A Day Visit to the Kennedy Space Center
The Kennedy Space Center (KSC) is highly recommend for cruisers and/or visitors to the Port Canaveral area! With opening hours between 9am and 6pm (sometimes 7pm or even 8pm) and located only 30 minutes away, it is a perfect shore trip!
DISCLAIMER – This article is for visiting cruisers with limited time at the Kennedy Space Center. We mean no disrespect when we suggest to skip some exhibits. It is done purely to allow for more time at the most important and unique (in our opinion) displays.
The map below shows the important sights to see. To see the Legend, click on the small window icon at the top left of the map header:
- If your ship arrives before 9am and departs after 5pm then you can see most if not all the attractions! Please read our “Itinerary Section” below.
- But is it feasible for half-day visits? Let’s take a look:
- 1pm to 9pm – typical for Norwegian Breakaway & Norwegian Gem
- noon to 9:30pm – typical for Anthem of the Seas
- 10:30am to 9pm – typical for Grandeur of the Seas
The first passengers typically depart a ship about 30 minutes to 45 minutes after docking. Those booked on cruise line shore trips may get priority disembark privileges. This means if you dock at 1pm and can hopefully depart the terminal before 2pm, you will reach KSC before 2:30pm – giving you at least 3.5 hours to explore. If you arrive at the Port at noon, enjoy the extra hour at KSC!
On Your Own or Ship Excursion?
There are 3 types of visits:
- Post Cruise – About 6 hours or less. These are tours to the KSC and back to the airport
- AM Tours – Your ship arrives early and you will be at KSC at opening time (9am) before departing around 3pm.
- PM Tours – Your ship arrives around noon and you can visit KSC until closing time (6pm on most days)
Normally we suggest you avoid overpaying for ship excursions but you can actually save time if you do the following:
- Decide how serious your family is about the Space Program. The Guided Ship Tours will cost a hefty sum for a larger family because it packs a lot in a few hours and include close-up experiences. If you just want to see the basics like the Space Shuttle and moon landing vehicles, book an “Express Tour” instead and save $$$.
- Your excursion is probably managed by Sunward Tours on behalf of your cruise line.
- Call your cruise line or Sunward (be persistent and ask for someone who actually knows) and ask if your shore excursion will take you direct from the ship to see the launch pads and Apollo/Saturn V Center. These are often called “VIP” or “Guided Tours”.
- If YES, this means you will save A LOT OF TIME by bypassing the general entrance area lines. Assuming you are serious about Space, go ahead and BOOK THE EXCURSION! Please know Guided Tours usually include either the Explore or Launch Control Tour that cost $25 per person in addition to the general admission. You may also get priority debarkation, priority entry at some exhibits and an after-hours IMAX showing.
- If NO, then the tour is unguided (also known as an “Express Tour” – meaning you will be taken by bus to the entrance, then tour on your own and meet a return bus at a given time at the end of the day). Unguided is a bit of a misnomer because your admission ticket includes a 1-hour narrated bus tour around the KSC Complex! Your driver works for the KSC and will tell you a lot about the launch pads and space shuttle and wildlife while driving.
“Express Tours” may cost more than needed and you will save money by booking KSC online and taking Uber – especially of you have a family of 3 or more.
TIP – Should you decide to arrange the KSC visit on your own, forget about renting a car for AM and PM visits because you will just waste time shuttling to the rental office. Use Uber or a taxi. And do your best to be one of the first off the ship!
FOOD TIP – Please know food is expensive. You are not allowed to bring food so to save money it is best to eat a good meal BEFORE leaving your ship!
The Must-see Attractions
Here are the two most interesting attractions with suggested visiting times (if your ship arrives at 1pm). If your ship arrives at noon, then you get an extra hour to add to this timeline (at the end) for other attractions:
- Kennedy Space Center Bus Tour (included with your ticket) – this attraction requires about 2 to 2.5 hours with buses departing every 15 minutes starting at 10am. The last bus of the day departs the center 2.5 hours before closing (3:30pm for 6pm)! You will spend 45 minutes driving out to the Saturn/Apollo V Center and 15 minutes driving back – meaning you will arrive at the Saturn Center at 4:15pm – giving you 1h15 minutes to explore before returning on the 5:30pm bus back to the visitor center (arriving as the Center is closing).
- Space Shuttle Atlantis – this attraction requires at minimum an hour but your kids may not want to leave the complex – it is very kid-friendly with exciting things to do!
Do consider that you will arrive with busloads of other passengers (sometimes 10 or more buses from 1 or 2 other ships) thereby increasing the wait times in line for both attractions.
So, can you actually experience both attractions (and nothing else) if your ship arrives at 1pm? Yes, but only if you manage to do the following:
- If self-guided, buy KSC tickets online before your cruise
- Get off your ship fast and in your taxi/Uber between 1:30pm and 2pm so you can get ahead of the tour buses.
- Assume you arrive at the Visitor Center between 2pm and 2:30pm. Pick a fast line through security then scan your ticket!
- Rush over to the Bus Tour Departure lines and do your best to get on a bus departing earlier but no later than 3pm. Grab a seat in front and to your left as you enter the bus.
- Arrive at the Saturn/Apollo V Center no later than 3:45pm
- Depart Saturn/Apollo V Center no later than 4:30pm
- Arrive back at the Visitor Center no later than 4:45pm. Rush over to the Space Shuttle Atlantis line nearby.
- Exit the Atlantis display just before closure time and catch your ride back to the Port at 6:15pm.
It is DOABLE to experience both attractions but you will see nothing else and you have to watch the clock very closely! This rushed tour is not for everyone and it will be frustrating if the lines are long.
You also have to consider the ages of your children and their interest in space travel. Younger children may find the bus tour rather boring (except for the occasional alligator/pig sightings) and it may be best to focus on the main Visitor Center instead of bus tours.
In addition, many of the displays at the Kennedy Space Center are noisy because rockets are loud. Babies often cry for the duration of the video presentations and displays! Please consider the age of your child and how crying affect the experience for you and others nearby.
Tip from a local – We suggest you skip the Kennedy Space Center Bus Tour if you arrive after 2:30pm. Instead, focus on the Space Shuttle Atlantis and other attractions at a more relaxed pace.
ANOTHER INSIDER TIP – Please know many of the displays have a preamble video presentation to add suspense and enhance the experience. If you are delayed and short on time you can skip the presentations by entering via the gift shops and other doors. But please do not do this for Space Shuttle Atlantis because the presentation part is breathtaking!
Directions and Map of the Complex
KSC is only 18 miles from Port Canaveral – an easy 25 to 30 minute drive and no traffic to worry about!
UberX – $29 +$5 (port pickup fee) = $34 one way. If Uber is not your thing, try Space Port Transport for $50 one way (up to 4 people) or 888-transport (taxi at terminal but ask for a fixed rate, not metered).
Here is our detailed Google map of the Complex and the drive route from the cruise terminals. Please know the greater complex is an active launch area and bus routes may change to accommodate launch schedules. For example, SpaceX is now using launch pad 39A so you may not get to circle it during your tour.
Tickets are currently set at $57 per adult plus taxes. Various upgrade packages are available.
Those looking for ticket discounts will not have much luck. You can look for coupons in discount booklets found at local gas stations, tourist offices and restaurants but generally you will only save $2.50 to $5 per ticket and you have to read the small print carefully! For example, try SpaceCoastFunGuide.com and print the coupons under Fun Things To Do.
A better discount option is membership in incentive-based programs offered by large companies. Ask your human resources department if your company participate in Tickets At Work for example – see website.
Parking is $10.
The Players at Kennedy Space Center
During your visit to the KSC you will hear about NASA, SpaceX, Boeing, Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance. Their launch sites are shown on the map above.
To understand the differences between these organizations it is most important to know that the future of USA Space Travel is divided into two objectives:
Deep Space Exploration – This is NASA’s world; at the KSC you will learn about deploying more advanced telescopes to better understand the galaxies and landing a human on Mars. Other countries and commercial companies such as SpaceX may have the same aspirations to build settlements on planets such as Mars but for now at least, NASA is leading the way and the KSC is the place to watch the excitement unfold.
Sub-Orbital and Orbital Exploration – Where private corporations compete for contracts to deploy/maintain satellites, to deliver supplies and astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) and to fly tourists into space. Some, like SpaceX, also plan to fly tourists to the moon and back. At the KSC you will learn about the history of the ISS and the moon flights – the historic missions by NASA that made future commercial flights possible.
Blue Origin (Jeff Bezos of Amazon) has two space vehicle systems in development.
- The New Shepard system will take 6 tourists into space and then land the capsule using traditional parachutes. The vehicle will launch in West Texas and therefor it is irrelevant to KSC visitors.
- New Glenn Orbital Vehicles – will be built at Exploration Park next to the KSC. This facility under construction will also acceptance-test the BE-4 engines (to power both New Glenn and United Launch Alliance Vulcan rockets). The New Glenn system will orbit the earth and be capable of deploying satellites and delivering cargo and astronauts to the ISS.
At Cape Canaveral, Blue Origin will use Launch Complex 36 (last used in 2005) so you may see a Blue Origin New Glenn launch during a visit to the Space Coast starting in 2020 or so.
United Launch Alliance
United Launch Alliance (ULA) is a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin to launch Government (military, NASA and others) missions from Cape Canaveral. As can be expected, ULA is experiencing intense competition from commercial companies (SpaceX in particular) who are bidding similar services usually at much lower costs but perhaps the Government thinks their top-secret payloads are more secure with ULA. Who knows!
ULA has four space vehicle systems in development.
- Atlas V – will carry the manned Boeing Starliner Capsule (mid 2019) to the ISS
- Delta IV
- Delta II – rarely launch from Cape Canaveral
- Vulcan Centaur (in development)
At Cape Canaveral, United Launch Alliance uses Launch Complex 41 for Atlas V and Launch Complex 37B for Delta IV so you may see a ULA launch during a visit to the Space Coast!
Boeing has several projects in development that are of interest to KSC visitors:
- It is under contract to help NASA develop its Space Launch System (SLS) – a rocket for flights into deep space (Mars for example).
- CST-100 Starlight – A capsule for transporting up to 7 astronauts and/or payload to the ISS – one of two official transportation capsules selected by NASA (SpaceX Dragon V2 is the other). It is compatible to launch on top of several vehicles including Atlas V, Delta IV, Falcon 9 and Vulcan.
At Cape Canaveral, Starlight to the ISS will initially ride atop the ULA Atlas V vehicle from Launch Complex 41 starting in mid 2019.
SpaceX has several projects in development that are of interest to KSC visitors:
- Falcon 9 Launch Vehicle – The current reusable system is flying the Dragon cargo capsule to the ISS. Stage 1 of the vehicle actually returns to Cape Canaveral Landing Zone 1 or barge after each launch!
- Falcon 9 Heavy Launch Vehicle – The next generation vehicle designed to carry Dragon and Dragon 2 capsules to the ISS or to deep space (Mars).
- Dragon and Dragon 2 – A capsule for transporting up to 7 astronauts (Dragon 2) and/or payload to the ISS – one of two official transportation capsules selected by NASA (Boeing CST-100 Starlight is the other). It is compatible to launch on top of the Falcon vehicles.
At Cape Canaveral, Dragon is already delivering payload to the ISS from Launch Complex 39A atop Falcon 9 while the Stage 1 vehicle is returning to either Landing Zone 1 (near the lighthouse) or on a barge in the ocean. Launch Complex 40 is being repaired after a Falcon 9 explosion in September 2016.
We all know about the history of NASA and the KSC is where it all comes alive! You can learn about the early days of space flight, the moon landing missions and the awe-inspiring space shuttle.
But NASA has many projects in current development that are of interest to KSC visitors:
- International Space Station – NASA astronauts continue to conduct scientific experiments aboard the ISS as they prepare for the Journey To Mars. You can learn more about the ISS in the Atlantis building.
- Space Telescopes – A full scale replica of the Hubble Space Telescope and a scale model of the new James Webb Space Telescope are on display in the Atlantis building.
- Mission to Mars – You can see Mars Rover Vehicles and learn about the Mission to Mars in the Journey to Mars building.
- Space Launch System (SLS) – The next generation rocket for carrying crews and payload into deep space is in development.
- Orion – A capsule for transporting up to 4 astronauts and/or payload to Mars (and to the ISS if needed) using the SLS launch vehicle.
At Cape Canaveral, NASA’s SLS launch vehicle uses Launch Complex 39B .
Other Space Partners
Occasionally there are launches at Cape Canaveral from relatively unknown companies. These are mostly military related.
One such Launch System is Minotaur IV from Orbital ATK using Launch Complex 46 starting in 2017.
Kennedy Space Center Attractions
The Kennedy Space Center covers a large area because the attractions extend beyond the main Visitor Complex. It is easy to feel a bit overwhelmed and unsure about what to see and do and in which order.
We like to separate the Complex into 7 different experiences:
- The IMAX movies – Space-related films on a huge screen shown mostly in 3D
- The History of Space Flight – The heroes and vehicles of the early days
- The Future of Space Exploration – Deep Space including The Proving Ground and Mars
- The International Space Station and Shuttle Flights – Atlantis is the main attraction
- The Space Telescopes – Hubble and James Webb
- The Moon Landings – Saturn and Apollo
- The Launch Areas and Space Operations – Where rockets are being built and the launch/landing pads
TIP: Always pick up a daily schedule of activities at the entrance!
The 3D IMAX Movies
Shown in two adjacent theaters, these are fabulous visual and sensory 3D experiences of earth from space or life in space. The films are about 40 – 50 minutes long.
The theaters are big and you can almost always get a seat but crowds begin to line up about 15 minutes before show time. There is a pop corn and snack station in the waiting area!
TIP – Take note of the IMAX show times on your daily schedule pamphlet as soon as you enter the KSC and plan your day accordingly.
The History of Space and Flight
The history of NASA is on display at various locations throughout the KSC Complex. As explained above, while meaning no disrespect to our space heroes, you can skip all the exhibits in this section if you are short on time.
- The most visual exhibit is the Rocket Garden that is seen as soon as you enter through the ticketing gates. You can walk through the garden or join a 20-minute guided tour (5 times per day as per your daily schedule).
- The Heroes & Legends building is immediately to the left of the Space Garden. You line up outside, pick up your 3D glasses and enter a round room for the first of two video presentations. The first presentation is a 5 minute testimonial from various people (famous and not) who talk about their heroes. TIP: Walk to the middle of the room and stand at the center piece while facing ahead and slightly to your right. You then enter a room with 3 levels to watch a 10 minute 3D presentation of the experiences of 4 pioneers such as Jim Lovell who talk about the moments that define their lives in space. This presentation is actually very well done and the special effects are top-notch. TIP: For the most immersive experience walk to the right and stand on the lower (front) section facing the wall.
- The Nature & Technology building is across from the Rocket Garden. Here you learn a little about the Merritt Island National Wildlife Reserve that host the growing KSC! It has a small diorama of the fauna and flora of the area and a bit of history of the native people. Honestly, this exhibit appears to be a bit of an afterthought and seems out of place.
- The Astronaut Memorial is at the back of the Visitor Complex. It is a solemn place that all should visit to pay respect to our space heroes but it is a bit of a walk out there and since most cruisers are pressed for time, it cannot be a priority. Again, no disrespect meant.
- The Air Force Space and Missile Museum is not at the KSC Complex but you can visit it on your own or as part of a Cape Canaveral Then & Now Bus Tour. Do this only if you want to revisit the days of Mercury and Gemini and the history of the launch pads! The museum is near cruise terminal 5 at Port Canaveral and it is easier (but not as interesting) to visit it from that side using Uber or a taxi.
The Future of Space Exploration
The future of Space Exploration is represented by several exhibits across the Complex.
- Nothing says “future” quite like seeing modern rockets on the Launch Pads! To experience this you have to take a bus tour. We discuss the bus tours below in the Launch Areas section.
- Mission Status Briefings are given by experts in the Astronaut Encounter Theater and these 20 minute sessions will update you on current NASA space happenings as well as future plans. Afterwards you normally stay in your seat for a 30 minute Astronaut Encounter with a current or retired Astronaut! It is fun to hear from a real person about their space experiences. You can ask questions and take selfies!
- Journey To Mars: Explorers Wanted is a 30 minute session with an expert who is trying to recruit future astronauts in a fun and informative presentation! The exhibits surrounding the stage are all about Mars and you learn about the challenges of colonizing the red planet. There are simulators to play with and several interactive displays with buttons to push, levers to pull and knobs to turn! Do not miss the Mars rover displays! Who does not love a 4WD space vehicle!
The International Space Station and Shuttle Flights
This is a MUST-SEE exhibit at the KSC! While it can be seen in about an hour, it is deserving of at least 2 hours because of all the fun things to do beyond the Space Shuttle!
Without letting the cat of of the bag, we want to tell you that the multi-media build-up to the reveal of the Space shuttle Atlantis is one of the most dramatic and heart-warming events you will ever witness. Yes, it is a very popular exhibit and the line can be long at times but it is well worth the wait.
The building is next to the drop-off area of the tour buses so it makes sense to visit the space shuttle AFTER the free bus tour to the Saturn/Apollo Exhibit.
The building is home to four different experiences:
- The Space Shuttle Atlantis and the Shuttle Missions History,
- The Space Telescopes (discussed in the next section),
- The International Space Station (ISS) and
- Very cool simulators and educational stations for kids of all ages including grandpa!
The large Atlantis vehicle is presented on 3 levels so you can photograph it from the side, front, back and below! It is best photographed with a panorama setting on your camera/phone as seen below.
After you’ve seen the vehicle, you can immerse yourself into the many multi-media exhibits that explain the Missions and how the Space Shuttle was built, mounted on its rockets, delivered to the launch pad, flown into space, docked to the ISS, emptied its cargo bays, and returned to earth. You can even train like an astronaut to perform many of the most important space tasks in various simulators on the ground floor, including a slide to simulate the landing G-forces!
Another ground-floor highlight of this visit is the Shuttle Launch Experience – a wild and loud simulator ride into space in a Space Shuttle! It is simply the best experience at the KSC!
Finally, do not miss the International Space Station exhibits. The ISS was the reason why the Space Shuttles were build and it still plays a very important role as NASA prepares for deep space exploration and a Mars landing.
As you walk away from the Atlantis, you will notice a small ISS exhibit in the corner on your right. An expert will be on hand to show you a multi-media presentation of the ISS.
A bit further down the hallway on your left, you will notice a scale version of the ISS that is large enough for to crawl through (no shoes please)!
On the ground floor you can learn more about the ISS such as how the toilets work, where the astronauts sleep and more.
The Space Telescopes
These are not major exhibits at the KSC but we feel it is important to take a look at NASA’s eyes into deep space!
- The Hubble Space Telescope exhibit is easily missed because it is overshadowed by the presence of Atlantis nearby! As you exit the Atlantis multi-media presentation, look to your right and you will see Hubble hanging from the roof! It is about the size of a school bus! You are looking at a full-size replica of the telescope – known to many only because of its multiple problems since deployment in 1990! After 9 years of tuning and servicing, the Hubble is operational and will be until 2040 if all goes well.
- The successor to the Hubble is in development and could be deployed in 2018. A scale replica of the James Webb Space Telescope (using infrared technology) is on display on the ground floor of the Atlantis building.
- To learn about the differences between these two telescopes in image quality, richness and reach into the dark universe, attend the Eye on the Universe 3D multimedia show (20 minutes) in the Astronaut Encounter theater. Show times are listed on your schedule and doors open 10 minutes earlier. An expert will lead the presentation that shows images of deep space with special focus on the remote galaxies.
The Moon Landings – Saturn and Apollo
While the Space Shuttle to the ISS was a modern flying marvel, the achievements of the moon program can never be over-appreciated! Those were the early days of the American space program with very limited computing power and strong competition from the Russians! For many older folks, the first manned mission to land on the moon in 1969 was a defining moment in their lives that they will never forget.
Fortunately, KSC does a marvelous job of capturing the highs and lows of that turbulent yet successful time in NASA’s history. To experience this, you have to board a bus and travel to the Apollo/Saturn V Center – a 45 minute drive that is part of a tour (the tour is discussed below). Together, the tour and Apollo/Saturn Center will take at least 2 hours.
At the Apollo/Saturn V Center you will experience the following:
- As you walk away from you bus you will enter the first of two multimedia presentations. “We Choose To Go To The Moon” shows the struggles and failures of NASA’s early attempts to be the first in space. The Russian space program were way ahead and video does a great job of capturing the exploding rockets and disappointed faces of those trying to get America into space. Then President Kennedy made his famous speech directing the space program to put a man on the moon and to return him safely back to earth. Finally, things began to fall into place and in 1968 the Apollo 8 was ready to take off on a manned journey to orbit the moon.
- The presentation then shifts to a different theater – the actual Apollo Firing (Launch Control) Room as it was on December 21, 1968 when Apollo 8 started its countdown from launch pad 39A! In a nail-biting show, anticipation builds as the system checks are completed and the Saturn V rocket with its precious human cargo takes off on its historic journey to the moon! It is simply a magnificent moment when the doors open and you find yourself standing underneath a huge Saturn V vehicle.
- The exhibit hall is a large rectangular building. The horizontal Atlas V rocket fills the center and you start at the engines then walk towards to the Apollo Spacecraft (the front or top of the rocket). It is best to walk on the far side (the restaurant side) so you can read the displays that explain each important stage of the rocket. There is also a scale model of the rocket so you can see the inside of each stage. Stages 1, 2 and 3 of the rocket will all be jettisoned before the actual moon landing so you can move fast until you reach the restaurant.
- When you reach the Moon Rock Cafe, you are at the most interesting modules – the Apollo Spacecraft stage containing the Lunar Module (LM), the Service Module (SM) and the Command Module (CM).
If you look up you can see a real Lunar Module (used until Apollo 14). The Service Module is shown in detail near the very front (top) of the rocket and you can see the Command Module elsewhere on the floor.
- The Lunar Module landed on the moon and was crashed on the moon after the astronauts returned to the Spacecraft
- The Service Module propelled the Spacecraft and was jettisoned just before the Command Module’s earth re-entry
- The Command Module is where the astronauts lived during the launch and when they returned to earth
- As you reach the end of the hall, you will see an exhibition that pays Tribute to the Apollo 1 Crew who perished in their Command Module Capsule during a test in 1967. You will learn about the three astronauts and see the photos from that fateful day.
When you exit the exhibit you walk over the service arm that the Apollo 11 crew used to enter their Command Module more than 300 feet above the ground! You will also get a good look at the inside of the CM!
- The Lunar Theater shows a wonderful 20-minute presentation of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module’s landing on the moon. Called the “Eagle”, the landing was plagued with technical issues but Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin used their piloting skills to overcome every issue! Not to be missed!
- The rest of the displays on the exit side of the building cover more moon landing events. You will see a Moon Rover, actual moon walk space suits, you can touch a moon rock , see the actual Apollo 14 Command Module Capsule and learn about the different Apollo missions!
You exit the hall via the gift shop to catch a bus for the 15 minute drive back to the Visitor Complex.
The Launch Areas and NASA Operations
Our maps shows the active launch pads marked in purple. While the public does not have access to any of these pads, you can get relatively close by taking a bus tour.
There are THREE bus tours to choose from and they all end at the Apollo/Saturn V Center plus Astronaut and Simulation Experiences:
- (FREE) The Kennedy Space Center Bus Tour is included in your admission and the route is shown in YELLOW on our map
- The Explore Bus Tour is very similar to the free tour but you stop at 2 locations to get a closer look at the launch pads and you stop near the Assembly Building (but you do not enter it). You can see the tour route if you enable the Explore Tour section in our map above.
- The Cape Canaveral Early Space Tour takes in the historic launch sites and the Air Force Space and Missile Museum
- Lunch or Dinner with an Astronaut – listen to an experienced astronaut while eating.
- Mars Experiences – designed to immerse you in the world of space exploration with a focus on the manned mission to Mars. There are 3 experiences to choose from.
- Space Walk Experience – learn how to prepare for a space walk!
Are these guided bus tours worth it?
- First, the Kennedy Space Center Bus Tour is FREE and included in your ticket so from that point of view it is a MUST-DO!
- The other three cost $25 per person extra.
- You will get slightly closer to the launch pad on the paid tours but not by much.
- The paid tours have a separate VIP line and benches at the bus loading zone at the Visitor Center. This means you do not have to stand in line and you can save time.
- The paid tours use guides that offer more in-depth narration of the sights and points of interest along the tour route.
- The paid tours operate at scheduled times. You pick a time while booking online.
Generally speaking, we suggest that the paid tours are for serious space enthusiasts only unless you just want to skip the lines and pay extra for the Explore Bus Tour!