NASA, First Cruise, Disney & SciTech conference

At the end of 2023, we piled into a car and drove south for a week+ of family and a week of solo adventures. The full family of 4 visited NASA and took our first ever cruise. Then Patty and the boys headed back while Lloyd stayed for another week to present and learn at an aerospace conference and make a couple of Disney visits in his spare time.

Article Index:

Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center

On the first day we drove to southern Georgia before stopping for the night. The next day we headed on to the east coast of Florida. After a couple of wrong turns and an hour-ish wait to get through traffic, we arrived at the KSC Visitor Center. Lloyd had already purchased tickets for the family. His NASA employee badge got them free parking, him free admission, as well as a nice discount on a couple of NASA hoodies that were purchased.

Large NASA meatball logo as a Christmas ornament
Christmas ornament decoration on the NASA meatball logo

Lloyd had been to KSC many times before and the visitor center a few times. So, he knew that the big priorities were the bus tour of the center itself that included a visit to a genuine unused Saturn V rocket and the Space Shuttle Atlantis pavilion. There were lots of other great exhibits but on a crowded day, we decided to do those two things first. The wait for the bus was advertised as being 90 minutes, but we hopped in the line.

The tour took us past the huge Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), along the crawlerway road toward the two Pad 39 launch areas, and then to the Saturn V display building.

Saturn V first stage engines
The rest of the Saturn V stages

After two very well done multimedia presentations about the Apollo program, we were let loose into the building. In addition to a complete Saturn V rocket, there were also many other Apollo artifacts including a rover, a lunar module and an interior mock up of the LM. We also finally were able to get some very belated lunch from a food truck outside the building.

Patty & Lloyd touching a real moon rock

Next we rode the bus back to the main visitor center and headed to see Atlantis. Lloyd had been lucky enough to get a pad tour with in 2009 while a stacked shuttle was there. We recreated one of his favorite pictures from that day at the visitor center.

The family had also seen an actual launch of Atlantis in 2010.

May 2010, STS-132 mission launch, the shuttle is a tiny spec on the horizon behind the boys.

The KSC Atlantis display has an excellent short movie about the creation of the shuttle program followed by a very dramatic reveal of the retired orbiter. The orbiter is mounted in midair so that it can be viewed at just about any angle from multiple levels.

Almost 14 years later, we were able to get much closer!

After a pass through the gift shop, we headed out, took a quick selfie with the meatball and continued on to our hotel near the cruise port.

Another selfie with the NASA meatball.

The next day we had a noon check-in time scheduled for boarding the cruise ship. So, we enjoyed the hotel breakfast and spent a little time adjusting our luggage to remove the dirty clothes from our previous two days and to attach the printed luggage tags that told the porters which stateroom to deliver our luggage to.

New Years Cruise

Patty and Lloyd watched a lot of YouTube videos about cruises as early research for their trip. That guidance led them to choose Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL) as the best choice for their first trip. The boys’ school schedules and Lloyd’s technical conference in Orlando helped narrow the choices to the first week of January with Port Canaveral as the ideal port. There were two NCL ships sailing from there in that window, and the research led use to choose the NCL Escape as their first choice. This was not an inexpensive trip, due to demand it was significantly more expensive than taking the same cruise a few weeks earlier, but it was what fit our requirements the best.

The NCL Escape

We initially tried to use a travel agent recommended by one of their YouTube favorites, but did not get called back, so we booked directly through a very patient NCL representative. The rep gave us lots of price options for two different ships and then was able to help reduce the cost by changing from two adjacent balcony rooms to rooms directly across the hall from each other with one balcony and one inside room.

Our fares included their “Free at Sea” promotion which despite the name was more expensive the “Sail Away” rates that do not include the Free at Sea perks. For us that included free unlimited drinks (soda for the two under 21 year-olds), 1 or 2 nights of specialty dining, 150 minutes of internet each, and excursion discounts.

Boarding the Escape

As this was our first cruise, every step of the trip was a new experience. To board, we pulled up near the ship and passed off our 6 tagged suitcases to the porters. Then we parked the car in the adjacent parking structure and prepaid for a week’s worth of parking. Next we walked with our carry-on items to a medium length line that took us through security and then check-in where we showed our passports and got our cruise cards (combination room keys, payment devices, and proof to let us back on the ship after a port visit.) Finally we walked up a long switch-back gangplank and onto the ship. We were immediately directed to our muster-station which is where we were assigned to go if there was a serious emergency and then set loose.

We explored a little before fairly quickly heading to the buffet for a slightly late lunch.

The top of the Escape has its pool, hot tubs, water slides, and a ropes course. The buffet is on the same deck as the pool, but inside of course.

One of the main draws of cruising is the food. Here is a short gallery of some of the amazing things that we ate.

We tried all three of the main dining rooms and the buffet. Our favorite main dining room was the Manhattan Room which had wrap around windows across the entire rear and up some of the sides of its deck, a dance floor, and frequent live music. We also did two specialty restaurants: Teppanyaki, which was a raucous prepare-your-Japanese-food-in-front of you show and meal and Moderno Churrascaria which was a Brazilian steakhouse where you started with a salad bar and then switched to a variety of meats (lamb, beef, pork, and chicken) being brought to your table on spits and carved in front of you.

Seated at Teppanyaki
Carving some excellent roasted pineapple at Moderno Churrascaria

Our chosen fare included an unlimited drinks package for drinks under $15 and a $15 discount off more expensive beverages. We never went over $15 but did have wine with most dinners, mimosas with some breakfasts, and an occasional mid-afternoon Piña colada. And even though the ship was completely full, we never had to wait in a long line for a beverage.

Morning mimosas with breakfast

On board we attended multiple shows in the main theater including the West End hit The Choir of Men, a magic act, and a mash-up-song group with four men. We also did a super-hero themed escape room challenge. We dipped our toes in the pool and tried out the hot tubs and water slides. Lloyd and the boys also used the onboard ropes and zip-line course.

If you arrived early to The Choir of Men, the cast invited you onto the stage for a free beer from the functional on-set taps and interacted with the audience like they were all in a pub together.

The guys also made almost daily use of the onboard fitness center and generally used the stairs rather than the elevators to get around. Lloyd had worked hard to lose 25 pounds in order to use the private island zip-line course (more later) and arrived home after the two week trip at exactly the same weight that he started.

The treadmills looked out bay windows at the ocean or, in this case, Jamaica

The ship’s itinerary was a western Caribbean route that did a lap around Cuba and stopped in Cozumel, Mexico, Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands, Ocho Rios, Jamaica, and their private island Great Stirrup Cay. There were also two days at sea during the longer legs of the trip.

In Cozumel we had booked an excursion to a beach resort where we went snorkeling, enjoyed lounging in the shade, explored some gardens and some recreated ruins, and had a very simple buffet lunch.

Grand Cayman island was a tender port. That meant that the cruise ship anchored off shore and we boarded smaller ships to take us to shore. There, we booked a bus tour that drove past a number of landmarks with excellent commentary from our driver. We also stopped in Hell, visited a couple of rum cake outlets and explored a sea turtle farm.

The weather in Jamaica was wet and we hadn’t been inspired by any of the excursions that were offered by the cruise line, so we just took a short walk into town and back and called it a day.

The NCL private island, called Great Stirrup Cay, is also a tender port. We were awoken at 7am by the captain informing us that the seas were too rough for the tenders to operate. We had booked a more elaborate zip line and ropes course for Lloyd and the boys that Lloyd had worked hard to lose 25 pounds over several months (which included Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the first 5 days of cruise food) to make the safety cutoff. We were disappointed, but used the extra sea day to explore the ship a little more.

That evening we tagged our luggage and set it outside the cabin by 10pm, carefully holding back a set of clothes to wear to get off the ship. We left our cabins at 8am and set out to find breakfast. Our favorite sit down casual place, O’Sheehan’s Neighborhood Bar & Grill, was being used to queue people for disembarkation, so we ended up eating and waiting in the buffet until our group was called. It took a little while to file off the ship to where the luggage was, then out through immigration and back to our car. Then it took an hour or so to get out of the cruise port due to very heavy traffic.

We drove to a nearby car rental location which was backed up with new cruisers dropping off cars and old cruisers picking them up. Another hour or so passed before Lloyd was able to get his car. Luggage for week two was transferred. Lloyd headed west to Orlando and Patty and the boys headed northward for a two day trip home.

Disney Visits

It rained for most of the morning on disembarkation day, but cleared up once we were away from the port. Patty and the boys had a smooth and uneventful two-day trip home – not encountering the heavy, possibly bowl game related, traffic that we had seen on the way down through South Carolina.

Lloyd headed to Disney Springs. The first order of business was to convert a unused extra day from a 1991 trip 6-day ticket. Yes, I managed to hold onto it for nearly 33 years over multiple cross-country moves. Guest services happily converted it and made a park reservation for Epcot for the next day (the park reservations requirement was dropped a couple of days later). My next stop was to get in the 45 minute line for Gideon’s Bakehouse which has amazing nearly half pound cookies and a unique Addams Family-esque decoration style. I bought one of each type of cookie, ate the nut-centric selections over the next week (a quarter cookie at a time since they were so huge) and brought the other ones home. I had not had these before but I heartily endorse them.

Next up was a belated lunch. I followed the recommendation from a Mammoth Club video and had the steak sandwich and potatoes at Pepe’s. They were great! Finally, I relaxed and explored the other offerings at Disney Springs. I picked up an adult Galaxy’s Edge t-shirt that they did not have available on my previous trip, looked at the reproduction light sabers, explored the huge Disney store, and looked around in the bar named for the pilot in the first Indiana Jones movie.

It was a Saturday and as the afternoon went on the crowds got larger and larger. There was a 45-minute wait to get into the Lego store, which I reluctantly did not wait in. Finally, I headed out. I made a brief stop at Walmart for some snacks and drinks to keep at the hotel for the week and then checked into my hotel. The hotel was near the professional conference venue on International Drive and about 20 minutes from Disney.

Sunday morning, I woke up just before 7am in order to try for attraction reservations. I was able to get a very low number group reservation for Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind which became available to ride as soon as the park opened. I also purchased their Genie+ lighting lane service for $17 and reserved my first line-cut for Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure at about noon. Due to this being the Disney marathon weekend, the park didn’t open until 10am, so I rolled over and got a little more sleep.

My group #18 was called as soon as the park opened and I may have been on the first run of the ride that day.

The marathon route played havoc with the normal parking at Epcot. I followed Waze directions and found my route blocked, pulled over to park in Disney Springs, did a little research, and then got back on the road to come in the other way. This time it worked, but was a bit backed up. Still, I made it inside the park by 10:02 and headed for my Cosmic Rewind ride. On my way, I made a paid “individual lightning lane” reservation for another Cosmic Rewind ride for an additional $14. I hoped I would enjoy my first no-additional-cost ride! Luckily, it was a great ride and I was happy to ride it twice. There are multiple Guardians appropriate songs that are randomly played during the ride. I got “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” and then “Conga” on my second, afternoon, ride.

For most of the morning, the marathon was running through the main pathways of Epcot. Around World Showcase about 2/3 of the ring road was partitioned for the runners. At various points in Future World there were cast members directing traffic to help park goers cross the route without interfering with the runners.

I made my way to wait in line for the new-to-me Frozen Ever After ride. It was a reskin of the older Maelstrom boat ride that I had been on several times on earlier trips. They did a good job with it, but the projected faces on the figures were a little distracting.

I grabbed a brisket sandwich from the barbeque quick service restaurant in the American pavilion and slowly made my way to the just-after-noon reservation for Remy’s. In France, I had an excellent Hazelnut & Chocolate Spread Crêpe at the quick service crêpe window and ate on the extremely common trashcan tabletop.

Remy’s uses the same trackless vehicle technology as Rise of the Resistance and Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway. This time you’re shrunk down to the size of a rat and have adventures running and hiding in Remy’s kitchen from the movie while wearing 3-D glasses and driving through oversized food and kitchen implements. It’s lots of fun.

Next, I headed back to Cosmic Rewind for my paid ride, rode Mission Mars twice – once each in the orange and green versions to see both stories, and walked back through the very newly opened central area where I visited with a new bronze statue of Walt Disney and saw the new Moana themed Journey of Water. I also visited JoA after dark, so will give both sets of pictures together below. I used a Genie+ lightning lane to cut the line at Soarin’ which was using the California version of the movie and then headed to an early dinner.

Space 220 is a fairly new restaurant at Epcot that simulates taking an elevator from Epcot into space and dining high above the planet. It has huge bay windows that look out over the Earth and periodically show space suited figures or other craft drifting by. Reservations are in very high demand. I started trying to make a reservation at the exact time of day that they became available 60 days in advance of my visit and failed. I tried at least once every day after that. It took me a month to succeed with a 4:05 dinner reservation. The restaurant is also very expensive. Lunch is $55 for two courses and dinner is $79 for three courses. And you can add drinks, tax, and tips on top of that price. To me, the food was good but not that good. However, the total experience was worth it.

Following dinner, I rode some of the older rides including Test Track, Journey into Imagination, and The Seas with Nemo and Friends before finding a spot to watch the new fireworks show called Luminous The Symphony of Us.

And then it was time to call it a night.

Wednesday night, Disney had an “after hours” event at Hollywood Studios. This was a separate ticket for a low crowd night at the park that ran from 9pm to 12:30am. You could arrive and be admitted as early as 7pm, but the day guests were allowed to be there as well until 9. At 9:30pm free simple snacks were put out: popcorn, bottled Coke products and water, and a couple of basic Mickey ice cream bars. Nearly all of the stores (except at ride exits), shows, and food venues were closed but all of the rides were open and were walk-ons (no wait) for most of the evening.

I did Star Tours 3 times, starting at just after 7pm since it had a 5 minute wait even with the day visitors still in the park, got a holiday special pop tart from Woody’s Lunch Box before it closed, then walked into Smuggler’s Run 4 times (including a solo flight where I piloted from Chewie’s seat) followed by Rise of the Resistance twice. Slinky Dog Dash was down for much of the evening, so I walked past it and had a 30 minute wait for Toy Story Mania, then a walk-on for Tower of Terror followed by Mickey & Minnie. SDD finally reopened as I was almost to RotR for my last ride of the evening, so I went past and got in a 30 minute line for it and then called it a night at just after midnight. For my free snacks I had ate a box of popcorn and a diet coke and brought home another one of each. I got what I expected from the evening and felt it was worth my time and money.

Another interesting detail of the event was the appearance of a variety of unusual characters to meet including Rafiki, Pinocchio, Tiana, and Duffy. I also saw Minnie in the street interacting with folks as they left.

The weather was clear and in the low 50s, so long pants and a hoodie were appropriate garb. Disney calls these After Hours openings “Special Events” similar to their Halloween and Christmas activities. Tickets can be purchased on their Special Event page or from discounted resellers like Undercover Tourist. My ticket was about $150.

Orlando & Aerospace Conference

The main reason for staying an extra week was to attend the AIAA SciTech conference for aerospace engineering professionals. I had a good time listening to a wide variety of presentations and gave my own talk about a code that I had developed for work over the past 20 years called Loft. My office’s social media person even created this image for use on Twitter/X and other social media.

Cruise and Theme Park Accessories

Here is a short list of accessories that we found useful on our trip that might be a useful cruise shopping list or check list. Most links are Amazon affiliate links: