Complete Guide to Visiting Kennedy Space Center: Tips & Tricks

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The Kennedy Space Center is likely already on your list if you have an interest in all things space, especially if you’re traveling to Orlando with kids and seeking a hands-on experience. 

For Florida travelers with a more passing interest, it can still be a great visit. It can help you develop a greater appreciation for what it takes to run a successful space shuttle program and the bravery and ingenuity involved with planning for a safe, effective space launch.

Our family had an amazing time checking out the Kennedy Space Center, which was the perfect way to mix things up in between Walt Disney World and Universal Studios.

Pro tip: Get your discounted Kennedy Space Center tickets here and bundle them with your rental car for huge savings!

In this guest post, space enthusiast Brian of Travel on the Reg will share his best tips for Kennedy Space Center to make the most of your visit! He’ll share the best things to do at the Kennedy Space Center and how to plan your next trip there with this complete guide to the Florida space site. I took lots of fun photos on our family trip to Kennedy Space Center, and you’ll see those throughout this article since I haven’t gotten to use them elsewhere!

And now over to Brian…

Where is the Kennedy Space Center?

The Kennedy Space Center is on Merritt Island in central Florida. It’s not really a city but an unincorporated area. The area is most well-known for being a NASA launch site as home to the Launch and Landing Facility (LLF), previously known as the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF).

Merritt Island is also home to the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. That means you may be able to spot some bald eagles on your way to the entrance, and if you opt to stay nearby you’ll want to build in time for a visit on a different day. 

NASA actually works with the refuge to make sure any decisions they make about shuttle launches, expansions, and changes to the existing footprint keep the wildlife habitat in mind.

Why was the Kennedy Space Center built in Florida? 

The Kennedy Space Center was built in Florida for a few reasons:

  • Florida is closer to the equator than most other U.S. states, so rockets and shuttles launched from here use less energy to get out to where they’re going. In this case, where they’re likely going is outer space.
  • Florida is on the East Coast. Anything launched from here gets a boost from the Earth’s eastward spin vs. similar efforts out of the West Coast.
  • It’s close to the Atlantic Ocean. Any debris coming off the shuttles and rockets will fall into the water rather than in developed areas. Potential explosions, while rare, are also safer over the water.

One of the virtual astronauts you’ll meet while checking out the exhibits at the Kennedy Space Center will give you more details about the benefits of KSC’s location!

The complex is one of 10 NASA field centers around the United States, but it’s arguably the most well-known whether you’re a nerd for space exploration or a more casual observer. That’s what makes it such a popular stop on Florida trips or bigger road trips through the South.

How close is the Kennedy Space Center to Orlando? 

The Kennedy Space Center is 44 miles from Orlando. Drive time on that depends on where you’re coming from in Orlando, but expect it to take about an hour with light traffic. You’ll definitely want to rent a car for the trip!

Orlando is pretty notorious for heavy traffic as it’s Florida’s hub for all the fun, so it’s always best to give yourself extra time, especially if you have any timed activities while you’re here.

Is Cape Canaveral the same as the Kennedy Space Center? 

Cape Canaveral is adjacent to the Kennedy Space Center, but it’s not the same thing. Both are part of what’s known as the Space Coast. That’s not a reference to alien activity, but a nod to the spaceports located here.

The confusion may be related to the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, a facility that also serves as a missile and rocket launch site for the U.S. Space Force.

To confuse you further, the Cape Canaveral program has also been known as the Cape Kennedy Air Force Station and the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. It’s all the same.

Tips for Visiting the Kennedy Space Center

Here are a few things you need to know before visiting the Kennedy Space Center:

  • Tickets for Kennedy Space Center are available online. Buy them ahead of time to save a lot of money! 
  • If you’re only buying general admission tickets, the cheapest discount Kennedy Space Center tickets are available through aRes Travel. Alternatively, you can pay just a few dollars more per ticket but score a huge discount on your rental car through Undercover Tourist when you bundle them together – that can save you hundreds of dollars.
  • Ticket enhancements sell out. Book well ahead of time if you know when you’re visiting if you want to do any of the more immersive activities while you’re there.
  • Parking is plentiful, but expect to pay a fee of $10 upon arrival.
  • You can bring food and bottled drinks (just avoid glass) into the space center. Snacks are encouraged. The pricing inside is what you’d expect out of a theme park-style experience.
  • If you don’t bring in food, there are quite a few options once you’re inside. Just expect the upsell. We spent about $25 on lunch that included a serving of fries, a veggie burger, chicken fingers, and two drinks.

How much time do you need at the Kennedy Space Center? You need at least 5-6 hours of time at the Kennedy Space Center to see the highlights. Add more time if you’ve purchased any enhancements.

I highly recommend you get there as early as possible. The center opens at 9am but the gates open at 8:30am. We arrived around 9:30am and met a long line of cars at the entrance. We were parked, past security, and in line for the bus tour just before 10am.

What is the best way to visit the Kennedy Space Center? The best way to visit the Kennedy Space Center is to download the app before you go and plot out your day.

This is basically the Disney World of space. You don’t want to go into this blind, as that may mean you run out of time to do the things that you really wanted to do. 

The app allows you to favorite things you need to see and view highlights by location on their Kennedy Space Center map. 

There are two locations you’ll be exploring on your visit, by the way, and one is only accessible by the Kennedy Space Center bus.

Best Things to Do at the Kennedy Space Center

We spent a full day at the Kennedy Space Center and still didn’t get to every nook and cranny while we were there. I do think we explored the complex quite well, though, so I’m going to share everything with you in the order we did it.

What should you do first at Kennedy Space Center? The first thing you should do at the Kennedy Space Center is explore the Apollo/Saturn V Center. You’ll get there on a bus tour from the main visitor complex.

Kennedy Space Center Bus Tour

The Apollo/Saturn V Center isn’t accessible on foot. To get there, you’ll need to take the bus tour, which is included in your regular admission ticket. 

Access the bus tour at the main visitor complex from NASA Central. (Check out the map on your app or follow signage throughout the park.) If you hit the IMAX theater you’ve gone too far.

You don’t need to pre-book anything, but the park only got more crowded as the day went on. This is why I’m telling you to start with the bus tour.

On your bus tour, you’ll drive by the Vehicle Assembly Building, or VAB. You can’t enter the building, but it’s impressive nonetheless. It’s over 500+ feed in every dimension and looks like a massive cube of concrete!

This is where the largest components of NASA’s space program are assembled, including space shuttles and the Saturn V. You’ll learn all about it on your bus tour, so take the earbuds out and listen up.

Apollo/Saturn V Center

Upon arrival at the Apollo/Saturn V Center, you’ll be ushered into a room as a whole bus group for an informative video, then to a second room to watch the Apollo 8 launch. 

The simulation comes complete with vibrating seats, and the spectacle was one of my favorite bits from the day.

After this, you’ll be dumped out into the main room, dominated by the Saturn V. The powerful rocket was an essential piece of the success of the Apollo program. 

If you’re new to all of this, the Apollo program was the space program responsible for the first moon landing and subsequent missions to the moon. The last flight through the program was Apollo 17 on December 19, 1972.

The Treasure Gallery is on one side and where you’ll find expected treasures, in this case, artifacts of the Apollo program. You’ll also see an exhibit on the Hubble Space Telescope while you’re here. Seriously, there’s a lot to see, so take your time.

While you explore the exhibits, you’ll hear a call to head to the Lunar Theater. Follow the call. You can always return to the exhibit spaces later, as those aren’t timed. The theater is where you’ll get to see the dramatics unfold around the Apollo 11 launch. 

The last exhibit at the Apollo/Saturn V Center is Ad Astra Per Aspera, a memorial to the astronauts who lost their lives on a test rehearsal of the first expected moon launch on Apollo 1. Three crew members lost their lives that day: Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee.

We spent about two hours at the Apollo/Saturn V Center before reboarding the bus. You can check out the launching pads outside before you go. If you’re hungry, stop into Moon Rock Cafe for a snack or lunch.

To get back to the boarding station, exit through the main gift shop. Don’t miss the Moon Tree Garden on your way out. You’ll see a statue there of the Apollo 11 astronauts in a lovely green space of trees that are direct descendants of seeds that were taken to the moon.

Read that last bit again to get blown away once more.

Space Shuttle Atlantis

As you leave the bus back at the main visitor center complex, you’ll be close to the entrance of the exhibits dedicated to the Space Shuttle Atlantis. Your visit there will start with video clips about the Atlantis program. 

You’ll likely need to wait for a few minutes for the first round of visuals, but we only stood in line for about 10 minutes. 

For a more in-depth education on the space shuttle once you’ve made it past the video clips, timed tours run by a center guide are included with your ticket. 

One of the more sobering exhibits in the main exhibit space is Forever Remembered, a tribute to the crews of the Challenger and Columbia disasters. That exhibit includes personal items from the crew members and pieces from both shuttles.

The main exhibit space is where you’ll access the Shuttle Launch Experience, a simulation of the shuttle’s ascent into orbit. This is also included with your admission, but expect a wait to get inside. You can’t bring bags with you, but there are locked cubbies available for storage right next to the experience.

If you’re traveling with young children who don’t make the height requirement — you have to be 44” tall for the simulator — there are additional astronaut training simulators on the same level. It’s fun even watching kids try to achieve their mission objective on the simulators.

Journey to Mars: Explorers Wanted

Explore attractions like NASA’s plans for Mars and how to get yourself into the next round of NASA hires in this building dedicated to deep space exploration. 

Sit in on the “Explorers Wanted” talk led by a very enthusiastic staffer before checking out the different rovers in the exhibit space. High-five the spaceman walking around the building. Don’t miss the Mars Rover Vehicle Navigator outside the building. 

Astronaut of the Day

Every day, veteran NASA astronauts make themselves available for autographs and question-and-answer sessions at the Kennedy Space Center. 

We upgraded our ticket to include Chat With an Astronaut, and I highly recommend you do the same. It’s pricey at $50/person, but if you’re at all interested in a more personal experience at the Kennedy Space Center, this is a great way to do that.

Our Astronaut of the Day was Don Thomas. I got to ask him who his favorite astronaut was — it’s Neil Armstrong, by the way — over a selection of wine, cheese, and other snacks that blew the rest of the park’s food options out of the water.

Yes, you can drink at this event, but there are sodas and water available if you’re not indulging.

The Q&A is open to kids, too, and I must say that the kids at our session asked some very intelligent questions. 

Seriously, it was a great time. You also take home a NASA patch and autographed photo to remember the day, on top of any to-go snacks you want for the rest of the afternoon.

Book this ticket enhancement ahead of your visit. There are two sessions per day at 10am and 2pm, but the 10am was sold out during our visit. There is limited seating for the chats. We probably only had around 20 participants during our booked time, which made for a very intimate experience.

Note: The daily astronaut guests also make themselves available for big presentations in the larger theater space.

Gateway: Deep Space Launch Complex

One of the newest exhibits at Kennedy Space Center is the huge Gateway: Deep Space Launch Complex. This area highlights (far) future innovations in space travel and exploration and includes recent commercial ventures. There are plenty of interactive stations downstairs and four simulator “rides” upstairs offering different journeys into deep space – the lines can be long for these since they’re really popular and keep in mind the 39″ minimum height.

Space Mirror Memorial

This memorial from the Astronauts Memorial Foundation is worth a quick visit to pay your respects to NASA’s fallen heroes. It’s beautifully done on polished black granite. 

You can also see much of the park from here, including the tips of the rockets within the Rocket Garden, our next stop.

Rocket Garden

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FLORIDA, USA – APRIL 27, 2016: Several rockets are exhibited in rocket garden in the visitor complex of Kennedy Space Center near Cape Canaveral in Florida

The Rocket Garden is an outdoor exhibit of, you guessed it, giant rockets. Tours are available throughout the day as part of your general admission, but you can also just read the signage available if you haven’t timed things right. 

The Delta II is my personal favorite because of those shark teeth. 

This is likely the most photographed section of the park, so I hope you get a sunny day to capture all of the rocket magic.

Heroes & Legends

The Heroes & Legends is dedicated to big names in space travel and what it takes to make a hero. Your entrance is timed to this one, but it’s all included in your general admission.

You’ll watch two short videos once you’re inside. One was a little disorienting, as it was one of those that include lots of moving visuals happening all around you. 

You’ll then be dropped into the main exhibit space that details the heroic qualities required of astronauts and more clips from former astronauts on their personal NASA experiences. The last exhibit is the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame.

Additional Activities at the Kennedy Space Center

If you only have one day at Kennedy Space Center, the highlights above with the optional enhancement of an astronaut chat will make for an excellent day. With more time, you can add more enhancements to your ticket or explore more attractions at the Kennedy Space Center.

Families with kids can easily fill up full two days here if they truly take their time. Here are a few additional ideas for making that happen.

IMAX Building Space Movies

IMAX movies at the Kennedy Space Center are included with your regular admission. You’ll need to pay extra for the obligatory snacks and drinks before you have yourself a seat. 

Films run about 40 minutes and are typically narrated by some cool cats, like Sir Patrick Stewart’s Journey to Space.

Planet Play

Planet Play is a kiddie playground with space-themed educational opportunities for the little ones. Kids can climb a wormhole and slide through an asteroid field…under the supervision of parents, of course.

Astronaut Training Experience (ATX)

Treat the space lover in your life to this immersive experience where they’ll learn more about what it takes to live and work on Mars. The full program takes up to five hours to complete, so this is truly for someone with several days dedicated to the Kennedy Space Center.

If you just want a taste of the simulations involved, you can also book ATX Training Stages, a piecemeal approach. None of these were available during our visit, but we were eyeing the Microgravity Simulator.

Mars Base 1

Mars Base 1 is another immersive NASA experience that will set you up for success if you ever find yourself on the Red Planet. This one requires even more time. Expect to spend up to seven hours managing the Base Operations Center on Mars with other rookie astronauts.

Where to Stay Near Kennedy Space Center

There are a few area hotels in Titusville and Merritt Island, the closest towns to the Kennedy Space Center. Hotels on Cape Canaveral are another option – it’ll take you about 20 minutes to drive around the cape to the visitor’s center. Be mindful not to book a hotel too close to Port Canaveral on the day of a major cruise ship departure, as morning traffic can be intense in that area.

Cocoa Beach is about half an hour away, and driving from Orlando will take about an hour. If you’re planning to visit theme parks and spend only one day at Kennedy Space Center, you may as well just base yourself in Orlando the entire time – be sure to check out the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress review.

Need specific recommendations? Here are a few hotels with easy access to the Kennedy Space Center:

Is the Kennedy Space Center worth going to?

The Kennedy Space Center is worth going to for a primer on space exploration history and its many interactive experiences. If you time things right, you even have an opportunity to meet real astronauts. 

I was certainly impressed and wouldn’t mind a return to check out The Deep Space Launch Complex is, a new planned exhibit there. I’d even plan a visit around a space launch, especially if it was run by NASA’s Artemis program. 

This one is a must for even casual fans of all things outer space.

Check these reputable sources for discounted tickets:

Planning your trip to Florida

Check out more awesome places to explore on your trip to Florida:

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