What a Weekend Journey: Space Shuttle Atlantis, Halloween Horror Nights and Universal Studios Orlando

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BY MANNY RUIZ (@MannyRuiz)

Between baby Naomi’s summer birth and my intense work schedule it’s been nearly impossible for my family and I do any vacations this year.

A couple weeks ago we finally broke out of our rut and accepted two generous VIP invitations to briefly visit two of Central Florida’s best destinations: the Kennedy Space Center and Universal Studios Orlando.

Space Shuttle Atlantis at Kennedy Space Center

I’ve been smitten with space travel ever since I visited Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in 1977 at the age of 7 during my first-ever family vacation.  (The Space Shuttle program launched in 1981).

As NASA celebrates its 50th anniversary this year it’s been transforming from a government space organization to a corporate space transportation agency that is inviting all citizens to get closer than ever to its inner workings.

Our recent visit, part of a new Up-Close Tour Series, is an example of that even though in our case we got a VIP version that included viewing the Space Shuttle Atlantis while it was still inside the historic Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB, for short).  On November 2, Atlantis will be permanently relocated to a newly constructed building and on July 4th of next year its expected to open to the public.

The VAB itself is as fascinating as anything you’ll see at KSC not just because it’s “ginormous” (526 feet tall x 716 feet long and 518 feet wide) but also because it’s packed with history.  This superstructure has been the warehouse, “spaceship garage” and launch assembly building for nearly all major U.S. space flight including the Saturn Moon rockets.  To imagine how large this thing is, think of the largest Home Depot warehouse you’ve ever seen and multiply that times 50.

In contrast to the VAB, Atlantis looks like a Mini-Cooper inside a 50-wheeler.  The shuttle seems small (it’s 122 feet long and 56 feet high) if you’ve seen the Saturn rockets and other space vehicles that dot the landscape of KSC.  Atlantis looks heavier than it is at a light 80 tons.

When we saw Atlantis, the last Space Shuttle to fly before the fleet got retired in 2011, the only view we got was of its front section but when it goes on permanent exhibit its believed visitors will be able to see it suspended in the air with its cargo bay doors wide open. (We’ll need a return visit to see that).

Perhaps I’m bias because I dream about traveling to space myself one day but in my opinion Kennedy Space Center is easily one of the top reasons families should go to central Florida.  KSC doesn’t have the billion dollar rides or the marketing budgets that the other Big Three theme parks (Disney, Universal and Sea World) do but trust me, it is easily one of Central Florida’s top 5 family attractions and the place the center has in human history makes it doubly more fascinating.

Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Orlando

In stark contrast to me, my wife is a horror fanatic so when Universal Studios Orlando told us we were invited to come as their guests to Halloween Horror Nights and their theme park, I didn’t exactly jump for joy about the former.

To my surprise, I really enjoyed the Halloween Horror Nights.  If you’ve been to other Halloween experiences this one is truly on the dark side of things with haunted houses with names like Welcome to Silent Hill, The Walking Dead and Gothic.  In order to maximize our time at Universal, we got HHN Express Pass to the park and given how many people crowd into the rides, that decision proved essential.

If you go, even my wife would recommend that you consistently alternate between scary experiences and regular Universal rides. The haunted houses simply serve to scare you witless with monsters, vampires and even zombies that pop out at you in virtually every direction.  Mixing rides between scares serves as a fun escape you’ll most likely need.

On a night of several haunted house experiences, our favorite was Silent Hill.  When you go, I highly recommend you enter with a group that includes girls.  The best scares and laughs we had that night where when we were surrounded by girls.  They screamed so often and so genuinely loud that it accentuated all the frightful fun you see inside these places.

Universal Studios Orlando without the scares

The day after Halloween Horror Nights we went back to Universal with the kids for the Rated G version of the theme park.  I last visited Universal Studios Orlando 20 years ago when it still had the “Earthquake”, “Back to the Future” and “Jaws” rides.  Those rides are long gone but their modern counterparts are are just as good, if not better.

The ONLY ride at Universal that does not accept express passes is also now my absolute favorite theme park rollercoaster in the United States: the all-new Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit® , the world’s most technologically advanced roller coaster where YOU pick the music.  Trust me, it’s worth the wait.

Some of the highlight rides we enjoyed most included “Despicable Me Minion Mayhem” (the kids favorite), “Shrek 4-D”, “Twister” and “Revenge of the Mummy”.   Before we left Universal we used our two-park passes to briefly ride “The Incredible Hulk Coaster®” over at Universal’s Islands of Adventures.  The verdict?  The Incredible Hulk, like Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, is easily one of top 5 rollercoasters we’ve ridden in any theme park in the nation.

The more I return to Orlando the more I realize that this place ain’t what it used to be in a good way.  It used to be that if you visited Kennedy Space Center or Universal Studios, you only needed one day for each.  Well, forget that.  Today you need to think about two days to take it all in.  Perhaps next summer or sooner we’ll return to revisit both at their fullest.

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