Move over, Mickey. There’s a new star in central Florida: her name is Atlantis, and she’s been to outer space an impressive 33 times, capping off the final chapter of the United States’ storied space shuttle program.
As of about a month ago, the awe-inspiring orbiter has found a new home within the $100 million Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, FL, sparking a new wave of tourism to the Space Coast, Florida's central-eastern stretch where cheering crowds once flocked to see live shuttle launches. Atlantis made its final mission in July 2011, and the sophisticated exhibit recreates for guests the excitement of her inter-stellar voyages.
Here, some insider tips on navigating the new exhibit, as well as the rest of the sprawling, 1,400-acre center, plus where to eat and what else not to miss.
You'll need to do a little strategizing to maximize your time at the KSC, which is so spread out that visitors need to be bused between its various sites. Be sure to take the approximately 15-minute ride to see the leviathan Saturn V rocket, as well as the Apollo 14 capsule, which are housed in the same facility. On the way back to the main campus, see the aging press centers where reporters from Reuters and USA Today began the media frenzy over the Space Race. (On the first leg of the bus trip, don't bother getting off at the observation gantry to see Launch Pad 39A, the lift-off spot for most launches – the other sites are more worthy of your time.)
Make sure to allow at least an hour to explore the Atlantis exhibit, which has multiple interactive components. In addition to the 21 flight simulators (including those where you can try your hand at landing the shuttle), the Shuttle Launch Experience mimics an actual shuttle launch, complete with jaw-rattling vibrations while your seat is at a 90-degree vertical angle. (You can’t bring purses or backpacks into the ride, and the locker system isn’t very user-friendly, so you may want to trade off holding bags with your travel companions to avoid the hassle.)
Admission fees to the KSC are $50 for adults and $26 for children. And that’s a lot cheaper – and far more interesting for parents – than anything you'll find at Disney World. (One heads-up to get there: Use the driving directions on the website instead of Google maps, which would have taken us miles out of the way.)
What (Else) to Do: The beaches on this stretch of Florida are wide open, fairly uncrowded, and popular with surfers, body boarders, and skim boarders. For visitors craving a more relaxed experience, they're also flat and ideal for long walks, plus chock full of shells.
Despite its blinding Technicolor exterior, the sprawling Ron John Surf Shop is an institution for beach bums the world over – and a must-stop for visitors to Cocoa Beach. Its original outpost here was a tiny shack, but the expanded store claims to be the world's largest surf shop: a whopping 52,000 square feet bursting with eponymous T-shirts, surfboards, flip flops, and just about any other sand-and-surf staple you can think of.
The sale racks are upstairs, with some decent deals to be found after a little digging. Plus, some hotels, including the nearby Hampton Inn, offer a 15 percent discount at the store – just present your keycard at the time of purchase.
Where to Eat: For some of the best seafood in this neck of the woods, served up with plenty of down-home Southern hospitality, Dixie Crossroads in Titusville hits the spot. Owned by one of the last shrimping families in the region, the homey restaurant specializes in tasty, local seafood – don’t miss the rock shrimp and corn fritters ($11.99) – served up with a smile.
For a seriously swanky yet non-pretentious meal in Cocoa Beach, The Fat Snook, while on the pricey side, delivers a dining experience that would hold its own even in the most esteemed foodie cities. Its creative yet unfussy menu features a variety of influences, from Cuban to Italian to Greek, with huge portion sizes (a welcome yet uncommon offering in such upscale restaurants). The roast chicken with black beans and rice; crème fraîche, free-form lasagna; and a grouper special with kalamata olives, fresh tomatoes, and falafel patty were all mouthwatering winners. And the wine selection? Well, it’s a book, with impressive variety and quality, especially if you’re willing to drop a few bucks.