One of the fastest-growing cruise ports worldwide is Central Florida's Port Canaveral, which benefits from its proximity to Walt Disney World and the islands of the Bahamas.

Only an hour east of Disney and Orlando Airport, the port opened a sixth cruise terminal this summer and already has plans to finish a seventh next November.

The port is laid out on either side of a 12,000-foot east-west channel, allowing for cruise and cargo areas on the north side and recreational uses like boating, fishing and dining on the south side.

Exploration Tower at Port CanaveralEven on the north side, there is a division of functions, said David Poston, director of business development for cruise, tourism and hospitality. "We've been very successful at Port Canaveral in keeping our cruise activity separate from our cargo industry," he said. "There's not a lot of unattractive things to look at here."

Visitors can now get a bird's-eye view of the port from its new $23 million Exploration Tower.

Opened Nov. 8, the seven-story building can host about 100 people on its top deck, which has a prime view of the Kennedy Space Center just north of the port. But almost every floor has good views of the center because the north side of the building is mostly faced with glass.

"There's never been a view quite like the one from the tower," said Brian Blanchard, director of recreation operations for the port.

Although the space shuttle launches have been discontinued, Space X and other contractors continue to send unmanned payloads into orbit from the Canaveral launch facility.

The observation deck has a "perfect" view of the Space X launch pad, Blanchard said.

The viewing area atop the Exploration Tower at Port Canaveral.But there's plenty to do at the 22,000-square-foot tower when a launch isn't on the agenda.

The first six floors are full of port history, interactive displays and installations that give visitors ideas for things to do in Central Florida. There is a 13-minute movie of the port. A simulator lets someone play pilot by bringing a vessel into port under three different scenarios.

An exhibit on the second floor displays scale models of the Starship Royale and two of its sister ships. Sailing as "the Big Red Boat," the Premier Cruise Line vessel became the first multiday ship to be homeported at Port Canaveral, starting in 1984.

There is a whole floor devoted to the space program and its connections to the port as well as a 72-seat theater on the fourth floor, with shades on three walls that can be raised to offer a panoramic view.

One of the area's retail magnets, the Ron Jon Surf Shop, has installed a 12-foot-tall breaking wave fashioned out of surfboards, part of the tower's role as a tour center for visitors.

The breaking wave at Ron Jon Surf Shop.The tower, which costs $6.50 for adults and $3.75 for ages 3 to 10, is part of a bigger vision for the port's south side, which now includes waterfront restaurants and bars, a marina, terminals for small gaming ships and even a seafood processing plant.

To date, there have been no multiday cruise terminals on the south side, but that will change. An $85 million terminal and 1,000-space parking garage are being built next year east of the Exploration Tower.

"It's going to be a two- to three-minute walk" to the tower, Blanchard said.

The master plan for the south side calls for a 5,000-seat amphitheater to the east of the tower and a greenway lined with shops and restaurants, a hotel and an entertainment venue to the east.

Carnival Cruise Lines, Disney Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean International all homeport ships at Port Canaveral, and visitors making stops on port calls are growing.

In the past two years, ship calls increased from 86 to 123, and that number is poised to grow as vessels such as the Norwegian Breakaway make stops there on seven-night voyages that begin and end in New York.

Follow Tom Stieghorst on Twitter @tstravelweekly. 

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