Calling all astronauts-to-be. Take-off for a visit to Florida's Space Coast and see the Kennedy Space Center and much more.
If your child prefers Discovery Kids to the Disney Channel and/or dreams of being "The Crocodile Hunter," this may be the place. If when you mention 'rocket,' your child thinks Roger Chaffee instead of Roger Clemens, then you need to stop reading this and book your vacation to the Florida Space Coast now. If you have a child who does not fit the above description, have no fear, a world of adventure and excitement may just surprise you.
The Space Coast (Visitor's Center, 877/572-3224) — consisting of area cities Titusville, Cocoa Beach, Melbourne and Palm Bay — has much to offer as a destination, but it is its proximity to Orlando that makes it an excellent two-day addition to any area vacation.
Teaching Tiny Ones about Outer Space
There's plenty for your Tiny Traveler to experience at The Kennedy Space Center (866/737-5235). Although most under-5s will not hit the height requirement for the Shuttle Launch Experience, a simulator developed by shuttle astronauts, my daughter, Daelyn, thoroughly enjoyed slipping on her V.I.P. pass and entering a special viewing room – your own mission control. Once in there, she got to watch her older brother on one screen experiencing the ride while simultaneously seeing what he was seeing on another screen (including some alarming master alarms that made both Daelyn and her brother jump).
Guided Tours will be very fun and exciting for the pre-school and Kindergarten set. Even the youngest will enjoy the sheer size and visual stimulation of the rocket garden. The guided bus tour is exciting for nature enthusiasts, as we saw a manatee, two alligators and a mattress-sized eagles' nest.
A stop at the Apollo/Saturn V Center is definitely worthwhile to relive the Apollo 8 launch from a mock control room. Although many people want to have "Lunch with an Astronaut," in my opinion this is an experience totally lost on the Tiny Traveler (save the money for the gift shop). Dine right at the café in the Apollo/Saturn V center on pizzas, wraps, and hot dogs under the massive Saturn V, the Lunar Module and the huge reproduction of the patches from the Apollo missions. After lunch, be sure to take a green screen picture of yourself "weightless" in a rocket ship at the Kodak Shooting Stars booth.
Be sure to check out the new Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit launching June 29, 2013, which gives visitors a chance to get nose-to-nose with the final shuttle orbiter to fly a NASA mission, Atlantis. The six-story, $100 million exhibit features state-of-the-art multimedia presentations and more than 60 interactive exhibits and simulators, along with an awe-inspiring, 360-degree view of Atlantis, elevated 30 feet off the ground.
There's even more to explore, but definitely plan for many drink breaks and to leave time at the end for the gift shop. Space ice cream, Apollo patches, and 'I need my space' bumper stickers: there's a souvenir for everyone on your list. The biggest hit of all is the orange Shuttle Launch Experience Flight Suit. No amount of heat could keep the under-5 crowd out of these jumpsuits, and even though they run $50, one mom said it was like an outfit, pajamas, and Halloween costume all in one.
Nearby Central Florida Pleasures
Another local attraction is the Brevard Zoo (321/254-9453). With the intimate feel of a game farm or a petting zoo, it is actually perfect for younger family members. My daughter was so enthralled by the 3-inch lizard on one branch, she didn't even notice the 6-foot alligator under it.
As you enter the Zoo you might notice a beautiful sculpture in front of you, but if you're like me you might not immediately realize it's a beautiful and frequently changing sand sculpture.
No matter which route you take around the Zoo (definitely doable in one day or less) leave time to feed the giraffe, whose seemingly endless appetite is only matched by the children's desire to feed him. Sign up early to kayak the Niami River, because I guarantee you'll want to do it twice. There is also a wetlands kayaking experience that older children would enjoy, but younger children would burn out quickly.
The city of Melbourne offers Friday Night Fest on the second Friday of each month; a kind of street fair/block party, that is definitely worth planning around.
Another local highlight for me and the kids was the Dixie Crossroads (321/268-5000) restaurant located at 1475 Garden Street, Titusville FL 32796. To get there, just take exit 220 off I-95, and continue for a few miles till you see the Rock Shrimp statues! Come early so you can feed the fish in the fishpond and enjoy the sounds of waterfalls mixed with music from the open air bar. Then go inside and enjoy a delicious selection of foods. A fun kids menu has child tempting seafood — my daughter couldn't get enough of the rock shrimp and ordered a second kids meal and started on the shrimp again after her pudding. I absolutely adored the rock shrimp, which really tasted like little lobster tails. The mascot, Mr. Rock, is himself a rock shrimp that tells people to eat rock shrimp; my son found it a little disturbing, so he ate him. The restaurant has a simple decor, except the bathroom which was gorgeous and elegant, and the servers are charming and patient. Even if you are vacationing in Orlando, it's worth the drive.
Overnight in Space
If you decide to stay on the Space Coast with your tiny travelers, you'll want to check into the Crowne Plaza Melbourne Oceanfront (321/777-4100). Of all the many oceanfront beach hotels, this is by far the most child-welcoming and kid-friendly. They have a kids activity center with arts and crafts, board games, and movies, as well as sports equipment to check out (free to guests). The staff is happy, friendly and kidcentric.
The cost varies depending on time spent or activities like arts and crafts, or the especially popular Saturday afternoon build-a-bear activities (when we were there $25 included building one of the animals with the pirate clothes). Knowing your kids are in good hands, walk right next door to the Ocean Reef Spa for a stone massage or an aroma therapy pedicure. If you want to go out for the evening or hit some of the hot spots in the historic city of Melbourne, the Crowne Plaza can arrange for a bonded baby sitter.
All and all this was a frolicking vacation, which made for a nice long weekend. Is it better as an add-on to an Orlando vacation, than a destination, for the younglings? Who knows. This vacation may leave a deep impression on children and, one day, because of their footprints in the beaches of the Space Coast, they may be inspired to leave their footprints on the surface of Mars.
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