Disney World 2016: Kennedy Space Center

We were up early, hitting the front of the hotel for 8:20, to catch our shuttle bus to the Alamo Rental location just inside the Magic Kingdom‘s outer gates. We were renting a car for exploring!

I had originally arranged for a small car the day before, but we’d switched around the days (because we could) to make it a bit easier. I knew the day was going to involve a fair bit of driving for me and the girls, so I figured the day wouldn’t matter. We were going to the coast: I wanted to see the Kennedy Space Center, and I promised the girls we’d go to the beach afterwards.

Alex was going to SeaWorld. She has a strong affinity for orca, and had been to the SeaWorld in San Diego with her family many years earlier. She masked her visit (she wanted to go solo) as a geocaching effort, which would automatically make the girls not want to join.

I’d wanted a small car. Something tiny. We didn’t need big or roomy; it was just a day trip. The clerk tried to upgrade me to a BMW (meh), which I declined … and then mistakenly commented to that I’d seen a Dodge Charger out front and thought it would be a total laugh to drive one.

I’m rather certain that this was taken as an opportunity to get me into a car twice as expensive as the one I’d reserved. Although I would grumble about it to myself throughout the day, I would later take a page out of a former travel partner of mine, who would intentionally rent all kinds of cars just to see what they were like to drive. My experience? Nice car, well-built, but too big and too squishy a ride.

Our first stop was breakfast, at the Old Key West resort, not far from Art of Animation. We’d decided to go there because Alex had spied a review that suggested that Olivia’s Cafe provided a great (gluten-free) breakfast, and we were tired of Art of Animation’s rather repetitive fare.

Getting to Old Key West required a good study of the map — there’s no direct route from the Alamo. But since the route involved going over and near roads that we had already been on riding the Disney Transportation buses, it wasn’t entirely unfamiliar.

I felt far too young to be in Old Key West. It was the original Disney Vacation Club, and it felt like it was meant for the older crowds. But there were no raised eyebrows nor look-downs, just a big smile, a “good morning” and we were whisked to our table.

And, I have to admit, I wouldn’t disagree with the choice. The food quality was better, even the coffee was better, and the juice was fresh (and not in a bottle). It’s something I need to remember the next time we look at a Disney stay, and consider looking at a higher-level resort.

Navigating out of Walt Disney World was easy, though I admit it felt a little odd to be leaving. We almost immediately hit traffic on the I-4 as we tried to get near SeaWorld. Alex navigated me to the right point, where we bade our separate ways, and she went off in search of caches and orcas.

Returning to the freeway, we headed towards Merritt Island, some 75 km east. Though we did have to make one stop along the way: the freeway was a toll freeway, and I doubted that my credit card would do the trick. We had to find an ATM. It was the right thing to do: six stops there and back, for a total of about $12.

The radio flipped through the dozens of radio stations, trying to find something that wasn’t annoying. The girls entertained themselves as we crossed through empty land, swampland, forestland, and the like, until after a few turns, we were overtop the exceptionally wide (and honestly, poorly-named) Indian River. The girls watched for wildlife as I kept an eye on the narrow road to the other side.

The line to enter KSC’s visitor center was longer than I’d expected, but we were also an hour later arriving than I had hoped. The girls seemed excited as we walked towards the ticket booth.

There’s a few tours you can do at the KSC. The two I knew of were the regular bus tour that came with admission, and the longer “behind the scenes” tour that got you near the Vehicle Assembly Building, Launch Complex 39, and some other things. I knew, somewhere in my mind, that I wasn’t actually going to see those things up-close (security alone would dictate distance), but my geek got the better of me, and I signed us up for the two-hour tour, starting at 1pm. We had just over an hour.

The first thing I saw entering was the countdown clock. The countdown clock. If you’ve seen Armageddon, you know the one I’m talking about. It was the one NASA used for decades for the final countdown of a rocket launch; today, it welcomes visitors to the center. To the right of the path was a massive NASA Christmas ornament. And right ahead of us was the rocket garden, standing tall and proud.

In the rocket garden

Immediately, I realized something was … different. The last time I’d been at the KSC was in April of 1991, when I was in high school. Back then, it was little more than a gift shop, the garden, a bus boarding area, and a couple of other things that I barely remember. Now there’s full interpretive centres, an IMAX theatre, and of course, the Space Shuttle orbiter Atlantis.

Almost immediately, Monkey and Choo Choo were drawn to a small, conically-shaped capsule, a mockup of the Mercury capsule, meant to give patrons an idea of what it was like to be in one. The girls fit with room; it made me wonder how full-grown men managed to stay in it for a day and a half. Not far away was a similar Gemini capsule, and an Apollo capsule. The girls then found a play area (also not present in 1991), which gave me time to figure out how they would eat in less than an hour so we could make our tour bus time.

It’s worth noting that, with rare exceptions, my daughters are not known for rapid ingestion. So when I say that the best thing I could find was a bag of chips and Pepsi, it was for expediency and to avoid killer hunger pangs, at least until we could eat after the tour.

Extracting them from the play area, they took a seat next to a mockup of the next-generation Orion capsule to munch away. An “astronaut” came by on their way into the Mars exhibit (which I regret not having seen), and posed for a brief picture. I have no idea who was in it, but I’d like to think it was Chris Hadfield. Or possibly Matt Damon. I could live with either, really.

Orion mockup

The bus lineup immediately identified us as the “VIP” tour (not really “VIP”, but I’ll take it when I can get it), and we were ushered to a dedicated area, handed bottles of water, a tour book for me and colouring books for the girls, and we boarded our bus for our tour.

The first stop was past the security checkpoint to the east, where we spun past the Kennedy Space Center Headquarters, a 60s-era set of buildings that are in the process of receiving major upgrades for the 21st century. The original HQ building, in fact, is slated for demolition once the new building is complete. We drove around it, behind it, and then headed out further to the east, onto the causeway that links Merritt Island (the stretch of land between the Indian and Banana Rivers), and Cape Canaveral itself, which sits on the oceanfront.

We didn’t cross the causeway entirely — we weren’t heading onto the Air Force Base (that’s a separate tour, apparently), but stopped on the causeway to get a view of the launch facilities and their supporting infrastructures. At the time, the guide offered only a little input (and a bit of unwarranted sarcasm about SpaceX’s “anomaly” failure that laid waste to Launch Complex 40 in September), so I had to look up what we could see when I got home, cross-referencing it with online maps.

Banana River panorama

The wind was strong, and the wind considerably more chill than one would expect for Florida. The decision to bring more pants than shorts in Monkey’s clothing seemed oddly appropriate, rather than the glaring mistake that we’d thought on our Epcot day.

We then headed back west, angled through the headquarters complex again for some additional history, before heading the five kilometres up the road to pass by the monstrous Vehicle Assembly Building.

It doesn’t matter how many times I pass by the place, it’s always impressive. I have only two wishes regarding it: 1) I want to see inside it. I have no idea if that’ll ever happen, but it’s a wish. As for 2), which is considerably more challenging, I wish I’d seen a Saturn V come out of that thing back in the day. With luck, I might one day see an SLS, which might be enough.

We swung around the building, passing by one of the crawlers awaiting rebuilds for the SLS, and headed eastward, paralleling the crawlway. We passed slowly by the other crawler, undergoing its overhaul. I’d hoped we might be able to stop and look, but given the construction zone around it (and warnings about sandblasting), we continued on.

We came to the south edge of Launch Pad 39A, the site of most of the Apollo launches, including all of the lunar missions. It still stood with some of the support structure from the Shuttle era, the framework being slowly disassembled for the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket. We passed around it slowly, and then headed up a road parallel to the ocean until we got to an observation area. It was time for a look-see.

Launch Complex 39 Pad A

The wind, quite strong at this point, was enough to keep the visit short. It made me seriously regret the decision to go to the beach. The girls ran out, and up the stairs, and pointed at the roughly equidistant Pads 39A and 39B. We could easily see the VAB, which was several kilometres away.

Launch Complex 39 panorama

Back on the bus, we headed towards 39B, which was the site of many of the Shuttle launches. Today, it’s been rendered a generic pad, capable of supporting any kind of launch (provided it comes with its own mobile launch apparatus). We drove up next to it, and for a brief moment I thought we might actually get to step foot on the pad. But we passed slowly by, as the guide began to talk about a tale where an alligator that likes to hang out in a nearby pond walked into adjacent building due to the motion-sensitive doors.

Launch Complex 39 Pad B

We came back to the VAB, where we disembarked again for photos next to the building. Next to the building’s parking lot, actually. Fenced. And secured. But at least NASA had the foresight to paint stars and stripes on the sidewalk that had the same scale as the ones on the building. Also present, curiously behind the fence, was the Shuttle’s launch gangway, presumably awaiting installation somewhere else for visitors.

Somewhere south of the building, once upon a time, had been a full mockup of the Saturn V rocket, laid on its side. It had been there in 1991, and I’d had a picture of it with my friend Theresa for scale. I wanted one with my kids, now, but the rocket had found a new home. It was back on the bus to go see it.

Located north of the VAB, in a specially-built facility, is the mighty rocket. But, taking a page from Disney’s playbook, NASA doesn’t just let you see it. First, you must watch a video on the space race, and the need to put humans on the Moon. None of it was new to me, but the kids had never really seen it before. I’m the first generation who grew up in a world when men had walked on the moon; to the girls, it’s practically ancient history. I was hoping this would connect them with it more tangibly.

When the video ended, we were ushered into another room. Immediately, I recognized it as Launch Control … or rather, a mockup of it. In front of us were the control panels from Launch Control, and behind us were the iconic slanted windows of the Launch Control building, next to the VAB.

After a few moments, the narration started, telling us that the consoles were from the Apollo era (NASA doesn’t throw much away), refurbished, and synchronized to the last two minutes of the Apollo 8 launch, the first one to orbit the moon. Narration was supported by Apollo 8‘s CM pilot and Apollo 13‘s commander, Jim Lovell.

The boards lit up as various operators spoke, the clock ticked down, and as the massive F5 engines started (some three kilometres away in real life from the Launch Control building), our bench seats shook, the windows behind us rattled and lit up, and the Saturn V took to the skies. Lovell then told us how Apollo 8 had been a successful mission, something his successive mission wasn’t … though “that’s another story”.

The doors opened, and we walked to face the business end of a Saturn V.

The business end of a Saturn V

It was enough to make me giggle with geekiness.

The only complaint I had about the building was the inability to get a decent side view. It’s narrow, so you have to really work your way down. There’s no one point where you can look and see it for what it is: a massive monument to determined will, dedication, and bravery. Not to mention a whole heap of science and practical engineering.

The girls were impressed. They swooped under it, stared at the massive engines, looked at the Lunar Module (an actual one that never flew) that hung in the air, the Command and Service Module, and even the real Kitty Hawk Command Module from Apollo 14. I marvelled at the actual flight suit that Lovell wore on Apollo 13.

Jim Lovell's flight suit from Apollo 13

And we had lunch. A late (promised) meal, staring at the huge rocket. Which, really, I think it something you need to do when you see it. It’s hard to accept that it’s real. And all of it is. The first stage was a test bench, never flown; the second and third stages were meant for Apollo 19 (which was cancelled). It sits there like a conundrum for your mind to unravel, even though it’s fully explained. In our day of cost-consciousness and small ideas, it’s so difficult to comprehend something so massive as building an entire complex to support an immense machine, solely to put a person on the Moon.

The Saturn V

Realizing the time, I ushered the kids into the gift shop (our tour guide noted that NASA “got the idea from Disney”), before boarding the bus back to the Visitor’s Center.

I was starting to come to terms with the reality that we weren’t going to the beach. It was late, and it was probably a half hour minimum before we could get to one. The time at the beach would be measured in minutes. And we still hadn’t seen Atlantis. I begged the girls to see it. And they didn’t seem to mind one bit, racing off to stand next to one of the solid rocket boosters that stood as an imposing archway (with a Shuttle external tank) over the entrance to the Atlantis building.

Solid Rocket Boosters and External Tank

The lessons NASA learned with the Saturn V Center were put to work for Atlantis. You wind up a ramp, entering a theatre at the top. Three screens tell the story of the Space Shuttle program, from its early infancy in the late 1960s to the first launch in 1981. The doors open … and you’re ushered into another theatre.

The second one had several screens, carving bands above our heads running from the back of the room to the front, where there was a more traditional screen that ran from the floor to the ceiling. After a moment, a new series of videos started, each one playing on a different screen, all retelling Atlantis‘s life. It was wonderfully vignetted, complete with wonderfully dramatic music. And at the crescendo, the screen at the front changed.

It was a two-part screen. The front part, the part we could see, was translucent. The part behind it was opaque. At the crescendo, it rolled up, revealing the Space Shuttle orbiter Atlantis itself, sitting at a 43.21 degree angle, waiting for us to come out and meet it.

Space Shuttle Atlantis

I have never had so many tingles run up and down my spine before.

For more than a few minutes, I kind of forgot that I had kids … I had reverted to my own youth. I could hear my 9 year-old self gasping in awe. I walked around, gazing at the retired space plane, looking at every detail in earnest. I felt sad that the program was over. I was amazed at how successful it had been, and regretful that we all forget so quickly how brutally unforgiving space exploration is, and how boringly routine NASA made it appear.

Space Shuttle orbiter Atlantis

I found Monkey at the controls of a mockup of the cockpit. I found Choo Choo playing with a (well-crafted) computer simulation of orbital mechanics. After well over 20 minutes of gazing, I suggested we move on.


Down the ramp we went to a small, kid-friendly version of the International Space Station. It encouraged kids to kick off their shoes and climb inside. I wanted to go in with them, but I felt a bit too large for how young I was still feeling.

From the ISS, the route curved around and down, descending to a series of stands explaining something. Monkey ran into them, and the brilliance of the setup amazed me: the designers had built the ramp to emulate the shuttle’s descent from orbit, the stands were actually the S-curves the shuttles used to slow down, and then there was a final turn and a swooping slide, representing the final landing at the KSC.

Whoever designed this thing, I commend you. My kids took a moment to understand what they had done, but they understood clearly.

At the bottom were examples of compartments on the ISS, including an astronaut’s “room”. But nothing thrilled us as much as the discovery of the Shuttle Launch Experience.

This thing is straight out of Disney. And from what I’ve read, the same designers and engineers were involved. You get put into a simulator, buckled in, and you’re taken through as close to a real launch as is possible without leaving the ground. The simulator tilts realistically, there’s jolts when SRBs and tanks jettison, and in perhaps the greatest of all mind-games, you’re almost convinced to be weightless (a trick as the ride tilts slightly forward, after you’ve been lying almost on your back).

The girls loved it, even if it was a bit scary for them.

It was dark when we finally left the building. I drew them near, and offered them a heartfelt apology for not making it to the beach. Which is true — I do feel bad that they didn’t get to go. I wanted them to taste the Atlantic ocean, know the feeling I felt as a kid to go swimming in it. If I had known how engrossing the Kennedy Space Center had become, I probably would have planned things a bit better.

SRBs and Tank at night

But even then, they surprised me. “It’s okay, Daddy. This was fun!”

You couldn’t have surgically removed the smile from my face.

The moment didn’t end there, however. As we headed into the final (and largest) gift shop before leaving, I looked up, and pointed out that Venus was clearly visible next to the moon. And while they were ooh-ing at the sight, I noticed another bright object, which was moving. 

It was the International Space Station. It was passing overhead, mere moments after we’d left a building that featured the very vehicle that had helped put parts of the ISS in orbit, launched from the facility that we’d spent most of the day visiting.

I had a full-on geek-gasm.

We still had to pass through the final store. It was my last chance to find a NASA-themed Hawaiian-style shirt. (C’mon, guys, how hard can it be? Really?) Choo Choo latched onto a monkey stuffie called “Bananas”. Given that the following day was Animal Kingdom, I urged her to not hang onto it, in favour of the remaining days to come.

The drive back to Orlando was considerably less arduous than I’d feared, knowing that the freeway was devoid of street lights of any kind, until we got into the greater Orlando area. The kids, despite being denied their beach time, were easy going, and dealt with the return trip as readily as they did the outward one. That I’d also promised them pool time was probably a factor.

We got back to the resort just after 8pm. I had planned to take the car back to the Alamo and avoid the chance of having a second days’ charge, but I also knew that getting back from the Alamo would be a considerable challenge — it’s the one place in Walt Disney World that’s not covered by Disney Transportation. We would have it overnight.

Alex recounted her day at SeaWorld, informing me of her 20,000+ step day. The kids and I hadn’t even clocked 7,000. The kids went swimming, as promised, while I arranged for a pair of pizzas from the Landscape of Flavors. We discovered that gluten allergies are surprisingly well-handled, if you flag it to the chef, which includes pizza. And if they, say, happen to completely forget to make your pizza, they’ll comp you the pizza for the time you waited.

Rain drizzled in an out sporadically before we finally retreated to our room, in preparation for our next Disney day.

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