Balancing air and water on the space coast

Getaways - February 2005


Susy Schultz


Cocoa Beach, Fla. OK, I admit it. When we decided to go to Cocoa Beach, Fla., the first thing I thought of seeing was not the Kennedy Space Center, the keystone of our country’s 40-year history of space exploration and now home to NASA’s space shuttle fleet. Nor did I think of the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, the 140,000 beautiful acres which surrounds the space center and is home to some 500 wild birds and animals—some of them endangered.

No, the first thought that popped into my head was that we could see Major Nelson’s house.

Some of you may remember that before actor Larry Hagman was J.R. on the “Dallas” TV show, he was master to Barbara Eden’s genie on the series, “I Dream of Jeannie.” And Major Tony Nelson lived in Cocoa Beach. Perhaps a brighter youngster would have made the connection between the character’s job, an astronaut, and his nearby office at the space center. Not me. That came later, only after I read The Right Stuff.

Cocoa Beach is in the heart of what is marketed as the Florida Space Coast. Thirty-five miles east of Orlando, this is the beach closest to Disney World and, according to the press material, contains “72 miles of pristine Atlantic beaches.”

The stretch includes the cities of Cocoa Beach, Melbourne, Palm Bay and Titusville.

Many look at this stop in Florida as a weekend trip from Disney to see the Kennedy Space Center. The Florida Space Coast people would prefer you to think of the area as its own destination. While that may be possible without children, if you have children—and that is why you are reading this—then you will have to endure what I did, the inevitable, “Aren’t we going to Disney World?”

Still, I thought this a great place to spend your vacation. The beaches are beautiful and the Space Center is an experience—we spent about four hours there, although you could easily spend several days. Still, the tipping point for me was Merritt Island. It alone is worth the trip. 

The space center To get to Cocoa Beach, you need to land in Orlando, which means you need to rent a car. While you can negotiate with the shuttle drivers outside the airport and pay about $60 to get to Cocoa Beach, once you get to there, you need the car to get around. 

We were guests of the Space Coast Office of Tourism, a group of hotels, restaurants, shops and venues that market themselves together. There are numerous hotels along the strip and the Web site has a list of hotels as well. Prices range from $70 to $230 a night.

No matter where you stay, the draw here is the space center on Merritt Island—not Cape Kennedy. The Air Force operates the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Cape Canaveral.

Kennedy is where the first rockets were launched. It is where the astronauts left for the first manned mission into space. It is where the space shuttles are built and launched. And it also is where you understand the scope and magnitude of what it takes to build and maintain our space program. There are two launch pads, the world’s longest runway and the nation’s biggest building, the VAB or the Vehicle Assembly Building.

I found myself more awed than my boys until we stood in a room and heard the tape of a launch and felt the simulated shake of the whole room. In an era where our children see too many video images, it is worth it to show them the real thing. Standing alongside the capsules and the shuttle is amazing.

We attended the lunch with an astronaut program, we saw a film about life in space and were able to ask questions of  Richard A. Searfoss, a former astronaut. He was affable and fascinating.

The whole space center is a cross between serious science and amusement park, complete with shopping complex and IMAX theaters. It deserves a day for full digestion.

The nature I was surprised by how much beauty there is to enjoy in the area. We took a kayaking trip through Merritt Island and as we kayaked through the area, we cut through the water with dolphins and birds and had an up-close and personal visit with manatees.

Then we headed to the ocean for our first surfing lesson with the Cocoa Beach Surf School. The young man was gracious with the old mom of the group but he almost discouraged my younger son with his “dangers of the deep” lecture on sea life. Still, we spent two hours surfing and my younger son did quite well. My older boy and I spent a lot of time on our knees. Had we had more time, we would have surfed more and gone fishing.

We also got a bit of the up-close and personal with our airboat ride in Cocoa, Fla., on the St. Johns River. I think of airboats as loud, smoke-spewing and rather nasty ways to invade rather than enjoy nature. But it turned out to be interesting. We saw some amazing alligators and birds that we would not have otherwise. At the Lone Cabbage Fish Camp, we ate great catfish and froglegs.

I have now officially reframed Cocoa Beach in my warped-by-TV mind. This is much more than a destination in which to view only an imaginary character’s TV home. There are great beaches, great kayaking and the space center is an important stop for kid’s to understand our space exploration history. Besides, Tony Nelson’s home wasn’t even worth the drive-by.  



Susy Schultz is editor of Chicago Parent and the mother of Zachary and Bryant.

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