The 72-mile strip of Florida shoreline directly east of Orlando was nicknamed the Space Coast for its slew of NASA-related attractions: Port Canaveral, the Kennedy Space Center, the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame and more. But the area has plenty of other attractions to offer vacationing families. In Cocoa Beach—the town where I Dream of Jeannie was set—you can fish off an 800-foot pier, learn to surf (or tour the Surfing Hall of Fame) and unwind over fresh fish sandwiches at Coconuts on the Beach (321-784-1422), while the kids join a pickup game of volleyball on the sand. Nearby are stunning wildlife preserves, swamp rides and some quirky interactive museums—all less than an hour’s drive from Orlando.
Join the Space Race
If you can visit only one space-related site, make it the Kennedy Space Center (321-449-4444; kennedyspacecenter.com), on Merritt Island. You’ll see the launch pads, touch a Mars rock and check out a full-scale replica of the International Space Station. A five-minute ride in the Shuttle Launch Experience, which opened in May, will make you feel as if you’re orbiting Earth.
Where the Birds Are
Grab binoculars and head for the Ulumay Wildlife Sanctuary (321-868-1123; brevardparks.com). This 436-acre reserve on Merritt Island is home to egrets and wood storks, herons and pelicans, ospreys and lesser scaup, American coots and yellow-rumped warblers. The observation tower offers a terrific bird’s-eye view.
Giraffes will eat crackers from your hand and jorikeets can sit on your shoulder at the Brevard Zoo (321-254-9453; brevardzoo.org). An old-fashioned animal center in Melbourne, the zoo is filled with wallabies, cotton-top tamarins and ring-tailed lemurs. Its Wetlands Outpost offers an Africa Exhibition kayak tour of white rhinos and other elusive beasts.
Reporting for Duty
Learn all about cop work at the American Police Hall of Fame & Museum in Titusville (321-264-0911; aphf.org). A real guillotine, an electric chair and a gas chamber are on display, as are two chilling walk-in jail cells. See how chemicals can reveal blood and fingerprints at crime scenes. The names of 8,000 officers killed in the line of duty are etched on a somber memorial wall. Besides all that, there’s an air-conditioned shooting range; helicopter rides are offered, too.
Space fanatics will get a thrill at the U.S. Space Walk of Fame (321-264-0434; spacewalkoffame.com), a storefront Titusville museum filled with such minutiae as space-shuttle sleep shorts, John Glenn’s hard hat and caps worn by Russian cosmonauts. Children can flip switches from the actual Atlas controls—the museum snagged the equipment when the Atlas program ended in 2005.
Right on Track
Let the kids loose at the Andretti Thrill Park in Melbourne (321-956-6706; andrettithrillpark.com). They’ll get hooked on the go-kart courses—that is, if you can get them past the 7,000-square-foot arcade, the batting cages and the laser tag arena. The whole family can play miniature golf or ride the paddleboats.
Wet and Wild
Take a guided airboat ride through some of Florida’s famous wetlands. Propelled by huge fans, the boats zip over the reedy marshes of the St. Johns River and Lake Poinsett, populated with alligators, bald eagles and river otters. Operators include Old Fashioned Air Boat Rides (407-568-4307; nbbd.com) and Grasshopper Airboat Eco-Tours (321-631-2990; airboatecotours.com). Call for trip details.