Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex
Rockets, astronauts, outer space! It's easy to understand why 1.5 million people visit the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex each year, a number beyond imagining for some Roadside attractions. And it may seem like all of those people are here on the same day that you are, which can make for a long, long walk from your parking space to the ticket booths. Then there's the post-9/11 security gauntlet that you have to run -- where you have to pass through metal detectors, take off your shoes, turn on all of your cell phones and cameras, and throw away your nail clippers.
Admission is pricey -- although only about half of what it costs to visit Sea World -- to look at rockets that your tax dollars paid for (in contrast, the U.S. Air Force Museum is free). This is because NASA no longer runs the Complex. It was sold to a food service company a few years back, and the grittier aspects of a visit here have vanished. Maybe we never actually were allowed to run around on the launch pads when we were kids, but we like to imagine that we were....
There's still plenty here to keep you busy for a whole day. The Complex itself sprawls across 70 acres, and several lengthy bus tours will haul your awestruck earth-bound butt to different parts of the Space Center -- including the Moon Rock Cafe, "the only place in the world where you can eat next to a moon rock."
When you walk out of the entrance building, look for the "space person" in a space suit -- a nasty job in the Florida heat. Pose for a souvenir snapshot before walking to the Rocket Garden, where an Atlas, Jupiter, and Titan II cast cooling shadows, and replica capsules invite you to climb inside and experience claustrophobia. The Early Space Exploration building has the actual Mission Control Room used during the Mercury flights, and a Soviet Soyuz capsule hanging from the ceiling.
The Exploration in the New Millennium exhibit has a replica Viking Mars lander and a please-touch-me "Martian rock fragment" (It's a tiny meteorite that scientists think came from Mars). A sculpture of a happy future space family stands near the exit, providing hopeful vibes as you head back out into the present-day heat.
If you've worked up an appetite, you can pay $30 and have "Lunch with an Astronaut." This is a gang smorgasbord, not an intimate meal. The Visitor Center claims that the guest of honor will be a "space hero," but this event happens every single day, so the astronaut will more likely be an anonymous Space Shuttle payload specialist who may never have actually flown, and who probably appreciates the free meal. Still, he or she will be more heroic (and interesting) than your usual lunch companions.
Back on your feet, the "Robot Scouts" and "Mad Mission to Mars: 2025" exhibits turn space science into infotainment for Disney-addled audiences. Two IMAX theaters show you-are-there space movies for those of us who will always be here.
We preferred the big outdoor displays: the nine-ton "Constellation Sphere" that can be spun with one hand, and the ominous "Space Mirror," a 50-square-foot vertical black slab through which have been cut the names of every American astronaut casualty. Bronze plaques depicting the departed have been added since the last time that we visited, along with a weird mandala-like symbol that looks like a radioactive eye rising over a head of cabbage in orbit over a dead planet.
At the back of the Complex is the $60 million Shuttle Launch Experience, which is essentially a motion-master ride with bigger and louder effects (and a trip back in time with the demise of the Shuttle program). Here, too, is a real Shuttle, Atlantis, housed in a separate building. Visitors can look but can't climb aboard -- or even touch -- the Shuttle, which is exhibited with mood lighting like a priceless work of art.
The gift shop at the Space Center claims to be the largest of its kind in the world. We were impressed by the 80-pound meteorite priced at $10,000 (It has since been sold, and replaced by one going for $12,000). A wall of "Failure Is Not An Option" Apollo 13 merchandise is only a little less disturbing because that mission had a happy ending.
You can also find crystal Space Shuttles for $150, and oven mitts that look like moon gloves.
The manager told us that the best-selling item in the entire store -- which stocks over 4,000 items -- is the freeze-dried "astronaut ice cream." Buy some, and on the way out to the parking lot give it to the hard-working person in the space suit.