Accessible Travel: All Visitors Have a Blast at Kennedy Space Center
By Janet K. Keeler
Space may not be the most accessible tourist destination – yet – but the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex at Cape Canaveral is the next best thing for travelers who want to experience the final frontier.
The sprawling complex on the aptly named Space Coast in Brevard County takes visitors through the history of America’s space program in the home of where much of it launched. And, in fact, space exploration is still a priority here.
Rocket launches draw locals and tourists to nearby beaches, roads and viewing stands to watch spacecraft blast skyward. Life pretty much stops day or night in Brevard County when a rocket launches. Everyone from here and as far west as Orlando is outside looking up. A drive south through Brevard County will turn up lots of businesses named with a space theme plus a town called Satellite Beach.
The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex reserves front-row seats in its viewing area for visitors using wheelchairs or other mobility assistive devices. There is no need to make arrangements in advance because the area is always reserved.
About 1.5 million people visit KSCVC each year to experience the next best thing for actually going into space: a simulated launch and the opportunity to talk with astronaut, among other things.
A variety of services and features are provided to make experiencing the wonders of space enjoyable to guests with physical challenges, including mobility, hearing, vision and developmental.
For example, KSCVC has worked with Autism Double-Checked to help caregivers prepare a traveler with Autism Spectrum Disorder for what to expect at KSCVC. Some of the exhibits have loud noises or crowds of people on busy days and that can be distressing to someone with autism and it is good for caregivers and fellow travelers to know this in advance. An in-park guide includes descriptions of the exhibitions and experiences and includes a story “I am Going to Kennedy Space Center” that can be read to children in advance of their visit. Autism Double-Checked specializes in helping travel companies and destinations create autism-friendly programs.
First-time visitors may be surprised at the level of interactivity at KSCVC, which opened 52 years ago. Wide paved and level walkways run through the complex and so much is going on behind closed doors that it can look a bit quiet but that is deceiving. Still, those quiet spots come in handy if a break from the noise and crowd is needed to regenerate.
The skyline of the Rocket Garden is one of the first attractions visitors will see as they enter the visitors center and those in wheelchairs or using other mobility assistive devices can easily negotiate the path through the relics of space discovery. Eight rockets are displayed, seven of them mounted upright including two Mercury rockets. The massive Saturn 1B rocket looms large on its side. The rockets are among the most photographed features at the center and provide a great backdrop for family photos and selfies.
There’s not much quiet about the Shuttle Launch Experience during which visitors get a taste of a rumbling liftoff. The shuttle program ended in 2011 but civilians can still “ride” a module that fits into the payload bay of a shuttle. A video briefing by NASA astronauts, who helped develop the exhibit, gets riders ready to strap into the simulation ride. Each cabin has one accessible seat with a pivoting grab bar that allows someone in a wheelchair to make the transfer to an extended seat with a five-point harness. There is an observation room for those who can’t or don’t want to take part and they can watch the launch on flat-screen TV monitors. The prelaunch briefing has captioning for the hearing-impaired.
With a two-week notice, KSCVS will provide an American Sign Language interpreter to accompany hearing-impaired guests on their visit. Also, there is reflective captioning available for IMAX films and theater staff can provide the reflectors to anyone who asks. Closed captioning is on the monitors of all tour buses.
There are a few hearing loops at the KSC which transfer audio directly to hearing aids, cochlear implants, or special receivers. These are found at the IMAX and Universal Theaters. At the ticket windows, some of the window intercoms are equipped with the hearing loop as well.
No advance notification is needed for the complimentary orientation for visitors who are blind or who have low-vision. This brief talk provides a layout of the complex. KSC Smartguides can be rented daily but are free to those with vision impairments. These personal handheld guides provide audio and digital information.
A 45-minute bus tour of the restricted areas is included in the admission price. This tour will get you closer to the vehicle assembly building, which was so prominent on during televised shuttle launches. Buses are accessible to wheelchairs and motorized scooters, which can be rented at the entrance of the center.
There are several tours that can be booked for an additional price. The two-hour Kennedy Space Center Explore Tour spends more time in the restricted areas including at Launch Complex 39. Visitors leave the bus for photo opportunities. The three-hour Cape Canaveral Early Space Tour includes a tour of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The first launches of the space program were made from here. The Air Force Space & Missile Museum, the Mercury 7 Monument, Launch Complex 34 and the memorial site for the Apollo I crew are among the stops. Bus lifts aid those in wheelchairs and personal motorized vehicles at stops where visitors get off to look.
The astronaut training and Mars Base I experiences are not fully accessible and more information about them can be obtained in the welcome center at the entrance. This is also where wheelchairs and motorized scooters can be rented.
Advanced reservations and separate tickets are needed to pal around and dine with an astronaut. Both of these experiences are accessible to people with mobility issues. The astronaut-of-the-day will accompany visitors to the Shuttle Launch Experience and the Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit, and the bus tour.
Space Center officials said they have worked diligently to make the visitors center accessible. They welcome phone calls about accommodations not outlined on their website, plus a stop at the information center directly before entering the center is another source for information or to make requests.
When you go…
Kennedy Space Center Visitors Center
Space Commerce Way, Merritt Island, FL 32953