Winged Imaginations

Ages-old birding meets space-age technology on Florida's Space Coast.

My family: rocket scientists, we are not. Still there's that certain something about flight that puts our collective imagination in a tailspin and ends us up landing on Florida's Space Coast. Not only because it's home to Kennedy Space Center, but because of the depth of winged things one can experience in this one-of-a-kind environment of aeronautical and natural wonders - from butterflies and bald eagles to space shuttles and Flying Tigers.

You've got to get the big picture here. The space center is the Kahuna of attractions, particularly in the wing-thing department. But consider the fact that the government, in order to locate its space program here, had to set aside a vast buffer of land to be preserved from development and the equation computes to the 140,000-acre Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and Canaveral National Seashore - all free of beach resorts, shopping centers, or anything remotely resembling civilization. Well, except for those launch pads and other high-tech-looking structures that backdrop the natural areas through the mist of pounding surf. Nature and technology collide that way here on the Space Coast.

So launch your kids' imaginations with a day at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. If they're older or obsessed with space ships, spring for the maximum access pass, so they can ride a shuttle to the launch areas and tour the wowsome, moonstruck Apollo/Saturn V Center. Plus, visit Astronaut Hall of Fame, where they can get as close to becoming space explorers on topsy-turvy simulators as gravity will allow. One actually loses gravity, as a matter of fact.

Those with shorter attention spans will be happy climbing into capsules in the main campus' Rocket Garden, meeting a real-live astronaut and giggling at astro-shenanigans in the live, 3-D and interactive "Mad Mission to Mars: 2025" show.

Hit the Nature & Technology exhibit to learn the interaction between winged rockets and winged wildlife at the refuge, which boasts, among 19 other endangered and threatened species, majestic bald eagles and a preserve for the rare Florida scrub jay. Contact the local Audubon Society for guided birding tours of the refuge and other watch spots along the "Atlantic Flyway."

Stop in between attractions for seafood at Dixie Crossroads in nearby Titusville, where a mural outside depicts the importance of flight to the area. While in town, stroll the U.S. Space Walk of Fame along the river. Kids can "high-five" molded plaque handprints of John Glenn, Alan Shepard and others.

Spaceships are not the only mechanical fly game in town, however, and at Valiant Air Command Warbird Air Museum, kids can stroll among colorful, beautifully maintained military aircraft with names like Grasshopper, Buckeye, Mohawk and Tomcat. They'll especially like the toothy Flying Tigers and fanciful Wild Duck.

One of our family's favorite places to admire flight, Brevard Zoo in Melbourne, makes it easy for little ones to observe birds, but still in a habitat suitable and natural. Flamingos, scarlet ibis, roseate spoonbills, hawks and wild turkeys populate the Flamingo Pond and Native Florida sections. Take a half-hour kayak excursion through the latter for a family introduction to the sport (for ages 5 and older). To get a close-up look, kids especially love the walk-through aviaries that house flying squirrels and the chance to feed lorikeets.

Brevard Museum of History & Natural Science in Cocoa also affords the opportunity to walk among butterflies in an outdoor garden frequented by swallowtails, orange sulphurs and gulf fritillaries. Signs identify them and teach about their anatomy, life cycles and favorite munchies.

Nearby, let kids' imaginations soar to the stars at the Astronaut Memorial Planetarium & Observatory at Brevard Community College. Go Friday or Saturday evening, when you can scramble up on the roof and take a free peek through the observatory's powerful 24-inch telescope. While there, catch a three-story-high feature film in the IWERKS theater and a skywatch show in the planetarium.

That's what I'm talking about, entertaining stuff that lets your child's mind escape along a new orbit where - future rocket scientist or not - he or she is sure to discover, learn and often squeal in delight.

For more information on the above activities and attractions and for help in planning other family getaways in the Space Coast area, visit or call Florida's Space Coast Office of Tourism at 800-93OCEAN.

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