Fun in Orlando, Florida

Saturday 25 to Tuesday 28 November

After farewelling Evan and Stephanie in New York we headed for warmer climes. It was Bruce’s wish to see the Kennedy Space Centre and he also thought I should visit a Disneyland at least once in my life.

So we made our way to Laguardia Airport which is undergoing massive renovation. It took a few vague instructions and a few bus rides to reach our terminal. At least Bruce found a decent beer in the bar, and then again on the Delta flight to Orlando.

It was late and dark when we arrived in Orlando. That was breaking our rules of arriving in a new city and picking up a hire car. The drive to our hotel was horrendous. Armed with our TomTom, we constantly found ourselves in the wrong lane to take the required exit, and more than once we sailed past our hotel.

And when we got there, the hotel was awful. Apart from their communications system being broken – so I had to pay cash for the room, they couldn’t guarantee wifi for the duration of our stay and the vibes were bad.

With a agreement to cancel without loss, we left this hotel and drove next door to the Hilton Garden. At least wifi worked, the room was big and the vibes were good. This is the only time I have refused to take up the accommodation that I had booked, although there are times I should have.

We checked into the hotel 15 minutes before the kitchen closed. Typically in the USA, these motels are at least a 10 minute drive from anywhere else you can get a meal, so we ate there. Not a good start to Florida. At least it was warm and dry.

Our first treat was to Disneyland. We decided to take an Uber rather than battle the multiple freeways and tollways. There is a choice of four theme parks to visit: Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park, Magic Kingdom Park and Epcot. Each takes a day to see.

We chose the traditional Disney World Magic Kingdom Park. We stopped and watched Let the Magic Begin at the Cinderella Castle. We got cross with the people who stood in front of us while we watched the parade. We wandered around Liberty Square and then to Frontierland.

We tried to book for dinner, but the only time available at a licenced restaurant was at 3:30. Much to the wait staff at Tony’s Town Square Restaurant surprise, we ordered beer and wine with our meal and sat and chatted beyond the typical 40 minutes it takes to eat and go in the USA.

The sun was getting low when we finished our lunch-dinner, so we hopped on the Walt Disney World Railway to do a circular tour of the park. We continued exploring the park in the evening, when the coloured lights made the place seem even more magical. Cinderella’s Palace was glistening under a million fairy lights.

Having fulfilled my childhood dreams we took a quick drive around Orlando CBD. It was Sunday so the roads were quiet, but I managed to track down a very nice bohemian coffee shop called the Drunken Monkey. If you are really struggling to find good coffee, always head to the university area.

We then drove the short distance to Titusville and spent the afternoon exploring Melbourne, Florida. I was surprised at how small it is, after all, whenever you Google Melbourne on a map, Melbourne FL comes up before Melbourne VIC.

We checked out the Indiatlantic and Melbourne Beaches. It was windy but pleasant enough for people to swim.

The beaches are separated from the mainland by the India River, a 121 mile (195km) long brackish lagoon. In 1909 the Beaujean family commenced a motorised tram from the pier on the lagoon to the beach. I imagine boats ferried the beach goers across the lagoon.

Titusville is the nearest suburb to the Kennedy Space Centre. We crossed the long bridge that separates Merritt Island where it is located and the mainland. The island is 34 miles (55 km) long and roughly six miles (9.7 km) wide, covering 219 square miles (570 km2).

At the entry there was a tribute to John F Kennedy who challenged NASA to put a man on the moon within the decade.

At that time the Russians were progressing with their space exploration, and during those Cold War years there was fear that attacks on USA could be launched from ‘space’.

Next was the Rocket Garden with various rockets on display. From the smallest Mercury, to Gemini that could accommodate two astronauts and Apollo, a little bigger.

You were able to climb into the tiny capsules that the astronauts were in. A couple of minutes squashed into the capsule was more than enough for me. Too bad if they got a cramp!

It was recommended that we first take the bus ride to see the ‘launching pads’

I was amazed at the road where they transport the space vehicle from the hangar to the launch pad. Stone from Ohio is filled into two trenches which are 7 feet deep. The ‘crawler’ which transports the launching pad and rocket to the launching site is a large platform with two by two caterpillar tracks. It moves at 1 mile per hour when loaded and at a fast 2 miles per hour when empty. They were testing it for a scheduled launch of SpaceX on 8 December, although we have later learnt that the launch was delayed until early February. 

The big focus with the implementation of the shuttle, and now with the Space Launch System (SLS) program, its re-usability. All the components are retrieved and the vehicle is rebuilt in a huge hangar, before transporting it to the launchpad

They say by retrieving the rockets they can assess the success and determine if any improvements should be made. 

As part of the bus tour we visited the Apollo/Saturn-5 centre. With the focus on 1968, it started with an information session about various Apollo space crafts. Especially the failures in the face of Russia’s success. Then we moved to an auditorium where the control centre for the Apollo 5 launch was on display. A short presentation was given about the countdown to launch. We were then shown into a huge hangar that housed a model of Apollo 11, which reached the moon and circled it but didn’t land. It was in sections, so you could easily see the different stages of the rocket.

Finally, into another auditorium for a 3-D display of the Apollo 11 moon landing including a smaller model of the moon landing vehicle. 

They talked about loosing contact just prior to the scheduled landing. The movie The Dish about the Parkes Observatory in Australia claimed it was the only one who could maintain any communication during that time. Fact or Fiction?

There were another five Apollo missions that landed on the moon, with a total of 12 men making the walk.

There were choices to be made when the program was closing as to which people should go. In the last mission a geologist was included, as collecting samples was considered most important. 

One of my saddest missed opportunities was actually watching the very first moon landing. Schools and work places stopped to watch the half hour spectacle. As a computer operator at CSIRO my boss thought that keeping the computer running was more important, and I drew the short straw. I still haven’t forgiven my boss for not allowing me to share the excitement with my colleagues. At the end of the day a lifetime experience that most of Australia shared is worth more than a few effective dollars.

We returned to the main Kennedy space centre, passing the massive construction hangar.

Lunch options were fast food, burgers, chips, ribs, etc. we settled for fruit salad. 

Next was the space shuttle.

We climbed a ramp that led into an auditorium where a documentary explained how the shuttle program was inaugurated. They developed the concept of a glider that could return to earth. The biggest problem faced was finding an effective way to fix the tiles that would protect the vehicle  and its occupants during re-entry. This problem set the development program back one and a half years. 

We were led into another room, where you experienced the views from the shuttle. Then into area of Atlantis shuttle. All done with dramatic music. 

The space shuttle on display was Atlantis STS-135, the last of the shuttles. It was first launched in October 1985 and carried out 33 missions including ferrying up parts and crew for the International Space Station. Its last flight was in July 2011.

The space shuttle allowed people other than Air Force fighter pilots to go into space and conduct experiments that would help develop ways people can survive long term space travel.