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Launch your trip on Florida Space Coast

By Thurston Hatcher

(CNN) -- You see the light, then the billowing smoke. And then, the earth-shaking r-r-r-r-rumble.

"The first one, you can't help but get teary-eyed," says Rob Varley, on witnessing a launch at Florida's Kennedy Space Center. "You just swell up with pride realizing, `Wow, look what we're doing.'"

Miami may have its neon-lit nightlife, Orlando its Mouse-fed amusement industry. But the Space Coast is where it's at if you're looking for some liftoff action.

"I have never met anybody who went out and saw a launch and didn't come away awestruck," says Varley, executive director of the Florida Space Coast Office of Tourism.

Millions flock each year to the Space Coast, a 72-mile stretch along the Atlantic Ocean that's home to the Kennedy Space Center and a number of other space-related attractions. But the crowds often peak when there's a launch, which typically draws 100,000 to 150,000 visitors.

Stake out a viewing site

Gallery: Activities galore at Kennedy Space Center  
Interactive: Details on the next launch  
Launch viewing tips
Upcoming shuttle launch schedule

If you want to brave the crowds and see a launch for yourself, the prime public viewing spot is at the Kennedy Space Center about six miles from the launch pad. But the $39 tickets ($28 for children) sell out fast.

Another favored vantage point is the Astronaut Hall of Fame, described as the closest available viewing area off the Kennedy Space Center property. Tickets there are $13 for an adult, plus $10 more for rooftop observation.

But launch gazing doesn't have to cost anything. Other top sites recommended by local experts include downtown Titusville along the Indian River; the Cocoa Beach Pier; State Road 528 along the Banana River; and on the beach south of Port Canaveral.

Don't worry if you decide to visit at the last minute. Although hotels along the coast book up fast, visitors should be able to find lodging inland along Interstate 95 even during busy periods, Varley says.

Liftoff days may be the most spectacular on the Space Coast -- which lies about 45 minutes east of Orlando -- but there are plenty of other diversions to occupy the most devoted space enthusiast.

Space Center is the main draw

The epicenter of Space Coast activities is the 140,000-acre Kennedy Space Center and its visitor complex, which boasts an array of educational and entertainment options for the space enthusiast.

They include the Rocket Garden and its Mercury and Gemini-era rockets, the Saturn V rocket, the International Space Station Center, two IMAX theaters, a full-size space shuttle replica and the Space Mirror astronaut memorial.

The equipment's awesome, but how about some real live astronauts? That's an option, too, through the visitor complex's Dine With an Astronaut program, which allows the public to lunch, chat and have pictures taken with a space traveler. And the center's Astronaut Encounter program lets its stars get some face time with the public.

While the Kennedy Space Center obviously is the main draw, there are also related sites worth seeing in the area.

At the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame, you can ride in a flight simulator, launch your own rocket and learn about the history of manned space flights. The U.S. Space Walk of Fame at Space View Park in Titusville is another tribute to the astronauts and space-program workers. It features a promenade and an array of outdoor displays on achievements in space. Also popular is the Astronaut Memorial Planetarium and Observatory.

Although space is central to the region's tourism, Earth matters, too. The Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge -- home to 15 threatened or endangered wildlife species and hundreds of others -- draws some 500,000 visitors each year. Fishing and bird-watching are big draws, says Varley.

"We have a lot of nature-based tourism here," he says, "which kind of surprises people."

• Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex
• Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge - Titusville Florida
• Florida's Space Coast
• Astronaut Hall of Fame

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