Florida wasn’t quite what I expected.
Actually, that isn’t fair. I didn’t see that much of Florida. I saw Fort Lauderdale and the Space Coast. My previous experience of the United States has been a mixed bag… I loved Hawaii and New York, and while Disneyland is lots of fun, LA was a bit mediocre. Fort Lauderdale also fell into the mediocre category. The Space Coast, however, was well worth the drive.
I’m not sure what it is about the United States. When I was a kid, the thought of going there was the height of cool. The first school project I remember completing involved planning a trip with an unlimited budget. I choose to go to Walt Disney World in Orlando. I guess most of New Zealand’s pop culture developed in some way from the US, and it did really seem like the promised land. Visiting Florida in 2017, on the other hand, seemed just a bit run down and tacky.
We arrived at about 10am on Friday, and promptly went to bed – it’s a 14 hour trip, and despite traveling in business class, I was really shattered. Our hotel was smack bang in the middle of nowhere, but luckily Matt had arranged to pick up a car from a local rental agency. We grabbed the car and head off to Sawgrass Mills for some intensive retail therapy.
I’m not really a fan of shopping. Living in Dubai, we spend our lives in malls – I’m usually not keen on visiting them in any other countries. However, I made a bit of an exception for Fort Lauderdale. Well, a big exception. I left with 7kgs of luggage and returned with 14kg. I have held off on buying any clothes for some time, and luckily, was not disappointed with Sawgrass Mills. Its about a 40 minute drive from downtown Fort Lauderdale. Although it is (laughably) lauded as the largest outlet mall in the US – it seemed tiny to us, with the Dubai Mall as our local – it did have some gems, including a Super Target, T. J. Maxx and Century 21. Mum and I visited the Century 21 near the old World Trade Centre grounds in New York. It is basically a discount department store, and it has a great range. If you in need of some cheap gear, Sawgrass Mills is a pretty good one stop shop.
I was getting a bit hungry by this stage, so we visited the food court… honestly, American food. I ordered ramen, which was the healthiest thing I could find. The pork was an interesting shade of fluorescent pink, and the rest of the dish was just as… interesting. It also took 10 minutes, although I’m sure it was just shoved in the microwave. There was nothing resembling a salad to be found in the food court. If you visit Sawgrass Mills, I’d recommend eating at a restaurant like The Rainforest Cafe – you may have more luck!
We head home for an early night, as we were up at 5.45am the next morning to get ready for our trip to the Space Coast. This is why I wanted to come to Florida! While a flight to Orlando would have made the journey a lot shorter, I was still appreciative of accompanying Matt along to Fort Lauderdale, if it meant we could visit Kennedy Space Centre. One of the other guys on the trip had studied Aerospace Engineering and was also keen to come. We piled in the car bright and early for our three and a bit hour journey up the coast.
As we were hungry by the time we were approaching Cape Canaveral (the former Cape Kennedy), we pulled over at Cocoa Beach for some breakfast. I had heard of Cocoa Beach from a book on the history of the space race – maybe The Right Stuff. It is where many of the people working on the space programme lived in the 60s and 70s. Looking a little run down today (although it featured a great manatee letterbox), it has obviously suffered since the heyday of the Apollo and Space Shuttle programs. Very little seem to be open for breakfast except for a rather busy IHOP. As Stuart had never been to one, we thought we would introduce him to that very American institution. We enjoyed a rather large breakfast each for about $45USD total. I polished mine off at an embarrassingly fast rate.
Getting back on the road after breakfast, we were at Kennedy Space Centre about 10am, and straight into the various exhibits. We started with the ‘Heroes and Legends’ exhibit. Before going in, you have to watch a video that is just so American, I can’t describe it. The emphasis on the hero aspect is a little nauseating. However, there is a cool 4D presentation once you are further inside, and then displays of various objects belonging to astronauts who were part of Project Mercury. The original Astronaut Hall of Fame was conceived by the Mercury 7 astronauts, who apparently were not too fantastic at administrative management. Delaware Parks and Resorts, who manage the Kennedy Space Centre, bailed out the Hall of Fame from bankruptcy in 2002, and moved the artifacts from their previous Titusville site to the main complex in 2015. There aren’t even that many astronauts in the Hall of Fame – after they went to the moon, most Americans seemed to lose interest in the space programme. The number of memorable names after the Apollo programme are limited.
We then visited the Rocket Garden. Shockingly, it was a garden of rockets. Well, replica rockets, given that most rockets are expended upon take-off. We saw replicas of the Mercury Redstone that took the first American, Alan Shepherd, into space, and a replica of the Saturn IB, the predecessor of the Saturn V which took man to the moon. Three astronauts also died during a command module fire in the Saturn IB – Apollo 1 – in 1967, which caused several years of delays to the American space programme while refinements were made.
After perusing the garden, we got on the bus tour around the complex. While it was pretty amazing to drive around – it is huge, and has multiple launch sites – it struck me how different it looked from what I imagined. I suppose a lifetime of looking at books and news clips on space travel, and seeing movies such as Apollo 13, had created an image in my mind of an environment that is no longer necessary. The last Space Shuttle returned to earth in 2011, and the two main launchpads are now being used for the long-range SLS programme and Elon Musk’s SpaceX programme. We also saw the huge Vehicle Assembly Building. While visually a little underwhelming, it was pretty exciting to see the sites where many historical missions had launched from. Our guide also pointed out that Launchpad 39B was first used for the ill-fated Challenger launch in 1986, and Launchpad 39A for Columbia’s last mission in 2003. Kennedy Space Centre is fairly quiet on the lives lost – astronaut or otherwise – during the space race. For example, I learnt, googling at home, that two technicians died of asphyxiation whilst working on Space Shuttle Columbia in 1981. If it isn’t good news, I guess it isn’t news at all.
We next visited the Apollo/Saturn V complex, which is home to one of three unused Saturn V rockets. At 363 foot, it is big. I would not have wanted to be strapped to the top of that thing, hurtling into space. This was probably my favourite area, as it had many artifacts from the Apollo era. These included the Apollo 14 Command Module and an unused Apollo Lunar Module, and it also featured a simulated Apollo 8 take-off. There was also a memorial to the Apollo 1 fire, which was tucked down the back, three dummies strapped into a command module. A little strange.
Heading back to the main complex, we visited our last site for the day – the Atlantis exhibit. More very American videos followed, although the second was pretty cool – another simulated launch. Spoiler alert – towards the end, the screen at the back turns transparent and you can see the Atlantis fixed inside the building. I wasn’t really expecting this, and as I am easily startled, it looked like a big, scary killer whale hanging from the ceiling. After recovering from the mild shock of seeing an angry-whale spacecraft, we took a look through the Space Shuttle complex, where you can get a good look at Atlantis and the Canadarm. The rest of the Atlantis complex features information about the Space Shuttle programme, a range of interactive exhibitions, and two memorials to the Challenger and Columbia disasters. Interestingly, there was no comment about any progress made or developments that helped to make sure future shuttle tragedies didn’t occur. With the Apollo 1 memorial, there was at least recognition that the Command Module escape hatch was redesigned to open much more quickly in future.
Stuart and Matt enjoyed two of the worlds largest ice creams – rookie mistakes in 30 degree weather – and we then began the long drive back to Fort Lauderdale. Most people – quite sensibly – visit the Kennedy Space Centre from Orlando, about a 40 minute drive. It was definitely worth the long detour to see the centre, though, and I’d highly recommend a visit if you are in the area (or within driving distance). Driving along the highway, whilst boring, yielded some interesting billboards. I’m not sure how I felt about the procession of anti-abortion, lawyer and adult store billboards that guided us back to the hotel. I fell into bed about 8PM that night.
The next day, we got up early again – about 6AM – and drove to Fort Lauderdale beach to watch the sun rise. Fort Lauderdale Beach is much nicer than the Fort Lauderdale area. It still looks like it is stuck in 1992, though. Everything appears to be a fast food chain that hasn’t been redesigned in some time, faded and tatty. You don’t tend to see much in the way of interesting shops or restaurants, just big brands and disgruntled customer service employees. We saw some sea turtle nests at the beach – no turtles though – and enjoyed a nice breakfast at Village Cafe. After requisite visits to CVS and Walmart, we drove out to Flamingo Gardens, a local attraction in Davie.
Flamingo Gardens is rated 4.3 on Google and a 4.5 on TripAdvisor. Floridians are obviously very, very easily impressed. While it was nice to get out and wander around in less than 40 degrees celsius, it was not really worth the $20USD entry fee. Actually, the coolest thing about it was a random giggling parrot stationed outside the gift shop, who you can see for free! You should definitely go visit him if you are driving past. I liked seeing the sea otters inside the gardens, and there was a roving gang of peacocks who put on a show for us. I did see a handsome iguana. I also got bitten by a pelican, who was adamant I would not pass over the bridge it was standing guard on. It did not take the two-three hours promised, and we were out of there pretty darn quickly. Sadly, giggling parrot would not giggle again in my presence, although I did try to get a video.
We head back to the hotel after this for some much-needed sleep before our flight back. I’ve visited a few places now, and America just doesn’t quite cut it when you put it up against some of the amazing destinations of the world. Overall, while I really enjoyed my time at the Kennedy Space Centre, I wouldn’t really recommend Fort Lauderdale as a holiday destination. You are better paying the extra to head up the road to Orlando. If you have kids, I’m sure the theme parks are superb (heck, I’d probably go visit them if Matt was to get an Orlando trip!). Although I enjoy visiting America, I’m always kind of pleased to leave – it just seems a bit tacky and overblown to me. The history is the best part, and there isn’t droves of it in Fort Lauderdale – though I can’t speak for the rest of Florida.
Eat: Given the state of American fast food, I’d recommend hopping along to a local Publix and grabbing some healthier fare. If you want to try some true American grease, that IHOP was pretty spectacular.
Transport. There didn’t seem to be any means of public transport easily accessible (although I did keep seeing a sign for something called ‘Tri-Rail’). We rented a car from Budget for three days for around $110USD.