Why Florida’s Space Coast Is Just the Break You Need From the Theme Parks

a rainbow over a body of water

Theme parks might be what initially brings you to Central Florida, but if you neglect to venture east to the beaches and wildlife-rich Indian River Lagoon near Kennedy Space Center along the state’s Space Coast, you’ll be missing out on the real Florida.

Roughly 55 miles east of Walt Disney World Resort, Florida’s Space Coast, home to the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, has 72 miles of coastline that stretches from Titusville in the north to just north of Sebastian Inlet in the south. The region offers easy access to areas of pristine natural beauty where you can learn to surf, paddle through bioluminescent waters at night and scout for manatees, dolphins and alligators by day.

I certainly get the appeal of Orlando and the theme parks for a family vacation. But as a Floridian, it does make me scratch my head a bit when people come to this wild state and an animatronic alligator and themed thrill rides are as far as they get. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good roller coaster (the Incredible Hulk at Universal Orlando is my all-time favorite, even if my babies aren’t even close to being old enough to ride it themselves). But heading east from Orlando and making time to take the kids to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex and surrounding natural attractions is a must.

When you’re ready to press pause on the theme parks and crowds for a day, here are a few places where you won’t have to wait in a line to see the real Florida along the family-friendly Space Coast.

a group of people walking on a sandy beach: Playalinda Beach ((Photo courtesy of Florida’s Space Coast Office of Tourism)

How to Get to the Space Coast

Named for Kennedy Space Center on Cape Canaveral and the space explorations launched from there, the closest major airport to the Space Coast is Orlando Airport (MCO), about 45 miles west of Cape Canaveral. Much smaller, but serviced by Delta and American Airlines from Dallas and Atlanta respectively, Orlando-Melbourne Airport (MLB), right near downtown Melbourne on the Space Coast, is minutes from beaches and 45 minutes south of Cocoa Beach and Cape Canaveral (and an hour from Disney).

Where to Stay on the Space Coast

There are tons of points-friendly hotels along the Space Coast, with the bulk of them in and around Cocoa Beach and Melbourne. There you can redeem and earn Marriott, Radisson Rewards, IHG Rewards Club and Hilton Honors points at various locations. Some good bets include:

  • Hilton Melbourne Beach Oceanfront: between 36k–50k Hilton points per night
  • DoubleTree Suites by Hilton Melbourne Beach Oceanfront: between 33k–50k Hilton points per night
  • Hampton Inn Melbourne/Viera: between 24k–40k Hilton points per night
  • Residence Inn by Marriott Melbourne: from 17.5k Marriott points per night
  • Courtyard Cocoa Beach Cape Canaveral: from 25k Marriott points per night
  • Radisson Resort at the Port (Cape Canaveral): from 38k Radisson points per night
  • Radisson Suite Hotel Oceanfront (Melbourne): from 44k Radisson points per night
  • Crowne Plaza Oceanfront-Melbourne: from 30k IHG Rewards Club points per night
  • Holiday Inn Express & Suites Cocoa Beach: from 35k IHG Rewards Club points per night

a bedroom with a bed and a chair in a room: Courtyard Cocoa Beach (photo courtesy of hotel)

Top Family Activities on Florida’s Space Coast

Here are the Space Coast activities your family will love.

1. Cruise on the Indian River Queen

Rolling, rolling, rolling on the river. Step aboard this triple-deck paddlewheel boat for a fun and informative cruise through the Indian River Lagoon, one of the most biodiverse estuaries in the world. The Sunday cruises on the Indian River Queenare only scheduled once a month, so you’ll have to time things right (with one Friday night dinner show cruise per month, too). The reward comes in excellent chances of spotting famed Florida denizens along the lines of manatees, dolphins, coastal birds and more. Tours last roughly two hours and cost $30 per person; $25 for kids ages 3–12.

2. Kayak Alongside Giraffe

The Space Coast’s fabulous Brevard Zoo is really well done, with exhibits built right into the surrounding Florida landscapes and a lovely open-air ambiance you can explore with the kids via elevated boardwalks. It’s also the only zoo in the country that offers guided tours around a live animal exhibit. Kids 5 and older will beam with joy when they get to paddle along behind the guide through Expedition Africa, where they’ll have the chance to spot giraffes, ostrich, zebra, rhinos and more from a safe position on the water. And, you can head out on self-guided paddling tours in the zoo’s Wild Florida exhibit, too, to see more familiar local animals. Tickets are $10 per person. Kids, ages 5–12, must paddle with a paying adult.

3. Take a Surf Lesson and Ride Waves

Cocoa Beach is where world champion professional surf legend Kelly Slater grew up learning to shred. And your kids can cut their chops on the same pretty beaches and mellow waves with the Ron Jon Surf School, which offers group and private lessons as well as seasonal surf camps. Before you head out into the actual surf, instructors will show you the ropes of paddling, getting into position on the board and pushing up in preparation of catching a wave right there on the sand. There’s no guarantee they’ll catch a wave, but don’t be surprised if your kids catch a case of surf fever. Group lessons from $50 per person, per hour or private lessons from $65 per hour.

4. Scout for Gators on a Drive Through a Wildlife Refuge

The Black Point Wildlife Driveat the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is a seven-mile self-driving route that will have the whole family feeling like they’re on safari. The raised dike road here travels through marshes and pine flatwoods, and don’t be surprised if you see an alligator sunning itself near the road along the way. Other animals to look for include raptors, wading birds, river otters and elusive bobcats. Grab a brochure from the visitor center so you know what to look for and the best stops to make along the drive, which takes about 40 minutes to enjoy. The entrance fee to the refuge is $10 per vehicle.

an animal drinking water from a pond: Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge bird-watching (Photo courtesy of Florida’s Space Coast Office of Tourism)

5. Go on a Paddling Tour Through Bioluminescent Waters

June through early October are the warmest months of the year along the Space Coast, and that’s the time to head out paddling on the Indian River Lagoon to see the beautiful phenomenon of bioluminescence. A Day Away Kayak Tours operates excursions that bring you out aboard clear kayaks within the waters of Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. Everyone in your entourage will be floored when the motion of your paddles through the water creates blueish-green Tinkerbell-like trails all around you. Kids 5 and older are welcome and rates are $60 per person for the 1.5-hour excursions into the lagoon. Don’t forget the eco-friendly bug spray.

6. Have a Blissful Beach Day at Cape Canaveral National Seashore

A Florida day at the beach gets distilled to its essence at Canaveral National Seashore, a protected barrier island lined with sweeping sandy beaches backed by dunes. The farther you walk from the approaches, the more you’ll have the beach all to yourself. When you get bored at the beach, you can stroll along wooded trails for a peek at how the real Florida, sans development, looked to the people who first settled here. Seasonal activities worth marking on your calendar include Turtle Watch programs scheduled from May 15 through the summer months, when you might see a nesting loggerhead. Night Sky Exploration events during the winter months offer a fascinating look at the night sky with the help (and telescopes) of area astronomers.

Bottom Line

Considering how easy it is to rent a car in Orlando and drive east to the Space Coast, there’s really no reason why you shouldn’t tack a few days onto your theme park itinerary to get the family out and about in the real Florida. After all, there’s no cure like salt water, sea and sun for the fatigue of long lines and crowds.

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