Dubbed the "Surfing Capital of the World," Cocoa Beach is a legendary site for world-renown surfing competitions. If you look out to sea, you'll likely see surfing enthusiasts up on their boards.
If you want to learn to surf, Norwegian's “Ron Jon Surfing Lessons” excursion is a great close-to-port option. Cost is $109 for adults and $99 kids.
Even if you don't want to take surfing lessons, though, stop into the landmark Ron Jon Surf Shop just to say you've been there.
It's home to a Surfing Hall of Fame and an amazing array of colorful surfboards, skateboards, surfing gear and beach accessories for sale.
Another popular shop for kids is Cocoa Beach's enormous Dinosaur Store. Visitors will peruse fossils, meteorites, amber, and enjoy a sluice and interactive activities.
Cocoa Beach offers all-day surfboard and beach chair rentals, and its pier (shown in the photo at left*) is packed with restaurants, and tiki and seafood bars.
If you are fit and love to walk, why not stroll along the beach toward the Sebastian Inlet to the town of Indiatlantic?
Indiatlantic has a 500-foot-long wooden boardwalk and “shorebreak,” essentially an offshore sandbar that's explorable at medium tide.
On the return to the ship, the shopping shuttle typically stops at The Cove.
If you have plenty of time and want to sample local seafood, pop into Fishlips Waterfront Bar & Grill (www.fishlipswaterfront.com) or Rusty’s Seafood and Oyster Bar (www.rustysseafood.com) for the catch of the day and a drink before returning to the ship.
Cruise line airboat and pontoon boat tours will take guests into local habitats to view flora and fauna.
For example, many airboat tours explore the wetlands and sea-grass beds of the St. John’s River in search of alligators, cranes and hawks.
A pontoon boat ride navigates the Banana River.
(In the photo at right, a family explores a Space Coast waterway and searches for marine creatures.*)
Wildlife sightings may include manatees, dolphin, reddish egret, woodstork, pelican and blue heron.
Depending on the eco-program selected, prices are typically in the range of $69 to $89 for adults and $44 to $59 for kids.
If you want to venture further, just hire a taxi from the pier and arrange a pick-up time; be sure, though, to also arrange the return and allow plenty of time to get back to the ship. Taxis are not around every corner in most parts of the Space Coast.
One family-friendly option? The Brevard Zoo (www.brevardzoo.org) in Melbourne offers many hands-on, close-up encounters with wildlife.
Visitors can feed treats to giraffes from a platform. They might also kayak around the Africa exhibit, take a paddleboat through restored wetlands, feed nectar to the lorikeets or have a rhino encounter.
Little ones can splash around in the Indian River Play Lagoon.
New to the zoo are a 20,000-gallon aquarium as well as the Treetop Trek. This maze of tightropes, crab walks, jungle bridges, nets and zip lines create aerial obstacle courses tailored to different age groups.
If eco-adventures appeal to you, the Florida EcoSafaris at Forever Florida (www.floridaecosafaris.com) in St. Cloud offer 4,700 acres of conservation lands.
Activities on site include a zip-line roller coaster, racing ziplines and horseback rides.
You might also pedal the Cypress Canopy Cycle – a contraption suspended from high-tension steel cables – through the treetops.
Or, thrill seekers might jump from a 68-foot high tower and pull their ripcord to swoop through the trees.
If that doesn’t get your heart pumping, perhaps a flight in a vintage war plane is a better fit.
About a half-hour cab ride from the port in Titusville is the Valiant Air Command Warbird Air Museum (www.vacwarbirds.org).
On display are an F-14A Tomcat, F-105 Thunderchief and T-28 Trojan, as well as 30 other vintage warbirds and aviation artifacts.
Call before you leave for your cruise to check availability for a flight on the World War II-era C-47 called "Tico Belle.” She's a veteran of the Normandy invasion.
Operating out of Merritt Island Airport is Florida Biplanes (www.floridabiplanes.com), offering open-cockpit flights in an authentic 1940s biplane over the Space Coast.
The aircraft carries one or two people per flight, which run 15, 30 or 45 minutes.
Port Canaveral is rich in diversity and Florida culture. You’ll definitely find a memorable way to spend your time here.
Editor's Note: Prices for this story were accurate at the time of publication, but check with the cruise line or attraction for the most current pricing, as entry fees change often.
* Photos are owned, copyrighted and used courtesy of Lizz Dinnigan, SouthernCruising.com, SouthernTravelNews.com, the Kennedy Space Center and the Space Coast Office of Tourism. All rights reserved. Please do not link to nor copy these photos.