What to do on Florida’s Space Coast when you need a break from the theme parks

May 24, 2020

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Theme parks might bring you to Central Florida, but if you neglect to venture east to the beaches and wildlife-rich Indian River Lagoon near Kennedy Space Center along the state’s Space Coast, you’ll be missing out on the real Florida.

Roughly 55 miles east of Walt Disney World Resort, Florida’s Space Coast — home to the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral — has 72 miles of coastline that stretches from Titusville in the north to just north of Sebastian Inlet in the south. The region offers easy access to areas of pristine natural beauty where you can learn to surf or paddle through bioluminescent waters at night and scout for manatees, dolphins and alligators by day.

I certainly understand the appeal of Orlando and the theme parks for a vacation, field trip or excursion before or after a cruise. But as a Floridian, it does make me scratch my head when people come to this wild state and an animatronic alligator and themed thrill rides are as far as they get. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good roller coaster (the Incredible Hulk at Universal Orlando is my all-time favorite, even if my babies aren’t even close to being old enough to ride it themselves). But heading east from Orlando and making time to visit the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex and the surrounding natural attractions is a must.

When you’re ready to press pause on the theme parks, here are a few places where you won’t have to wait in line to see the real Florida along the Space Coast.

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Playalinda Beach Florida Space Coast
Playalinda Beach. (Photo courtesy of Florida’s Space Coast Office of Tourism)

How to Get to the Space Coast

Named for Kennedy Space Center on Cape Canaveral and the space explorations that launched from there, the closest major airport to the Space Coast is Orlando Airport (MCO), about 45 miles west of Cape Canaveral. Airlines that serve MCO include Alaska Airlines, American, Delta, Frontier, JetBlue, Silver Airways, Southwest, Spirit, Sun Country, Sunwing and United.

Related: The Club at MCO — Orlando’s Priority Pass lounge

There’s also the much smaller Orlando-Melbourne Airport (MLB), served by Delta (from Atlanta), American Airlines (from Charlotte) and Elite Airways (from Newark). It’s near downtown Melbourne on the Space Coast, minutes from beaches, 45 minutes south of Cocoa Beach and Cape Canaveral, and an hour from Disney.

Popular Space Coast destinations include Cocoa Beach, Palm Bay, Titusville, Melbourne and The Beaches, Port Canaveral and Viera.

Florida's Space Coast is about an hour east of Orlando. (Map image courtesy of Google Maps)
Florida’s Space Coast is about an hour east of Orlando. (Map image courtesy of Google Maps)

Top Activities on Florida’s Space Coast

Here are the Space Coast activities you will surely love:

Have a blast at the Space Center

There are plenty of attractions at the Kennedy Space Center and you can easily spend a whole day — or days — there. You can take a tour to see famous artifacts of space exploration like the Mars Rover or aircraft from the Apollo program; meet and even dine with real-life astronauts and experience how they train; discover behind-the-scenes operations or the status of current NASA missions, and relive historic moments in our country’s race to space. Tickets are $47 for children ages 3-11, and $57 for ages 12 and up. There are discounts for seniors and active-duty U.S. military.

Related: Guide to visiting Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disney World

Rocket Garden (Photo courtesy of Kennedy Space Center)
Rocket Garden. (Photo courtesy of Kennedy Space Center)

Witness warbirds on display or up in the air

If you’re into historic military aircraft or want to enjoy dazzling aerial demonstrations, you can get your fix at the Valiant Air Command Warbird Museum in Titusville. Take your time viewing more than 50 warbirds from the pre-World War I era to the present, plus other memorabilia. These aircraft, which are part of our national aviation heritage, are on display in two hangars. If you’re lucky, you might even see an actual restoration underway, which can be very educational. The museum also hosts an annual air show (postponed to 2021). Admission is $20 for adults; 18 for seniors and military; $10 for students ages 13-18, and $5 for children ages 5-12.

Related: 5 must-see museums and tours for aviation enthusiasts

Cruise the Indian River Queen

Rolling, rolling, rolling on the river. Step aboard this triple-deck paddlewheel boat for a fun and informative cruise through the Indian River Lagoon, one of the most biodiverse estuaries in the world. The Sunday cruises on the Indian River Queen are only scheduled once a month, so you’ll have to time your visit right (with one Friday night dinner show cruise per month, too). These cruises provide an excellent chance for spotting manatees, dolphins, coastal birds and more. Tours last roughly three hours and cost about $65 per person; $40 for Sunday cruises, and $20 for Friday night dinner show cruises for kids ages 3–12.

Related: 13 of the best beaches in Florida

Space Coast Jungle River Queen
Space Coast Jungle River Queen. (Photo courtesy of Florida’s Space Coast Office of Tourism)

Kayak Alongside Giraffes

The Space Coast’s fabulous Brevard Zoo in Melbourne is really well done. The exhibits are built right into the surrounding Florida landscape and there is a lovely open-air ambiance you can explore via elevated boardwalks. It’s also the only zoo in the country that offers guided tours around a live animal exhibit. You can paddle along behind the guide through Expedition Africa, where you have the chance to spot giraffes, ostriches, zebras, rhinos and more from a safe position on the water. And, you can head out on self-guided paddling tours in the zoo’s Wild Florida exhibit to see more familiar local animals. Zoo tickets are about $25 for adults and around $20 for seniors (65+). Admission for kids, ages 3-11, costs about $15. Kaya tour tickets cost around $10; a paying adult must accompany children under 12, and those under 5 are not permitted to kayak.

Related: Florida’s top 10 vacation regions for different types of travelers

Space Coast Kayaking at Brevard Zoo
Kayaking adventures at the Brevard Zoo. (Photo courtesy of Florida’s Space Coast Office of Tourism)

Take a Surf Lesson and Ride Waves

Cocoa Beach is where world champion professional surf legend Kelly Slater grew up learning to shred. And you can cut your chops on the same pretty beaches and mellow waves with the Ron Jon Surf School, which offers group and private lessons as well as surf camps. Before you head out into the surf, instructors demonstrate paddling, getting into position on the board and pushing up in preparation of catching a wave right on the sand. There’s no guarantee you’ll catch a wave, but don’t be surprised if you catch a case of surf fever. Group lessons start at $50 per person, per hour; private lessons from $65 per hour.

Spy gators, bobcats, birds, manatees and more at a Wildlife Refuge

The Black Point Wildlife Drive at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is a seven-mile, self-driving route that makes you feel like you’re on safari. The raised-dike road travels through marshes and pine flatwoods. Don’t be surprised if you see an alligator sunning itself near the road along the way. Other animals to look for include raptors, wading birds, river otters and elusive bobcats. Grab a brochure from the visitor center so you know what to look for and the best stops to make along the drive, which takes about 40 minutes. The entrance fee to the refuge is $10 per vehicle.

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge Birdwatching
Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge bird-watching. (Photo courtesy of Florida’s Space Coast Office of Tourism)

Manatees are a highlight of any Merritt Island visit and you can catch sight of them from several places. About 30 miles south from Black Point Wildlife Drive is Manatee Cove Park, a 30-acre community river park which has a small lagoon where manatees can be viewed in the wild. There’s also a Manatee Observation Deck less than 10 miles north of Black Point Wildlife Drive. Located on SR3 at Haulover Canal, the observation deck is a great spot to view the gentle creatures year-round, especially during spring and fall. You also can see manatees at the nearby Bairs Cove boat launch.

Loggerhead sea turtles also live on the island and shouldn’t be missed. You’ll see them and their nests at the Canaveral Seashore as well as through Turtle Walks conducted by the Sea Turtle Preservation Society. Although the organization doesn’t guarantee a turtle sighting, the walk is near the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, which is the second-largest loggerhead nesting area in the world. Green and leatherback sea turtles can also be found on Florida’s Space Coast. Turtle Walks cost $14 for ages 16 and up; free for ages 8-15. You must be at least 8 years old to participate.

Paddle through bioluminescent waters

June through early October are the warmest months of the year along the Space Coast, and that’s the time to head out paddling on the Indian River Lagoon to see the beautiful phenomenon of bioluminescence. A Day Away Kayak Tours operates excursions that bring you out aboard clear-bottom kayaks within the waters of Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. Everyone in your entourage will be floored when the motion of your paddles through the water creates blueish-green, Tinkerbell-like trails all around you. Kids 5 and older are welcome and rates are $65 per person for the 1.5-hour excursions into the lagoon. Don’t forget the eco-friendly bug spray.

Related: Best credit cards for entertainment expenses

Have a Blissful Beach Day at Cape Canaveral National Seashore

A Florida day at the beach is distilled to its essence at Canaveral National Seashore, a protected barrier island lined with sweeping sandy beaches backed by dunes. The farther you walk from the approaches, the more you’ll have the beach all to yourself.

The undeveloped Playalinda Beach is a premier location to watch rocket launches from Cape Canaveral and it’s great for surfing, too. Or, just spend the day appreciating the remoteness and serenity of the area, with its graceful dunes and sea oats (a coastal plant) dancing in the breeze. Be warned, though: There are sections of the beach where people can go au naturel.

Playalinda Beach - Canaveral National Seashore - Florida
Playalinda Beach, looking north from the Eddy Creek boardwalk. (Photo by S. Anderson/National Park Service)

When you get bored at the beach, you can stroll along wooded trails for a peek at how the real Florida, sans development, looked to the people who first settled the area. Seasonal activities worth marking on your calendar include Turtle Watch programs scheduled from June to July, when you might see a nesting loggerhead. Night Sky Exploration events during the winter months offer a fascinating look at the night sky with the help (and telescopes) of area astronomers.

About 85 miles south of Playalinda Beach is Sebastian Inlet State Park Recreation Area in Melbourne Beach. Considered “a true beach lover’s paradise,” it has three miles of shoreline that’s popular with surfers (check out Monster Hole and First Peak) and anglers (you’ll find them at the fishing pier), plus a duo of museums. A shallow, protected lagoon is good for swimming, snorkeling and kayaking. Rates are $2 for pedestrians and bicyclists; $4 for single-occupant vehicles, and $8 per vehicle with up to eight occupants.

Related: These 12 state parks will make you fall in love with Florida

Halfway between Playalinda Beach and Sebastian Inlet State Park is Cocoa Beach Pier, a historical landmark on the Space Coast. Stretching 800 feet into the Atlantic Ocean, the pier was established in 1962 and features restaurants, bars, gift shops and live musical entertainment. Fishing is great here and many shops rent fishing equipment. There are plentiful catches that change depending on the season. Surf lessons are available at Cocoa Beach Surf School by Flohana. A local favorite for more than 50 years, Cocoa Beach Pier has year-round lifeguards and annual events, such as beach concerts and surf festivals.

Port Canaveral’s Jetty Park, which is about three to four miles north of Cocoa Beach Pier, is another popular Space Coast attraction. It’s a 35-acre park that offers surfing, kayaking, bicycling and camping, and fishing from its 1,200-foot paved and lighted fishing pier. The beach stretches over 4.5 acres so there’s plenty of room for everyone whether you’d like to stroll beach-side or sit contentedly watching cruise ships sail by. There’s a playground for kids and a dozen pavilions with tables and grills, plus plenty of shops, which rent boogie boards, kayaks, chairs and umbrellas, and more. Admission starts at $15 per car, per day; pavilion rental starts at $25 per day.

Related: TPG’s complete guide to cruising from Florida’s Port Canaveral

Where to Stay on the Space Coast

There are tons of points-friendly hotels along the Space Coast, with the bulk of them in and around Cocoa Beach and Melbourne. You can redeem and earn Marriott, Radisson Rewards, IHG Rewards Club and Hilton Honors points at various properties. Some good bets include:

Related: Best hotel credit cards for family vacations

Courtyard Cocoa Beach (photo courtesy of hotel)
Courtyard Cocoa Beach. (Photo courtesy of Courtyard Cocoa Beach)

Bottom Line

Considering how easy it is to rent a car in Orlando and drive east to the Space Coast, there’s really no reason why you shouldn’t tack a few days onto your theme-park itinerary to get out and about in the real Florida. After all, there’s no cure like saltwater, sea and sun for the fatigue of long lines and crowds.

Featured image by C. Fredrickson Photography/Getty Images

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