Florida has no lack of sites to see and places to learn. Sure, Disney is a huge part of the tourism bucks coming into the state, but the Orlando area has much more to offer than Walt’s World. I absolutely love immersing myself into Mickey Magic, there are a few other highlights to the region that, in different ways, can compete, or even beat, the Disney experience.
#1 Kennedy Space Center
I have written about this before, and I will write about it again. In 1995 Apollo 13 came out. It was the summer between grade 7 and 8. And I fell in love. With space. I placed my bed as close to the window as possible in my room and watch the moon pass through the night sky while listening to the dramatic score of James Horner in the background as I fell asleep. Obsession is not quite the word for it. So by 14 I had memorized every Mercury, Gemini and Apollo mission and relevant details, and dreamed of my future as an astronaut. When I was 15, for a short window, my parents looked into buying a campground in Oroville, Washington, and my first thought was that a green card could be my path to my future with NASA. Eventually I came to realize that I lacked the physical conditioning required to be an astronaut. When I entered university I naively reduced my expectations from astronaut to astrophysicists when I realized I wasn’t astronaut smart (I’m lots of kinds of smart – but that’s a whole different level of smart. Turns out I’m also not astrophysicist smart by the way). And after I had my first panic attack it was very very clear that becoming an astronaut was not in the cards for me. But none of this changed my love for space and space travel.
So for me, the Kennedy Space Centre is a dream fulfilled. This was our second visit (the first being in 2014 with students), and no less spectacular. Two visits down and I’m still not even half way through exploring the KSC complex. Getting to share it with my students is always the highlight.
A few highlights:
- Kennedy Space Center Bus Tour – goes from the main complex, to the Saturn V building and back. Past the launch pad from the Apollo Program and the new buildings from Space X. At the Saturn V building you can see THEE Saturn V, memorabilia from the moon program including a moon rock, LEM and Command module, and the Apollo 8 and Firing Room Experience. So much to see and learn – this is easily half your day if you do the free bus tour included with the ticket (there are also speciality tours for a few extra $$ – if I ever get to without students these will be on the list)
- Shuttle Launch Experience – imagine a simulator that makes it feel like you are being launched into space. Yup. It’s that cool.
- Space Shuttle Atlantis – The building which contains Atlantis is huge, and has over 60 interactive exhibits related to the shuttle program and international space station. But the best part is the big reveal. You go into a room that plays a short film about the history of the shuttle – the idea of a reusable space vessel. At the end of the film a screen is lifted and you can see Atlantis appear from behind it. Each time it brings tears to my eyes.
- Everything else – From the rocket garden, to the names of the parking lots (named after the Mercury 7, FYI). And if you go into the gift shop, you can find the a portion of gantry swing arm 9 from Apollo 11. From those of you who don’t speak space nerd, that is part of the metal walkway that Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins walked across to enter the command module, on their historic journey to the moon. Yes. I literally walked the path of Neil Armstrong. I have stood a place where he stood. (Note: when I was there in 2014 it was still outside, but since then part of it is incorporated in the Apollo 1 memorial and part in the gift shop).
As part of our visit with students, we mad dashed through all the exhibits above that we could fit in because we also had booked some specialty astronaut training stages. There was a Mars Exploration stage – where they land and drive a Martian rover, and navigate the Martian surface through virtual reality simulations. The second was spacewalk training – with a simulated anti-gravity environment using speciality chairs. When astronauts come through they have them complete similar tasks, and you can compete to beat their scores. Such a fun way to learn and walk in the footsteps of the astronauts! NASA has so many unique hands on learning opportunities and small group tours. It will take me years to get through them all.
So I’m about to keep it real here. I have a love hate relationship with Universal Studios. I desperately want to love it more than I do.
Let’s start with the positives. Any lover of Harry Potter will find this a must. Visits to Hogsmede and Diagon Alley are enchanting. Frozen butterbeer is delicious. And the attention to detail is just incredible. So of course this is the best part. I also love the details found around Seuss Landing. Truffula trees! “And Truffula Trees are what everyone needs. Plant a new Truffula. Treat it with care. Give it clean water. And feed it fresh air. Grow a forest. Protect it from axes that hack. Then the Lorax and all of his friends may come back.” I know that Universal (and Islands of Adventure) are a huge hit with my students. The rides here are huge thrill rides. They are bigger and faster and the technology is at the cutting edge of their fields. The 3 hour behind the scenes tour we did showed me so much about how these rides are designed, and I have to say, I’m impressed (and fascinated – so much physics! Love the physics!)
This brings me to the negatives. Going to get a little vulnerable here. Universal is not a size positive park. The majority of their big thrill rides do not have seats that accommodate someone of my size. Now, I’m a realistic individual. I understand that rides will not accommodate people of all shapes of sizes. But it can be disheartening to be singled out from your party again and again. Many of the rides have seats out front you can test with – which saves you waiting unnecessarily. But some of them do not. Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, the big ride inside of Hogwarts Castle, is one of them. To get to the ride you *have to* walk through the castle – which is part of the entertainment – walking through the castle and enjoyed each room as a part of the story as you work through the queues. I was with of bunch of my students, with no intention to ride with them (I was aware it would be a tight fit) – I was just keeping them company in line. As we neared the front of the line, one of the employees started frantically yelling and waving me down. The sample seats for this ride are located at the front of the line – just before loading. I explained that I was just going to wait by the exit for my students and it was unnecessary to test, but he forced me to sit in the test chair anyway. Eager to avoid a scene, I went over and sat down and explained that it was okay – I wasn’t going to ride the ride, as he tried to push the shoulder restraints over my body and my, obviously too round, stomach. He told me I wasn’t going to be able to ride. While my students are watching, and trying to maintain my dignity, I told him that was okay, I was going to wait by the exit. So I went to return to my students, and he yelled across the queues “I told you you can’t ride.” So there he was – creating the scene I was desperately trying to avoid. I had to yell back “I know. It’s okay. I’m on my way to the exit.” His worst fear was that I was going to hold up ride loading, and mine was that he was going to attempt to shatter my dignity in front of my students. I’m pretty sure the consequence of one is worse than the other.
This isn’t an uncommon experience for me at theme parks. Rides have certain safety mechanisms, and bodies come in all shapes and sizes. I do my best not to let it limit my travels and adventures, but it does feed my anxiety – especially in amusement parks. While there has never been a ride I couldn’t enjoy at a Disney park (in France, Japan or the USA), more than half of the Universal Studios rides are off-limits for me. While I find it hard to believe that Universal is truly incapable of installing a few plus positive seats on their rides (in certain locations, or certain carts), you would hope at bare minimum the could consider a little sensitivity training for their staff – it would go a long way. (Please note: the approach that Disneyland Tokyo has with this issue is the gold standard and Universal Studios could learn a lot from them).
Okay – that was heavy. Let’s try something a little lighter. Not physically lighter, but emotionally. Manatees. Yes – these 1200 pound monsters would definitely not be welcome at Universal Studios. Our group got divided over 3 boats and headed out onto the Crystal River (about 2.5 hours west from Disneyworld) in search of some manatees. And yes, we found them. They were harder to see in the cove we were in, but when the first came past my I was shocked at it’s size. Then the captain told me that was the baby. I love swimming and being in the water in general. I couldn’t quite convince them to let me ditch the wet suit and ugly life preserver (which were unnecessary in shallow water and on account that I can swim). I learned a quick lesson about students level of comfort in water (many, not nearly as comfortable as they thought). And while, I normally love being in the water, and there was no real reason to fear, Florida waters still freak me out on account of my intense fear of alligators. Alligators are higher on my fear list than bears. And when it comes to bears, I suffer from grade A bearanoia. But you should definitey go swim with the manatees. There should probably not be any alligators. Only maybe. But I was told not to worry, so you shouldn’t worry either. *note: being told not to worry did zero for my not worrying.
This is still a very short list. There is so much to see still in Orlando that we haven’t had the chance to experience, and that doesn’t include the entire rest of the state, with its Art Deco, sugar sand beaches, and key lime pie. Florida has a lot to offer. Until next time!