Editor’s note: This article  is part of WRAL TechWire’s weeklong contribution to the Triangle’s “Lift Off NC: Apollo + Beyond” celebration which features events throughout 2019.

Both Disney’s Mission: SPACE and the Kennedy Space Center’s Space Shuttle Experience advertise an “authentic” space travel experience. Both were designed with input from real astronauts. Like true researchers (and kids of all ages), we tried both to see how these claims hold up.

Buzz Lightyear is Epcot’s official greeter for Mission: SPACE. Photo by Renee Wright copyright Capital Broadcasting A.R.R.

Epcot’s Mission: SPACE

The highlight of a visit to Epcot’s Future World, Mission: SPACE takes crews of four on a simulated voyage to Mars. The ride is interactive, with each of the crewmembers (navigator, pilot, commander or engineer) cued to push buttons during to the flight, although, if you fail to do so, the mission won’t abort. This is the portion of the experience where the input of astronauts is seen most clearly: the guys always objected to being “spam in a can,” as they called it, just along for the ride.

The graphics, as you’d expect from Disney, are terrific, and the sensation of weightlessness, created by a 35-foot-tall gravity wheel, much like the ones NASA uses to simulate the weightlessness of deep space, feels very real. A little too real for some guests… Disney introduced a gentler “Green” mission for those whose stomachs aren’t up to the stress. The mission ends with a dramatic landing, teetering on the edge of a canyon on the Red Planet.

Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Experience takes place in the cargo bay of a space shuttle. Photo by Renee Wright copyright Capital Broadcasting A.R.R.

Kennedy’s Space Shuttle Experience

Recommended by veteran NASA astronauts as the “next best thing to flying aboard the space shuttle,” Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Experience takes guests into orbit aboard a bus-like module inside the shuttle’s cargo bay – a design that will no doubt provide the prototype for actual space tourism ventures in the near future. It’s clear before boarding that many of the visitors have been through the Epcot ride, as everyone in our group lined up on little squares in the floor, reminiscent of the dots the “crews” line up on at Disney, while those who had been here before simply crowded towards the next door.

Sensations of weightlessness and acceleration are achieved by tilting and vibrating the passenger section, a milder ride than Epcot, but suitable for all ages, although Kennedy does provide a viewing area where you can watch the takeoff without the bouncing around.

The ride, as promised by the astronauts’ endorsement, accurately recreates the moments of ignition, liftoff, acceleration, booster separation, then the burn and shutdown of the shuttle engines, just as experienced by shuttle crews. You are left floating in orbit – upside down as it turns out.

The ride’s climax comes as the shuttle cargo bay doors open revealing Earth hanging overhead. Definitely an “ooooh!” moment.


When lines are long at Kennedy, take in some of the less well-known attractions, such as Journey to Mars: Explorers Wanted. Photo by Renee Wright copyright Capital Broadcasting A.R.R.

App Faceoff

In one area, Disney has a distinct edge… its app for smartphones. The My Disney Experience mobile app offers real time updates on wait times at popular attractions and allows you to make dinner and Fast Pass reservations (highly recommended for Mission: SPACE).

The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Guide app, while equipped with lots of helpful information, including maps and attraction details, does not prepare you for the lengthy lines you’ll often find yourself waiting in. These are especially common at the Atlantis exhibit, the bus terminal to the Saturn V Center, and Heroes and Legends, so plan accordingly.

Disney crowds make Fast Pass reservations highly recommended. Photo by Renee Wright copyright Capital Broadcasting A.R.R.


Most space enthusiasts are focused on the challenges – and potential – of Mars. (Is there an app for that?) Photo by Renee Wright copyright Capital Broadcasting A.R.R.

Locals recommend going in mid-afternoon, after the crowds have diminished. In the meantime, check out some of the less well-known attractions, such as the Hubble 3-D Space Theater, Journey to Mars: Explorers Wanted, or the two films in the IMAX Theater – all are included with admission.

WRAL TechWire writer Allan Maurer contributed to this story.

Previously on WRAL TechWire:

A tour of memories: Florida’s Space Coast, front door to the solar system