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In the late 1960s, Central Florida was the most exciting place on Earth, thanks to the moon. Kennedy Space Center, which was established in 1958 and ruled the tourist circuit with Disney in the 1970s, was eventually eclipsed by attractions based on fantasy. These days, it’s out of this world again.

It’s on the Space Coast about an hour east of Orlando, and it’s worth the trip. Start a full day near opening time. At the main Visitor Complex, many are waylaid by the retired rockets, IMAX films, and simulators, but that’s not the best stuff—do them at the end of the day if you have time. Unless there’s an Astronaut Encounter going on—that’s an hour-long presentation in which an actual astronaut talks about their experience and answers questions—proceed instantly to the can’t-miss Bus Tour, which leaves every 15 minutes until about 2:15pm, and takes most people around 3 hours. Be warned that the last buses don’t leave you enough time to browse. Coaches, which are narrated by a live person, zip you around NASA’s tightly secured compound. Combined with the nature reserve around it, the area (which guides tell visitors is one-fifth the size of Rhode Island and is home to 16 bald eagle nests) is huge but you’ll be making one stop not too far away. You’ll see the launch sites used by the shuttle and by the Apollo moon shots, and you’ll receive an intelligent explanation of the preparation that went into each shuttle launch. You’ll buzz by eagles’ nests, alligator-rich canals, pads now leased by private space-mission contractors SpaceX and Boeing, and the confoundingly titanic Vehicle Assembly Building, or VAB, where the shuttle—which NASA folk call “the orbiter”—was readied. It’s just one story tall, but it’s a doozy: The Statue of Liberty could fit through those doors with 200 feet left over. The main bus stop, the Apollo/Saturn V Center, begins with a mandatory five-minute film and then a full-scale mock-up of the “firing room” in the throes of commanding Apollo 8’s launch, in all its window-rattling, fire-lit drama—to skip that 30-minute show and get to the good stuff, pass through. The adjoining hangar contains a Saturn V rocket, which is larger than you can imagine (363 ft. long, or the equivalent of 30 stories)—but the new SLS rockets are even bigger. Don’t overlook the chance to reach into a case to touch a small moon rock, which looks like polished metal. The presentation in the Lunar Theatre, which recounts the big touchdown, is well produced and even includes a video appearance by the late, reclusive Neil Armstrong. There’s a cafeteria here, and look around for retired engineers and astronauts who are often hand to answer questions.

After that, hasten back via the bus to the Visitor Complex for grand finale: The $100 million home of the space shuttle Atlantis. Without giving too much away, the way in which it’s revealed to you is probably the most spine-tingling moment in all of Orlando. Hanging 26 feet off the ground at an angle of 43.21 degrees (like the numbers in a launch countdown), she’s still covered with space dust, and she now tips a wing at everyone who comes to learn about her on the many interactive displays that surround her. Don’t miss the commemorative Forever Remembered, quietly added in 2016. Alongside favorite mementos provided by 11 of the 14 families of their crews, you’ll find respectful displays of a section of the hull of the Challenger, lost in 1986, and a slab of cockpit windows of the Columbia (2003), still encrusted with grass and mud from where it fell to Earth. You can also try the $60-million Shuttle Launch Experience, in which 44-person motion-simulator pods mimic a 5-minute launch with surprising (but not nauseating) clarity, and Heroes & Legends (opened November 2016) that tributes the 100-odd explorers in the Astronaut Hall of Fame. The entire state-of-the-art, hyper-engaging space shuttle section can easily consume 2 hours.

Once you’ve completed the bus tour and Atlantis, it’s up to you whether you want to plumb the sillier, kid-geared business at the Visitor’s Complex. By this point, much of it will be redundant, and some of it is pure malarkey, but take the time to check the 42-foot-high black granite slab of the Astronaut Memorial, commemorating those lost; Early Space Exploration, where you’ll see the impossibly low-tech Mission Control for the Mercury missions (they used rotary telephones!), plus some authentic spacesuits from the Gemini, Mercury, and Apollo series. Astoundingly, the actual Mercury command building was torn down in 2010.

The end of the space shuttle program has enabled previously off-limits areas to be opened for visits. Availability shifts, but on a variety of additional “Up-Close” tours (generally $25 adults, $19 kids 3–11, plus admission), there’s always something that’s not on the standard KSC Bus Tour. You can visit the shuttle’s launch pad, the Launch Control Center used in the shuttle’s last liftoffs, the core of the Mercury and Gemini missions, and find out what NASA’s up to now, including the new SLS (Space Rocket System) that will carry the new Orion module into space for longer trips than ever before. 

Because the government commandeers the surrounding land as a buffer, there is nowhere else to eat within a 15-minute drive, and food is horrendous ($7–$9 a plate)—hamburgers taste like they were surplus from the Apollo program, or collected on the moon itself. Come on, NASA. Good hospitality isn’t rocket science.