The Kennedy Space Center is a fantastic place to visit if you're looking for something educational with a little bit of fun for the whole family. If you miss the good old days of Epcot and it's Disney-style edu-tanment, Kennedy Space Center is perfect for you. Aside from the normal exhibits and bus tour that come with your 1-day ticket, there other additional add-on experiences for those with a more serious interest in space travel. One in particular that I've always wanted to try is the Dine with an Astronaut experience; where you can enjoy an all-you-can-enjoy buffet along with a presentation given by a real astronaut. So on a rainy June day, I headed to Cape Canaveral to give this a try and see if it is worth the money.
A few things to note before I share with you my experience. Dine with an Astronaut is offered nearly every single day the complex is open. But there are a few times when it is not available. So it is worth checking ahead of time if you can experience this on the day you visit. When you check the online calendar you can see exactly who is scheduled to appear on any given day. It's also worth knowing that if you don't want to splurge on lunch, that same astronaut will usually also do autograph signing later in the day at the main gift shop and give a free presentation at the Universe Theater. During my visit, I got to meet John David Bartoe, who flew on the Challenger in 1985.
I have an Atlantis Pass to the Kennedy Space Center, but at the start of my day I had to visit will call to pick up my ticket for the dining event. The dining experience currently takes place at the conference center right next to the Heroes and Legends building, very close to the main entrance. The event started at 12 noon, but it was recommended to be there a little earlier. Therefore, I arrived at about 11:45am and had to wait in a very crowded lobby area just outside the main dining room because it was raining pretty bad outside. Needless to say, things got cramped.
The space used for this dining experience is similar to a ballroom or convention hall that you would see at a conference center or hotel. As to be suspected from an experience run by NASA, there was a very orderly process for entering the dining room. As opposed to just letting everyone in at once, employees will scan your ticket and let people in groups of 10 or so. You are escorted to a specified table and actually told to wait before approaching the buffet area for food. Once everyone is seated, each table is allowed to approach the buffet and plate up food one at a time. It’s a slow process but it ensures that you can get food at a nice pace and not feel rushed. It felt a little excessive since the entire event wasn’t sold out, but I get it. They want to keep things orderly.
The buffet is a simple setup and there are two sides, which helps traffic flow smoothly. In terms of the menu there were several different salads to start. A simple garden salad, a strawberry and arugula salad and my favorite the charred pea and bean salad. (It had a nice crunch!) In terms of entrees, there were three different options; a bruschetta chicken, salmon with a balsamic sauce or steak fajitas with roasted onions and peppers. As some of you know I personally hate salmon, so I skipped on this option. The chicken was mediocre and I think it could’ve been cooked through a little more. The steak fajitas ended up being the safest bet for me. In terms of sides, there were seasonal vegetables or roasted potatoes. Both were perfectly adequate. But I have a sweet tooth, so I can’t skip out on talking about the desserts.
There were some jello shooters, both lime flavored and orange, and an assortment of cookies and brownies. But the blondie was certainly my favorite of the bunch. I also found a small refrigerator of packaged ice cream bars at the end of the buffet. I took one of these to go at the end of my experience for the road. For refreshments you can choose from some canned soft drinks, water, coffee or tea and of course, Tang; the soft drink of the future.
Here’s what I will say about the food. It was just fine. It’s perhaps the best food you’ll find at the complex because the other restaurants mainly serve burgers and sandwiches. It’s a more elevated menu but the quality is about the same from the other dining options. Did anything wow me, no. Was anything terrible, no. I like sweets so dessert was good and I certainly left very full. But I want to highlight that once the presentation gets going, a lot of the food will be taken away. So make sure you plate up at the beginning of your experience because chances are you won't have time to go up for another round of your favorites. I also want to add that nearly everything on the menu is gluten free and there are plenty of vegetarian options as well, which is helpful for those with dietary restrictions.
After every table went up and plated their food and began eating, the main presentation began. We got a brief video overview of the space program with clips and different images of the institution's history. Then our astronaut John came out and introduced himself to the audience. Before joining NASA, John worked as an astrophysicist at the Naval Research Lab in DC. He has a degree in physics from Leigh University and a master’s degree and PhD in physics from Georgetown University. John flew on just one mission aboard the Challenger as a payload specialist. After a brief overview of his career, John then proceeded to answer questions from the audience.
As you can imagine this part of the experience completely relies on the group your dining with and how good their questions are. Of course there were simple questions that I suspect get repetitive for the astronauts; 'How do astronauts sleep at night?' or 'How do astronauts strap down everything so it doesn't float away?'. A few interesting things I learned was that the official language of the International Space Station is English. However, there is an exception to the rule and that's Russian. But for the most part, everyone speaks English no matter what country they are from. However the work spaces and specific experiments being conducted are intertwined. The Space Station is not split up in sections where the Americans work in one space and the Japanese in another. It's truly a community, despite what might be going on down on earth. The ISS remains to be a peaceful global community.
But someone just had to ask the question, how does one go to the bathroom in space. Clearly these guys are prepared for this question as we got a look at what a space toilet looks like.
I will say that this was educational and fun but not something I would feel the necessity to come back and do unless I was traveling with someone who is seriously interested in the topic. I noticed a lot of school groups and summer camps here and the kids seemed to really enjoy themselves. More than I would imagine. I would think that young kids would check-out since this is a pretty formal setting. But, they all seemed to be really interested in asking questions. This of course could be due to the fact that they were on some sort of field trip and perhaps interested in science in particular.
I was also sat next to a man who is now retired and worked as a mechanic on the space shuttle. He was traveling with his son and it was really sweet and touching to see a dad’s pride in his work and having the chance to share it with his son.
My overall thoughts with Dine with an Astronaut is this; I would only do this if you’ve been to Kennedy Space Center before and looking for something different to do. I say this because the entire dining experience is about 90 minutes long. After a photo with John in the lobby, I realized it was nearly 1:30pm when I got out. Planning your day at KSC is easy but there is one element that can throw things off, the bus tour. It takes over two hours to experience the main tour of the campus. Therefore, it is not a wise idea to do the bus tour before the lunch event. You run the risk of not returning to the main visitor complex on time. I personally like doing the bus tour first thing during a visit, especially if I'm with someone who has never visited. So on this visit, I had to put my bus tour experience at the end of the day which made me feel rushed going through the other exhibits at the Apollo Center.
In terms of pricing, this cost $29.99 plus tax for adults, which is defined as anyone ages 12 and up, and $15.99 for kids 3 to 11. I think the kid price is good considering it is a buffet, and the adult price is average for what you're getting. I can think of plenty of other dining experiences at the various theme parks in central Florida where you can get way more variety for your buck. You are really paying for the more elevated and formal dining experience and the chance to talk to an astronaut. But you can learn just as much by going to a free presentation, too. This is why I would prefer spending the extra money on a more detailed bus tour and sticking to the quick service restaurants for lunch.
If you have the Atlantis Annual Pass, your 10% dining discount does not apply here, which is disappointing. However, the next pass up, the Explorer Pass, not only includes a year’s worth of entrances but also includes 1 Dine with an Astronaut experience and 1 KSC Explore Bus Tour. Each is valued between $25 and $29. So this pass being only $38 more than the Atlantis Pass is worth it, but only if you’ll come a few times in a year and know you want to do the extra add-on experiences like this dining event.
So for a first-timer or the more casual visitor, I would say stick to the normal dining experiences at KSC. Focus on the different exhibits and tours and definitely make time for the Shuttle Atlantis experience at the end. Dine with an Astronaut is best if you’ve been to the Kennedy Space Center recently and have done the basic bus tour and want something more in-depth with a relaxing meal or plan on a thorough 2-day visit to the entire complex.