Philip’s new favorite word after our trip to Kennedy Space Center this year is rocket. But, not just rocket; you must say “rrrrrrocket!” Every airplane he spots in the sky is suddenly a rocket! His fork is a rocket! The shampoo bottle is a rocket! Dad’s beer bottle is definitely a rocket! It’s been so fun to watch him develop a love for something that I find equally exciting – space travel!
My love for science began at an early age, and it was only fostered by parents who brought us to visit Kennedy Space Center for the first time in the 90s. We came back many times for shuttle launches and visits to see new exhibits.
If we visited Disney or Universal, we usually tacked on a trip to the space center also. I will never forget watching a shuttle launch in the middle of the night that lit the sky up like it was high noon. It was an incredible experience, and led to visits at least every couple of years into adulthood.
But, this year was our first visit where we got to bring along our own kids! Seeing them develop a love for all things space makes this science-loving momma very happy! So, while you could easily spend days and days exploring all that Kennedy Space Center has to offer, today I’m outlining what I consider to be the best experiences for families with young kids.
- Utilize the Kennedy Space Center website. While planning your trip, you can view what exhibits are currently on display and even plan a sample itinerary based on your interests.
- Purchase your tickets in advance. Save yourself some time in line to start the day!
- Arrive early! I know this can be difficult since i
t’s likely you’re driving from somewhere a good distance away, but beat the crowds and see more if you arrive before opening. It’s also Florida – the heat just gets worse as the day goes on. The grounds open at 9am, so we arrived at 8:30 which gave us enough time to park, get organized, and take a few pictures before entering the gates.
- Bring some snacks. There are tons of great food options in the park, but I always pack snacks for our kids so that we can keep going even if they need a little boost.
- Make friends with the staff! From the bus drivers to the concession employees, everyone at Kennedy Space Center has a story. They’re all very friendly, helpful, and many of them have been a part of the space program for a long time so they have some incredible insights to the history of the area.
Start at Atlantis
Kennedy Space Center’s pride and joy is the Space Shuttle Atlantis display. This is where I recommend you start your day. The giant to-scale size rocket boosters and fuel tank greet you as you begin your way up the ramp to watch the introductory video about the history of the space shuttle program. Don’t miss this tear-worthy introduction to the final resting place for Shuttle Atlantis!
Once you enter into the building where Atlantis is displayed, you’ll have a fantastic eye-level view of the shuttle with the bay doors open (appearing to be floating in space). You can circle the shuttle as you view each of the tiles, the engines, and the robotic arm all up close. Once you’ve picked your jaw up from the ground, you can begin to explore all there is to see in this fantastic building, which has enough to fill an entire day of exploring! Because we wanted to see other things too, we spent just an hour here and decided to come back later in the day.
In the morning, we enjoyed the Hubble Space Telescope and the shuttle simulator areas located just one level up from the Atlantis viewing deck. The kids also loved climbing through the ISS mock-up tunnels located on the backside of the viewing area. Down one level was Emelia’s favorite part of the day – the slide. This slide is built at the same angle of the shuttle’s descent to earth! It’s steep and fast and was even fun for all the adults too! Philip is hoping he’s tall enough next trip!
We saved the ground level exploration for later in the day, but make sure you come back! The Shuttle Launch Experience is the only ride at Kennedy Space Center. Neither of our kids met the 44-inch height requirement this trip, so they hung out with the aunts on the viewing deck just beyond the simulator. They’re looking forward to this awesome simulation of the trip into orbit on the space shuttle during our next visit to Kennedy Space Center!
There are lots of other great exhibits on the ground level including shuttle tires that the kids can spin, the actual first shuttle model featured in the introduction video, and a particularly moving memorial hall to the lost crews of both the Shuttle Columbia and Shuttle Challenger tragedies.
Take a Bus Tour Early
Bus tours at Kennedy Space Center start at 10am. We only spent the first hour of our day at Atlantis because we wanted to catch a bus tour as soon as they opened the gates! Keep in mind that the lines for bus tours can get pretty long later in the day. Our kids were thrilled to explore some of the grounds that aren’t open to the public via a bus ride! Try to sit up front if you can, and get to know the bus driver. They’re all so friendly and often have incredible stories about their time on the Space Coast.
The bus ride is an approximately 45-minute narrated ride past some of the most iconic spots at Kennedy Space Center. You drive right past the gigantic Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) where the shuttles were housed and then rolled out to the launch pads. You can also view the launch pads and the crawlers that were used during the shuttle program. Today, the bus tour can give you an interesting look at the exciting future of space travel via the SpaceX, Boeing, and United Launch Alliance (ULA) shared spaces. Make sure you keep an eye out for wildlife on the bus tour! Alligators, armadillos and bald eagles are just a few of the ones you might spot as you tour this huge nature preserve.
Your bus tour will end at one of my favorite areas to explore, the Saturn V Center.
Explore Saturn V Center
The visit to the Saturn V Center starts with a video and then final countdown reliving the launch of Apollo 8. Apollo 8 was the first manned NASA mission to orbit the moon in 1968. You will view the final countdown in a theater with actual consoles used during the Apollo missions. You will even feel the vibrations felt during the launch of that Saturn V rocket by the controllers. Then, the doors will open to the massive Saturn V rocket on display. The rocket is displayed horizontally in stages stretching the entire width of this massive building. Philip was in his element, yelling “rrrrrrrocket” every time we moved! It’s quite an impressive site.
Within the Saturn V Center, you’ll also find the original Apollo era Astrovan, a moon rover, several Apollo era space capsules, an entire Apollo treasures gallery and you can even touch a moon rock! And don’t miss the Lunar Theater where you can relive the final countdown of the first mission to the moon!
The Saturn V Center also makes a great stop for lunch – the moon rock café has delicious options. If it’s not too hot you can sit outside on the patio where families and VIPs watched the Space Shuttle liftoff from the launch pads visible in the distance.
Have Lunch with an Astronaut
Lunch with an astronaut is a great chance for you to sit an enjoy a delicious lunch buffet while hearing from one of NASA’s finest! While this experience is not included in your entrance ticket price, I definitely recommend this activity for school age children. The talk will vary based on the astronaut you meet. We met Fred Gregory, who flew on several Shuttle missions, and his talk was very engaging for the school children in the room. He also allowed them to ask many questions at the end! The lunch was delicious and make sure you don’t miss the photo opportunity at the end!
If you aren’t able to enjoy lunch with the astronaut, you can also meet an astronaut at the astronaut encounter located near Heroes and Legends.
The rocket garden immediately caught our children’s attention! Spacecraft from the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo NASA programs are all on display. Rockets, capsules and other spacecraft are also on display, and some are open to allow kids to climb inside. Take a daily guided tour of the rocket garden, where you can learn more about each display!
Children’s Play Dome
Right next to the rocket garden is a huge space themed playground that was perfect for our children. We spent about 45 minutes here while the rest of the adults enjoyed an IMAX experience. Our kids could have gladly spent hours exploring the huge play place. Where else can you enjoy a playground with a rocket garden in the background?
A great place to escape the heat and enjoy the rotating films showing at the IMAX theater. The theaters are large and comfortable, so check the schedule when you arrive in the morning for the movie showings. Each film will transport you into space and can entertain most young children.
Heroes and Legends
One of the newest experiences at Kennedy Space Center is the Heroes and Legends building. After ascending the ramp near the rocket garden, you enter a theater with a 4D “heroes” themed show. Our kids were a little young for this experience as they were scared during a few parts, and my daughter refused to keep the 4D glasses on. Once the video experience is complete, there is a large area of artifacts from early space exploration. These include a Gemini 9 capsule and an actual firing room from early launch days. The experience ends with a look at the Astronaut Hall of Fame. Don’t forget to take a selfie with an astronaut before you leave!
Check out the Space Shop
We ended a fantastic day with a visit to the giant space shop in the center of the complex. We had to make sure to commemorate the trip with NASA gear, ornaments, magnets, and squished pennies!
Space Dots or “Astronaut Ice Cream”
Take a Picture in Space
Other Experiences to Consider:
Journey to Mars: Explorers Wanted
Science on a Sphere
Bucket List: Watch a Launch
Finally, if your timing permits, make an effort to see a launch! You can view rocket launches from Kennedy Space Center grounds or you can purchase a special launch ticket to view from the Saturn V Center or other locations. It depends on what is available for that specific launch. We have been lucky enough to see several Space Shuttle launches over the years. During our visit last fall we were able to see an Atlas V rocket launch carrying the GOES-R satellite to orbit! There is nothing like seeing a rocket launch in person. I will post in detail about our experience seeing launches in the future.