Just before 2 am, a few dozen people gather at the edge of Space View Park in Titusville, Florida, staring across the ocean into a black horizon. In an instant, the night sky fully illuminates. A brilliant white speck rises higher and higher for the next four and a half minutes before it disappears into space. The crowd erupts in cheers and applause for SpaceX’s rocket launch.
This is the kind of magic that’s happening 45 minutes east of Orlando, a short drive from Disney’s Magic Kingdom. Cape Canaveral is home to NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center, where rockets blast off on the regular and human space travel is being developed not only for astronauts, but also ordinary civilians. To promote space exploration, Kennedy Space Center leases property to companies such as Boeing and SpaceX. Blue Origin, backed by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, manufactures rockets on NASA property, too, and says it will sell tickets to space starting next year. Considering that Virgin Galactic says it has already sold several hundred seats at $250,000 per ticket, here’s hoping Bezos will have a discount for Amazon Prime members.
But even if you can’t schedule an excursion to the final frontier, Cape Canaveral ignites fantasies of exploration and adventure. Start your expedition at Cocoa Beach, the kind of destination that most vacationers in Florida would envision. The Hilton Cocoa Beach Oceanfront offers easy beach access and an appealing Tiki bar just off the state highway. You won’t have to travel far to find healthy breakfast or lunch options as the nearby Green Room Cafe offers 15 varieties of smoothies, including its Malibu blend of mango, papaya, banana, coconut and apple juice, and plenty of wraps like the vegan Golden Fold made with grilled tofu. If nutrition’s not your thing, drive 10 minutes north to Twistee Treat, where you can’t miss the 25-foot-tall fiberglass building shaped like an ice cream cone that calls to you from the road. Indulge in a large order of a chocolate-vanilla twist with rainbow sprinkles before finding a place to work off the calories.
LAUNCH PARTY: Space out at NASA’s Cape Canaveral base.
Take a sunshine-filled stroll at Manatee Sanctuary Park and perhaps you’ll spot a formerly endangered sea cow. If the heat gets unbearable, pass some time perusing the air-conditioned aisles lined with Hawaiian shirts and surfboard keychains at Ron Jon Surf Shop. The 52,000-square-foot location is the self-declared largest surf shop in the world. But don’t go overboard on your purchases and save some extra room in your budget for dinner. Head to Florida’s Fresh Grill for items like a pecan-crusted rainbow trout alongside drinks like a fresh cucumber Collins. For more of a casual seafood vibe, cross the bridge to Merritt Island, where the neon sign for Molly’s Seafood Shack glows from the highway and the menu is so abundant with enticing options you might need to order the sampler featuring scallops, mahi, snow crab and more.
But the real exploration starts at Kennedy Space Center, where visitors can take a full day or two to soak in artifacts and exhibits from human space exploration. Admission includes a bus tour that takes you to historic launch sites and spaceflight facilities, including the Vehicle Assembly Building, which is the largest single-story structure in the world and is also where rockets and other space vehicles are constructed. Be sure to check out launchpad 39B, the site where commercial flights—and the first journey to Mars—are intended to depart. Take in the vastness of the Atlantis, currently the second-to-last space shuttle built, or get a sense of launching into orbit by riding the virtual space shuttle. Your mind might know it’s a simulation, but it won’t ease your heart palpitations and sweaty palms leading to takeoff.
On the main exhibit floor, there’s a van that seems a bit inconspicuous, but it’s actually the last vehicle that astronauts ride in before boarding a space shuttle. It comes after they say their goodbyes to loved ones and before they embark on a journey that so few humans have taken. It’s hard not to envision the gravity of leaving earth as a vast, flat landscape surrounds you and a wide-open sky awaits. But for now, Cape Canaveral is where your feet are firmly planted on this planet, and there’s plenty to traverse there. ◆
— Grab a ticket to a Victory Casino Cruise, departing twice daily from the sprawling Port Canaveral.
— Stop at Space Shirts outside of Kennedy Space Center for an “otter space” T-shirt and other fun tchotchkes.
Florida’s Fresh Grill, floridasfreshgrill.com; The Green Room Cafe, thegreenroomcafe.com; Hilton Cocoa Beach Oceanfront, hilton.com; John F. Kennedy Space Center, kennedyspacecenter.com; Manatee Sanctuary Park, cityofcapecanaveral.org/manateesanctuarypark; Molly’s Seafood Shack, mollysseafoodshack.com; Ron Jon Surf Shop, ronjonsurfshop.com; Twistee Treat, twisteetreat.com