This post is part of a paid partnership with Florida’s Space Coast. As always, I retain editorial control and opinions are all mine. Thank you for supporting the destinations that help make the resources on this site possible.
Hey y’all! Rick and I just got back from a visit to Florida’s Space Coast – you know, the area encompassing Cape Canaveral, Titusville, Melbourne and Cocoa Beach. While the Space Coast is an easy day trip from Jacksonville, I hadn’t been since I was a little kid watching a shuttle launch with my grandma. After this weekend’s visit, I see I’ve been missing out on one of the most fun destinations in my home state. The Space Coast is affordable, convenient to just about anywhere in Florida, family friendly, outdoorsy and just chock filled with wildlife. No sooner did I gaze out over a body of water (and there are so many) than a dolphin would leap into the air. I’m not kidding!
What I loved so much about this particular trip was the cooler weather and the relaxed autumn vibe. Tourist friendly Florida is filled with visitors most of the time, but this sweet spot between back-to-school and the holidays is one of the quietest times to schedule a trip. From night kayaking to visiting the Kennedy Space Center, we felt like we had our run of the place – and that just doesn’t happen often in this popular destination, you know what I mean?
We crammed a whole lot of fun into our little weekend away. Here’s what we got up to!
Go on a Water Safari at the Brevard Zoo
Just off I-95 is the surprisingly affordable Brevard Zoo. It’s about as close as you can get to visiting Africa without actually booking a flight. As kayaking adventures go, the skill level required for this one is pretty tame. The water is calm, and all the participants easily follow the volunteer guide around an hourlong loop. The creatures you encounter along the way are what make it fun. We saw giraffes, monkeys, ostriches, lemurs, zebras, impala, cranes and rhinos – all in Central Florida. How cool is that?
The Brevard Zoo offers a variety of animal encounters that support conservation efforts, so if you’re into exotic birds, rhinos or have always wanted to feed a giraffe, there are options for just about every animal enthusiast. And note: while it was just Rick, Rae and me this time, I couldn’t help but add to my mental day-trip list for future foster kids. I mean, if my 6’4” “kid” was entertained for hours, I imagine real children will love it, too.
Test your Limits with Bioluminescent Night Kayaking
Scared of the dark? Wary of what lurks in Central Florida waters? Don’t be! This fun, educational excursion with A Day Away Kayak Tours is a perfectly safe way to take kayaking to the next level.
The shallow lagoon waters on the Space Coast are filled with sparkling microscopic algae called dinoflagellate, as well as a species of jiggly non-stinging jellyfish that glow green or blue when bumped into with a paddle, your hand or a wayward mullet. No, the glowing creatures aren’t a result of NASA experiments gone wrong, though the kayak guides have certainly heard that joke before. When you dip your paddle into the dark water, you’ll see sparkles. It’s so unexpected!
Depending on what time of year you visit, the sparkles range anywhere from spectacular to muted. High season for the bioluminescence is summertime, but even in November, we saw plenty and felt like it was a good value for the price. We weren’t lucky enough to spot a dolphin or a manatee on this trip, but depending where you launch it is possible. And the bioluminescent glow of a big mammal underwater is said to be almost a spiritual experience.
Explore The Final Frontier at Kennedy Space Center
I hadn’t been to Kennedy Space Center since the 80s, so I remembered wandering through the Rocket Garden, scanning the canals for alligators on the bus tour and eating astronaut ice cream, but that was about it. I was pleasantly surprised to find KSC was even more fun as an adult!
Rick and I spent a whole day here taking in IMAX movies, trying out flight simulators, wedging ourselves into spacecraft, touring the Rocket Garden and loving the newest attraction and jewel in the crown, the Space Shuttle: Atlantis exhibit. Housed in a $100 million facility, you could easily spend 2-3 hours marveling at the shuttle program alone.
I won’t spoil the moment for you with too many details, but I will say that there’s a point in the Atlantis exhibit that gave me a patriotic lump in my throat. I’m not crying. You’re crying!
Frolic at Cocoa Beach Pier
It’s so funny how your own hometown shapes your expectations while traveling. We planned to stop and look at the Cocoa Beach Pier, expecting it to be just that, a pier and nothing more – like ours! How surprised were we upon arrival when the Cocoa Beach Pier was lively with activity. Restaurants, volleyball courts, surfboard rental, a colorful lifeguard station, shopping, ice cream, an arcade – and Rick’s favorite – a fishing section with colorful rocking chairs and a thatched roof bar at the very end.
Parking was a bit much at $10, but you get some of that back if you patronize the pier’s establishments. Definitely a fun way to spend an afternoon and a nice place to begin exploring the area’s 72 miles of beaches.
Take a Self-Guided Wildlife Drive
We stumbled across the Blackpoint Wildlife Drive, a 7-mile one-way dirt road that winds through shallow marsh and pine forest in the Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge. We didn’t even know what we were getting into when we turned down that dusty road, but an hour later, we’d seen no fewer than 20 different bird species including bright pink Roseate Spoonbills, 2 wild hogs and 7 alligators. What a treat for us wildlife lovers!
While not a part of the Blackpoint Wildlife Drive, if you’re coming all this way to see Florida’s critters you absolutely have to pop up to the Manatee Viewing Deck at the Haulover Canal. Our fishing guide told us about a place where you could see dozens of manatees and we were skeptical until we arrived and they were absolutely everywhere. Dozens and dozens of them!
Check out the Legendary Fishing at Mosquito Lagoon*
*In good weather! Unfortunately we got (almost) skunked on our day on the water. The wind direction meant we couldn’t even get into legendary Mosquito Lagoon, so we stuck to the almost-as-legendary Indian River Lagoon instead. Rough winds and choppy water made the usually hungry redfish sleepy or indifferent or moody, so while Rick landed one itty-bitty trout, that was it for the day.
We were pretty bummed, but it wasn’t a total disappointment – a boat ride in a gorgeous place never is. In the shadow of the Kennedy Space Center, we saw herons, pelicans and an endangered wood stork, and a handful of dolphins swim within 10 feet of our anchored boat.
Looking for somewhere to stay on the Space Coast?
We checked out the Homewood Suites by Hilton in Cape Canaveral. It’s one of the newest hotels in the area and just a stone’s throw away from Port Canaveral and its restaurants (check out brand new Rising Tide for out-of-this-world burgers).
Cruise passengers should take note and arrive a day or two early, because I quickly discovered that Port Canaveral is more than just a jumping off point. And same goes for folks coming from afar to visit Orlando’s theme parks. Having now seen so much of what the Space Coast has to offer, I have to say every family should take at least a day out of roller coasters and princesses to pop over and explore some of the best of the Floridian outdoors.
Space ships, surf culture and shorebirds – that sums up the Space Coast in a pretty neat little package. I can’t count how many times Rick and I said, “Oh, we’ll do this the next time we come back,” or “Let’s bring Alex/Mom/Aunt Peggy/Naomi/Chris next time.” Clearly, our next visit to the Space Coast can’t come soon enough!
This is a sponsored conversation written by me on behalf of Florida’s Space Coast. The opinions and text are all mine.