Cruising, especially Disney cruising, can be a vacation in itself, but what if you find yourself in the area a day or two before your cruise? Port Canaveral, the home for Disney’s remarkable ships: Dream, Fantasy and Magic is nearly an hour drive from Orlando International Airport so unless you live nearby, it’s a good idea to stay the night before your cruise somewhere between Orlando and Canaveral. Obviously, spending the extra day at Walt Disney World is a great option, but there are interesting diversions much closer to the port that can be relaxing or exciting as well as educational and surprising.
In particular, there are 4 sites that are wonderful to visit, whether you have the whole family with you or if you’re kid-free. All have been popular attractions for many years and all will give you experiences that are quite different from the cruise you’ll be taking.
Considering that the four provide significantly different experiences, I have decided to list them based on distance from the Disney Cruise Line Terminal, rather than ranking them. The furthest is only a 30 minute drive, while the closest is literally right around the corner from the terminal.
The Brevard Zoo
The Brevard Zoo is an excellent smaller zoo. Situated on 75 acres, it has an impressive number of animal species, including giraffe, white rhino, cheetah, jaguar, wolf and kangaroo. The zoo calls itself “A small zoo that does big things”. In March, 2014, they opened a new exhibit – Meerkat Hamlet – with an adorable new colony of meerkats. That’s just one of the many exhibits and activities available at the zoo.
Admission to the zoo is $16 for adults, $15 for seniors and $12 for children 2-12 in age.
The zoo sports several themed areas based on Africa, Asia, Australia, South America and Florida. They also have a play area and petting zoo. These areas are included with admission. Other activities include giraffe feeding ($2), lorikeet and cockatiel feeding ($1), the Cape to Cairo Express train ride (10 minute rides are $3 per person), guided kayaking tours through the Africa area ($6 per person); self-guided paddle boat rides through the wetlands in the Wild Florida area ($15 for a four-person boat for 30 minutes), a rhino encounter (20 minute encounters are $15 per person) and Treetop Trek adventures which include tightropes, crab walks, jungle bridges, nets and zip lines. The Treetop Trek is available at different skill, age and fitness levels ($22-65 per person depending on trek course).
I like the feel of the place. There are larger, more natural habitats for many of the animals so you don’t see as many cages as you might expect in a smaller zoo. The Florida native animal area is particularly nice and a great place to explore Florida’s wildlife up-close. The habitats for the white rhino, giraffe and cheetah get you as close to the animals as in any big zoo. The facility is organized as a hub with the different environments radiating out from the center. This makes it fairly easy to navigate.
The zoo has a standard snack bar with basic lunch items in the center and a nice gift shop. It also has plenty of volunteers around to help people learn about the animals and is stroller and wheelchair-friendly.
The Brevard Zoo is open daily from 9:30 AM to 5:00 PM. Located only 28 miles from Port Canaveral; its address is 8225 N. Wickham Road, Melbourne, FL 32940. The zoo is pretty easy to find, as it’s just a ¼ mile east of Interstate 95 on Wickham Road, though the sign for the zoo is partly hidden. I know I have driven past it without noticing the sign. The phone is 321.254.9453 and the website is brevardzoo.org.
Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex
The Kennedy Space Center is the obvious choice for an entertaining and educational day in the part of Florida known as the Space Coast. It’s one of the largest tourist destinations in Florida and for many people it probably does not require much of an introduction. Other than the beaches, Kennedy Space Center reaps the highest attendance numbers on central Florida’s Atlantic coast. Founded in 1967, the visitor complex, which is now operated separately from the Kennedy space launch complex, is older than Walt Disney World.
When you get Port Canaveral, you’ll observe a heavily built-up light industrial area, yet traveling the 20 miles to Kennedy Space Center you’ll pass through areas that have never been developed, a situation nearly unique on the coast of Florida. The Space Center rests on 309 square miles of federal land, comprised of Kennedy Space Center, Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge and Canaveral National Seashore. Nature seems comfortable living side by side with some of our most advanced activities.
The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex is located away from the main Space Center area including the launch pads which are still in use. The complex is comprised of a several buildings which house exhibits, simulator attractions, IMAX movie theaters, counter-service restaurants and gift shops. Everything in the complex is included in admission ($50 for adults, $40 for children 3-11 in age – parking is $10).
There are two IMAX movies currently running – Hubble 3D and Space Station 3D. Both are excellent; though the screens on which they are presented are showing their age. The complex also houses a rocket garden which showcases many rockets to view close up. There are interesting exhibits on the role of robots in exploration, the early years of space exploration including the Mercury missions and stunning photographs from the Hubble Space Telescope. The Space Shuttle Atlantis and Shuttle Launch Experience is the complex’s latest production with a state-of-the-art flight simulator that recreates a shuttle launch. In a nod to popular culture, it also has an Angry Birds Space encounter. You can also meet and speak directly with an astronaut, do hands-on simulation work and learn about the Space Center’s current space flight activities and launches.
Also included with admission is a bus tour of the space center on which you’ll get close to the launch sites for all the shuttle and Apollo space flights, as well as the massive Vehicle Assembly Building, built originally to house and assemble the giant Saturn V rockets for the Apollo moon missions. The bus ultimately drops guests off at the Apollo/Saturn V Center, which is dedicated to the moon landings.
The space center offers other guided bus tours for an additional fee as well as their popular Lunch with an Astronaut and the Astronaut Training Experience.
Bus tours: The Launch Control Center tour includes a visit to the control room where many Space Shuttle launches were supervised; Cape Canaveral: Then and Now Tour is where visitors explore the beginnings of the space program by seeing the sites for the Mercury and Gemini launches in the 1950s and 1960s as well as take a look into what the Space Center is currently launching; and the Explore Tour gives visitors access to locations such as the launch countdown clock, active launch pads and the Shuttle Landing Facility. Each of these is $25 for adults, $19 for children.
The Astronaut Training Experience is where visitors can train and then explore what it feels like to launch and pilot a space shuttle mission. It’s $175 per person and lasts much of the day.
Lunch with an Astronaut is a truly interesting experience. This is likely the only place in the world where an average person can easily interact with someone who has been in space. The cost is $30 for adults and $16 for children.
I recently attended Lunch with an Astronaut. The hall in which we met had room for about 180. On the Monday I attended, there were less than 60 guests.
I was honored to meet Dr. Sam Durrance, an astrophysicist who flew on two Space Shuttle missions as payload specialist. He was engaging, both when he stopped by tables to meet us as well as during his talk, which included a video of his work in space. His second shuttle mission lasted 17 days, the longest mission out of the 135 flown. One of the stories Dr. Durrance shared was about experiencing the Shuttle Twang. Before launch, the shuttle was attached to the pad by 8 explosive bolts. Once the engines fired an offset thrust caused the Shuttle to pitch over and within about six seconds flexed back upright. Once this happened the Shuttle took off. It’s something barely noticeable by viewers, but is a dramatic point for the astronauts.
The food was pretty good. The entrees were grilled chicken, salmon and tilapia with lemongrass scallion oil and mac & cheese with mornay sauce. Mornay is a form of béchamel and the offering was much lighter and less creamy than seemed right for mac & cheese. Because mac & cheese is a common offering for kids, I asked 5 of the kids at the lunch and none of them liked it very much. Other than that, everything else was appetizing, if a bit bland. The chicken was juicy and the fish had a nice texture.
The experience lasted for over an hour. Apart from the astronaut’s presentation, he spoke to people while they ate and took several questions afterwards. At the end, he posed for photos with all the guests. I consider it to be well worth the money.
The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex is open daily at 9:00 AM to 7:00 PM. Located only 20 miles from Port Canaveral, just put in Kennedy Space Center, FL 32899 in your GPS. Driving directions are available on their website. The phone is 866.737.5235 and the helpful website is www.kennedyspacecenter.com.
Cocoa Village is the restored and well-maintained downtown area of the town of Cocoa. To avoid confusion, Cocoa Beach is the world-famous city and beach whereas the town of Cocoa is on the mainland across the Indian River from Cocoa Beach. Comprising of over 80 merchants and restaurants in a six by four block area, Cocoa Village has something for everyone.
Located about 12 miles south of Port Canaveral, Cocoa Village is a quick drive away. There’s no admission and a good amount of free street parking. There are also several parking lots. When people arrive, they immediately are welcomed to the area by tree-shaded streets lined with flower-decked brightly-painted store fronts. There’s a nice park for the kids, views of the river and Merritt Island, historic buildings and an ambiance that says “Southern charm”.
The village is the home of the Florida Historical Society and the Cocoa Village Playhouse which has critically-acclaimed theatre productions from September through June, many of them family-friendly. There are also several antique shops, craft shops and even a magic shop. The clothing shops include both vintage and new fashions as well as shoes and accessories. To go with your new attire, you can grab a massage and get your hair and nails done to look your best for your cruise. Top your day off with a great meal at one of the several restaurants ranging from up-scale to funky, Thai-style to Florida fresh caught seafood.
Depending on the time of the year, there are several events held in the village. The Central Florida Car Show is in April, the Sip and Stroll in February and arts and craft fairs are held in March, May, October and December. All events are popular and load the village with even more fun activities. The Sip and Stoll is an event with a cover charge (in 2014 it was $25 at the event, $20 if purchased beforehand) where attendees get a commemorative wine glass and shopping bag and can wander through the village sampling wines, tasting snacks and checking out special deals at each store.
The village always seems to be bustling with people. It’s mostly locals, which makes it nice for the person visiting the area, since the merchants really enjoy seeing new faces. The irony is that many tourists drive past it on their way to the super touristy Ron Jon Surf Shop at the beach. Take my advice. Your day is much better spent in the village.
The Historic Cocoa Village Merchants’ Association address is 1 Oleander St, Ste 2, Cocoa, FL 32922. It’s located right off of West King Road (SR 520) just before the bridge to Merritt Island. The website lists shops and restaurants in the village as well as a map: visitcocoavillage.com.
Is there fun right around the corner from a cruise ship terminal? You bet! Jetty Park is a great place to sample the beautiful white sands of the Florida Atlantic coast. A favorite with locals, it can be busy on weekends, but what really makes it great is the weekdays are quiet because Cocoa and Daytona beaches are where all the tourists go.
Jetty Park has three specific parts. First is the beach. Because it’s on the south side of the jetty, generally the surf is calmer, which is nice for the little ones. The beach is staffed by lifeguards. Second is the pier on the jetty which shoots out from the beach. The 1200 foot pier is a terrific place to fish and as a bonus, the best place to watch cruise ships and the Navy’s Trident ballistic missile submarines head to sea. The jetty marks the southern shore of the Canaveral Ship Channel so ships pass within a few hundred feet of it. The third part is the Jetty Park Campground. More on that later.
Admission to Jetty Park is $10 per carload.
The beach is similar to others in the area – dazzling white sand, blue water and the fun of shell collecting. In the center of the park is a large shop and snack bar. The snack bar serves up sandwiches, burgers and rather tasty fish tacos. The shop has all the basic needs. Beachgoers can also rent chairs, umbrellas, kayaks, paddle boards and boogie boards. Aspiring anglers can even rent poles and tackle. On the pier, a fishing license isn’t needed which makes fishing an even better idea. Knowledgeable locals are willing to give you tips on how to land a big one. Near the concessions area is a nice playground as well.
Other cruises call Port Canaveral home besides the Disney Cruise Line, so ships pass by Jetty Park almost every day of the year. The park is also a great place to watch rocket launches from Kennedy Space Center and manatees, sea turtles and even dolphins are common sights in the channel along the jetty.
Camping the night before your cruise is probably thinking a bit too far outside the box, but it’s worth mentioning the campground for one reason: Cabins. Along with 150 campsites available for anything from a tent to a giant motorhome, the campground has added eight basic cabins to rent for only $83.25 per night. They are small, 15 by 12 feet with a porch, outdoor grill, double bed, bunk bed and bathroom with sink and toilet. Cabin guests use the campground shower facilities. On the other hand, they are in great shape, comfy and not that much different in size to the onboard cabin you’ll be calling home. Food and any basic supplies can be purchased at the camp store, plus the campground has WIFI.
Jetty Park is open around the clock because of the fishing pier. The address is 400 Jetty Road, Cape Canaveral, Florida 32920. It’s only a couple miles from the Disney cruise ship port. The port area is well marked for directions to both locations. The phone is 321. 783.7111, and the website is jettyparkbeachandcampground.com.
All in all, there are really multiple days of activities to do near Port Canaveral, even if you ignore the Orlando area. I hope the next time you’re on the Space Coast you’ll check out one or more of these places and tell me how your experience went.
TouringPlans is delighted to welcome Tom Cook to the blogging team. Tom lives in Central Florida and has published many magazine articles on Florida history as well as Orlando’s Historic Haunts, available from Amazon.