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.

KSC is on the Space Coast about an hour east of Orlando, and it’s worth the trip. For optimal touring, you really should drive yourself and start at opening time. At the main Visitor Complex, many people 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 his or her experience and answers questions—proceed instantly to the can’t-miss Behind the Gates 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. On that tour, coaches with live on-board narration 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.
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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 past 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, is themed “Race to the Moon” and begins with a mandatory 5-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 on hand to answer questions.

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After that, hasten back via the bus to the Visitor Complex for the 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 you’ll experience in all of your Orlando visit. Hanging 26 feet off the ground at an angle of 43.21 degrees (like the numbers in a launch countdown), it’s still covered with space dust, and it now tips a wing at everyone who comes to learn about it on the many interactive displays that surround it. Don’t miss the commemorative Forever Remembered. 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 (lost in 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 an 8-minute launch with surprising (but not nauseating) clarity, and Heroes & Legends, which pays tribute to 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; the Moon Tree Garden of 12 trees grown from seeds that orbited the moon before planting; 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. Who would do that?
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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. 

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Daunted? You can prepare by downloading KSC’s free app, which helps you prioritize how to spend your time here with maps and attraction descriptions. For lunch, though, you’re marooned. There is nowhere else to eat within a 15-minute drive, and on-site food options are horrendous ($8–$10 a plate)—hamburgers taste like they were surplus from the Apollo program. Come on, NASA. Hospitality isn’t rocket science. (You can bring your own food in small, soft-sided coolers.) 

You don't have to pay to enter KSC to see launches. Although the space shuttle has flown into history, Cape Canaveral still launches unmanned rockets—SpaceX conducts spectacular liftoffs from pad 39A, where the Apollo missions launched. Because launches are often postponed, it would be dangerous to plan a trip to Orlando just to catch one, but then again, if there’s one when you’re in town, it would a shame to miss it, even if it means waking up at 5am. Kennedy Space Center maintains an updated schedule online both on its Kennedy Space Center Official Guide smartphone app and at www.kennedyspacecenter.com/events and sometimes it arranges VIP seating at a safe distance. The general public is not permitted to flood NASA turf during the actual events, but Titusville, a town at the eastern end of S.R. 50, is a good place to get a clear, free view, because you’ll be across the wide Indian River from the pad. Even if you can’t leave Orlando for a launch, you can still see the fire of the rockets ascend the eastern sky from any east-facing window in town. Night launches are even more spectacular