If you're not boarding a cruise ship, there has been limited appeal to Port Canaveral, despite a restaurant row that offers a view of ocean liners and rocket launches from nearby Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center.
With the loss of the space shuttle program, there are fewer launches to draw tourists to Brevard County. At the same time, Port Canaveral has added a new landmark that offers another reason to visit. Exploration Tower, which opened in November, is an eye-catching, seven-story centerpiece of the port that comes into view on the bridge over the Banana River.
I'm not an architect (and won't pretend to be, a la George Costanza of "Seinfeld"), but the tower's curved exterior walls, prominent glass and triangular pinnacle almost reminded me of a cruise ship. From the seventh-floor outdoor observation deck, there were impressive views of the real thing, enormous vessels that are intimidating even from a distance.
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Port Canaveral, FL, USA
Beyond the boats, the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center is visible about 10 miles to the north. To the east is the Atlantic Ocean, source of stiff breezes that almost took off my ball cap and made the observation deck noticeably cooler than the sidewalk below.
The upper deck also features realistic sculptures of an alligator, sea turtle and other creatures, tempting photo ops for adults as well as kids on my recent visit. Visitors are directed to start their tower explorations on the top floor, then descend by elevator or stairs to attractions below.
Stops include stylish exhibits on the history of NASA in Brevard County, including historic moon-landing photos, newspaper clippings and artifacts from the Apollo missions. Among the memorabilia: NASA launch access badges and a lunar boot used in astronaut training sessions.
On another floor, visitors steer a virtual ship through the Canaveral channel. Elsewhere, a collage of surfboards celebrates Ron Jon Surf Shop, portraits honor Central Florida historical figures from explorer Ponce de Leon to author Zora Neale Hurston, and a 20-minute film about the treasures of Brevard County plays in an 80-seat theater. The shiny new tower deserves to be among them.
Admission: $6.50 adults, $3.50 children. Hours: 9 a.m.-6 p.m. daily. Call 321-394-3408 for details.