Spaceflight has lost so much of its glamour that it can be hard for kids to comprehend how exciting it once was to watch a mighty booster rocket blast off from the launch pad at Cape Canaveral. So pop in a DVD of The Right Stuff or Apollo 13 before your trip to the Space Coast. Make them see how being an astronaut was once the coolest job a kid could aspire to.
You don't have to be a space buff to be awed by the sheer grandeur of the facilities at NASA's primary space-launch facility. Begin your visit at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex -- though it's a bit theme-park-slick, it does outline the history of space exploration well, and there are real NASA rockets on display, as well as (the coolest thing to me) the actual Mercury Mission Control Room from the 1960s. Hands-on activities, a daily "encounter" with an astronaut, and an IMAX theater make this a place where kids will want to hang out. The Astronaut Hall of Fame, a separate attraction at the center, pays tribute to the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space jockeys, along with even more vintage spacecraft -- a Mercury 7 capsule, a Gemini training capsule, and an Apollo 14 command module -- and several space-y simulator rides. Plan ahead (call tel. 866/737-5235 for a reservation) to snag a lunch with an astronaut -- even such greats as John Glenn, Jim Lovell, Walt Cunningham, and Jon McBride have taken their turns in this daily event.
Narrated bus tours depart every 15 minutes to explore the sprawling space-center grounds. Stops include the LC-39 Observation Gantry, with a dramatic 360-degree view over launch pads; the International Space Station Center, where scientists and engineers prepare additions to the space station now in orbit; and the Apollo/Saturn V Center, which includes artifacts (a moon rock to touch!), films, interactive exhibits, and the 363-foot-tall Saturn V, the most powerful U.S. rocket ever launched. It's not all Disney-fied, which in my opinion is a plus, but if the kids get restless (especially given the typical Florida heat), you can hop on the next bus and move on.
The real thrill, of course, is to see a rocket launch. Although the final space shuttle launch took place in July 2011 and the shuttle program is now retired, you can still see a rocket launch if you're lucky; check www.kennedyspacecenter.com/events-launches.aspx for a schedule of upcoming takeoffs (always an iffy thing, depending on weather or equipment problems). Or view rocket launches the way the locals do: from the causeways leading to the islands and on U.S. 1 as it skirts the waterfront in Titusville.
Nearest Airport: Melbourne International, 22 miles. Orlando International, 35 miles.
Where to Stay: $$$ DoubleTree by Hilton Cocoa Beach Oceanfront, 2080 N. Atlantic Ave., Cocoa Beach (tel. 800/222-TREE  or 321/783-9222; www.cocoabeachdoubletree.com). $$ Riverview Hotel, 103 Flagler Ave., New Smyrna Beach (tel. 800/945-7416 or 386/428-5858; www.riverviewhotel.com).