Central Florida’s Space Coast


Altas V launch of a Space Based Infrared Radar Satellite (Photo: Craig Rubadoux, Florida Today)

I live on the beach in Southern California, so I have a bias when I say that I don’t get why people go to this part of Florida on vacation. Yes they have warmer water, they’re closer to a greater percentage of the US population, and it’s cheaper to get to. But it is insufferably muggy hot for much of the year, the mosquitoes are assholes, everything smells like mold, and I’ve seen some of the redneck stereotypes in action. (We have our own awful stereotypes in California that I’ve seen in action too… pick your poison). For my job over the past eight years I have averaged about a trip a month to The Sunshine State, so I have lots of advice on the central coast. If I was forced to vacation in Florida, it would be Miami for sure, but I’ve only been there once.

Is it safe? When you’re traveling here, be aware: Everyone is actively trying to scam tourists out of their money. Protect yourself. And protect yourself from mosquitoes – I recommend bringing wipes instead of the spray, that way you don’t have to check your bag for the liquid. Turn your door light off in your rental car. When you open the door at night, they’ll rush in and you’ll be trapped in the car with them while you drive. I’ve always found the area I stay in Cocoa Beach to be safe to walk at night, but still be careful, especially around bars. Gun laws are a little more free here, and I don’t think there are any places in the US that are safe from a random shooting. (Around the block from me included).

WHAT NOT TO DO: The most important part to me about tourism is to not support animal cruelty. Sea World, Miami Seaquarium, and anywhere that you can swim with captive whales and dolphins are on the list of the top most abusive places on the planet. If you go to one, you are a bad person. You are a bad parent. The best place to start learning more information is with the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove and with Blackfish.

Getting around

I always fly into Orlando International Airport (MCO), and it is THE WORST airport I’ve ever been to. The lines to get through security are RIDICULOUS, and if you don’t have TSA Precheck you could easily miss your flight. It smells like mold, and there are a bunch of unsupervised sugared-up, over-tired children coming and going. People that go to Orlando don’t travel very often, so they slow everything down and the whole experience is incredibly frustrating for a seasoned traveler or for business people. Plan extra time.

Going to the coast from MCO, you’ll take a toll road; I always get a bottle of water at the airport and get change in quarters so I don’t have to wait in line to pay. It’s $2.50 each way from the airport to the Coast, but if you’re going to the amusement parks to the west, then it’s more. Whatever you do, don’t use the transponder for tolls included in the rental car. They will likely be charging you per day for the convenience, even on days you’re not driving through a toll.

The most expensive gas stations in America are right by MCO. Don’t stop for $5/gallon gas right by the airport. Go to the BP off Narcoosee – a few miles east of the airport. Or if you miss it you can take the airport exit (Semoran) and drive north past the bad gas stations to a Mobil.

What to do

  • Of course the best thing to do when you go to the Space Coast is to see stuff being sent into space, right? Check SpaceflightNow for a schedule of upcoming launches. Everything can change at the last minute – check with them or twitter for updates every step of the way. For the best place to watch, you can drive up to as close as you can get to the gate and park where you see people parked and watch from there. Or watch from a restaurant in the port. I indicate below the good launch locations!
  • Take your kids to Kennedy Space Center instead of to see the mouse or any of the other big parks. It’s cooler and less expensive and so amazing. I really liked the launch simulator ride, and on certain days they can do a meet and greet with actual astronauts!
  • If you like wakeboarding – I really recommend going to the wakeboard park by the airport.
  • I am a total Ravenclaw, I like checking out the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. The frozen butterbeer is better than the one over ice. Take the singles line when you ride Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey because it goes faster. (I really don’t like big crowds, this still makes me anxious. It says a lot about how much of a Potterhead I am that I went. The whole experience was frustrating from parking to the cost of tickets, it’s not something I’d regularly do).
  • I finally had a free day and checked out the newer Diagon Alley – the original Hogsmead is in the Islands of Adventure park, and Diagon Alley is in Universal Studios Florida. So if you want to go to both, you need two separate tickets and you would ride the Hogwarts Express between the two. It is SUPER expensive. I found that going to Universal for $118 plus $20 in parking totally wasn’t worth it. I didn’t check out any other exhibit than the Harry Potter stuff. It was kinda lame.
    • The escape from Gringotts ride was super cool. You get 3D glasses to wear. I was a little freaked out about how many other people’s faces those goggles had been on. Maybe bring sani-wipes with you. Loved that they had blasts of heat to make it a truly immersive experience.
    • Had lunch at the Leaky Cauldron. It was super good! However, I got the butterbeer pot de creme for dessert, and it was too saccharine and gross. Skip.
    • The special Harry Potter beer they had was brewed by Florida Brewing. (See my comments below). It was gross.
    • The dragon spews fire every ten minutes! So neat!
  • And of course, the beach!
  • I have not been on one of the airboat rides in all my years there! I would love to check it out!

Where to stay

The Courtyard Cocoa Beach is like home to me. It’s the only place I stay. I stick to my Marriott brand loyalty so I can get free nights when I’m on vacation. You get more points/stay at the Courtyard than you do the Residence Inn. Plus the staff is so nice and they have a Starbucks in the lobby. You could walk straight out on the beach from the hotel to watch a launch. As I recommend in my Travel Hacking tips, you need to pick a super chain and stick to it to earn points and free vacations if you’re going to stay in hotels at all regularly.

Where to eat

Since I stay here for work, I eat in a lot of restaurants. Here’s the extensive list of where to go:

  • The Fat Snook is Top Chef good. The deserts are ridiculous. It’s in a little strip mall, but is one of the nicer spots in Cocoa Beach. GET THE KEY LIME PIE. If another desert sounds tempting, get that first and get a slice of pie to go. SO GOOD. Their sister restaurant, Crush Eleven, is also AMAZING; it’s located in Cocoa Village and has a swankier atmosphere.
  • Preacher Bar has OK food (it’s a pizza place) but great beer and the best ambiance. I’ve met astronauts hanging out there!
  • Fishlips has everything – downstairs is a nicer restaurant with air conditioning. Upstairs is a sports bar with trivia and great views of the cruise ships in the port. Really good food, this is a standard go-to. Their Halloween party is the bomb, and it’s a great place to watch a launch. In the same parking lot is Grills, which has an amazing outdoor patio. Sometimes they have shark on the menu.
  • There are actually very few restaurants that are right on the beach. Coconuts has been newly remodeled and it’s a great spot for a beer or a Pain in the Ass. The mai tais are delish! Great view, better people watching. The first time I went here, I saw a shark breach out of the water. The sweet potato fries are good! You could watch a launch from here, but it’s a bit farther away. You won’t get as much rumble. Do not order the nachos.
  • Another bar tucked in a stripmall that is nicer than that sounds is Florida Fresh Seafood. We go there frequently!
  • My favorite BBQ is Madd Jack’s Grillin’ Shack (new location, moved to Cocoa Beach from Cape Canaveral). Check if they’re open before you go. I also like Slow & Low.
  • There is really not any healthy food you can find at restaurants. I try to go to the Green Room Cafe for a salad when I can. Most everything else is barbecued and fried, this is a great healthy break.
  • Nolan’s pours the best pint of Guinness I’ve had outside of Ireland.
  • I was skeptical of a place called Thai Thai, but this is the go-to place for good sushi and Thai food.
  • Sandbar used to be THE PLACE that we would go to on Tuesday nights. Then they started a huge marketing push at the tourists, and it’s not the cool spot it was anymore. If you get the fish tacos on Tuesday, know that they cooked the fish the day before to keep up with the demand. You can play beer pong here, it’s awesome. But it’s hard to find a seat and it’s loud. Live music and karaoke too!
  • Beer:
    • Cocoa Beach Brewing is small and good.
    • Bugnutty on Merritt island is worthwhile and has a fun space theme
    • If you want to drive a little east to Viera, World of Beer has an amazing selection. They don’t have food, but I’ll pick up from Panera and eat there.
    • I’m begrudgingly including Florida Beer on here. They have an amazing facility with a really neat tasting room. But there isn’t a single beer there that I’d rate above average.

I’m sure I’m forgetting stuff. I’ll update this blog as I remember and as I go back on more trips.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s