Monday, January 6, 2020

How to Visit the Kennedy Space Center with Kids: Tips and Tricks

We've taken our kids to our fair share of science museums around the country, so we thought we knew what to expect on our trip to the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Little did we know that it would completely blow our minds and be the best science museum we've ever visited, hands down. The Kennedy Space Center truly goes above and beyond to make the learning experience interesting and fun, and our two kids, ages 10 and 8, both had a blast.

The Kennedy Space Center is about an hour out from the Disney/Universal area of Orlando, so it's a great day trip for when you're tired of theme parks and the hotel pool. Plan to spend six to eight hours there (the time flies!) and to get there as soon as it opens (9 a.m.) because the parking lot fills up quickly. Once you're through the gate, here are some of the kid-friendly highlights...

Visit the Space Shuttle Atlantis mission zone 

The Kennedy Space Center is separated into several "mission zones," or buildings dedicated to different periods of space travel. One mission zone is all about Atlantis, the fourth U.S. shuttle to journey into space, and there's so much fun stuff for the kids here that you could easily spend two hours in this building.

You'll begin with a couple of short and entertaining videos on the story of Atlantis. The way the second video ends is beyond amazing, but I won't ruin the surprise for you. Just know that I gasped out loud! After you watch the movies, you get to see the real deal. Atlantis is a truly impressive sight, and you can view all sorts of neat details up close, including its scuffs and scrapes from space travel.

Also in the great hall of this building are more than 60 interactive exhibits, including astronaut training simulators. My kids particularly liked the one where you practice landing a space shuttle back on Earth.

It's not just computer screens here, though. We also each took a turn hurtling down the giant, 22-degree slide that represents re-entry to Earth.

Then we crawled through a replica of a portion of the International Space Station. One tube is completely transparent, giving you a bird's-eye view of the first floor below!

Check out the Shuttle Launch Experience

Housed in the Space Shuttle Atlantis building is the Shuttle Launch Experience, a ride that simulates what it's like to be aboard a shuttle that lifts off. The ride is truly awesome — educational, realistic, and really fun. The entire experience lasts about half an hour and includes a pre-launch video briefing by a veteran space shuttle commander.

Once you're strapped into the simulation chamber, the commander talks you through the launch sequence and ascent into orbit, all of which takes about eight minutes. We weren't allowed to take photos here, as our phone were considered FODs, or foreign objects that could potentially fly out of our hands and cause damage to the aircraft.

This experience is top-notch, and I say this after having enjoyed the best that Disney and Universal Studios have to offer. The ride might be a little too realistic for small children, but you do have to be 44 inches to ride it in the first place.

Take the bus tour to Apollo/Saturn V Center

Included with admission is a 45-minute bus tour of NASA's massive working facility. The bus driver and an on-board video narrate what you're seeing out the window, including the actual buildings and launchpads used by NASA. It's amazing to see how vast the grounds are. (It's also amazing to be seated in a comfortable bus for 45 minutes, after you've spent the week pounding the pavement at theme parks and standing on lines.)

The tour ends at the Apollo/Saturn V Center, where you get dropped off to spend some time (more on this below). Whenever you're ready, you can hop on the return bus, which takes only 15 minutes to get back to the main area. Check the bus schedule to make sure you get on the tour before it stops running; it can be anytime between 2:30 and 5:30, depending on when the Kennedy Space Center is closing that day.

Visit the Apollo/Saturn V Center

The only way to reach the Apollo/Saturn V Center is to take the Kennedy Space Center bus tour over. It's worth the 45-minute ride. We particularly enjoyed watching a reenactment of the Apollo 8 launch from the actual firing room, checking out the enormous Saturn V rocket, touching a real moon rock (it's now been rubbed down to a smooth, flat disk), and checking out the gallery of space suits. Our whole visit (not including the bus ride) took about an hour.

Watch an IMAX movie 

There are very few science museums where the IMAX movie is included, but at the Kennedy Space Center, not one but two IMAX movies come with admission. Each movie is about 45 minutes long, so we were only able to fit in one. We chose to watch Journey to Space 3D, and it was a great overview of the history and future of space travel. It's probably most interesting for kids ages 8 and up.

Interact with an astronaut

We unfortunately didn't have the time to do this, but there are all sorts of ways to interact with real, live astronauts at the Kennedy Space Center. You could dine with them or go on a special tour for an extra cost, or you could meet them during a live presentation at the Universe Theater, which is included with admission. They're supposedly happy to answer all your questions and pose for photos!

Watch a live rocket launch

It's not every day that you get to watch a live rocket launch ... and sadly, we visited on a day when there wasn't one happening. As much as we'd have loved the chance to see a rocket blasting into space with our own eyes, public viewings are only offered on certain days of the year; check the Kennedy Space Center launch page to view the schedule. If you're lucky enough to be in town on a launch day, book your seat in advance, as they typically sell out.

Have some space food

No trip to a museum about NASA is complete without the consumption of a freeze-dried neapolitan ice cream sandwich. You've probably encountered "astronaut food" in other science museums, but there's nothing like polishing off one of these treats in a place dedicated to space travel. They're sold at all the gift shops.

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