Space Center bets visits will skyrocket with shuttle ride

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Ever wonder what it would feel like to blast off into space? The Kennedy Space Center is hoping that America's -- the world's -- fascination with space and space tourism will boost visitations to its Visitor Complex and the facility's new $60 million Shuttle Launch Experience.

The new thrill ride is the largest single development in the visitor complex's 40-year history as well as one of the most significant debuts at a U.S. tourist attraction in recent years, according to Kennedy Space Center officials.

The Shuttle Launch Experience is also Brevard County's first major theme park-style attraction, and the ride is expected to provide a boost to the Space Coast's tourism industry.

For more than a quarter-century, tourists and space junkies have flocked to the Kennedy Space Center to watch NASA's space shuttles blast off.

Now, through sophisticated motion technology and sound effects, visitors to the Kennedy Space Center can play astronaut for a day.

"Shuttle Launch Experience will forge a lasting experience for everyone, especially those who have seen the power of a Space Shuttle launch and imagined the adventure of flying in the most complex machine ever made," said Daniel Le-Blanc, COO of the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

The ride is housed in the 44,000-square-foot, 72-foot-tall Space Shuttle Simulation Facility, which visitors enter through a gantry walkway.

As visitors ascend the walkway, they receive a safety briefing and a briefing on the launch sequence, replete with fog and video effects.

Once inside the building, they are seated in one of four simulator cabins, each holding 44 people. Seats will pitch backward to 60 degrees, and a five-minute simulation with light and sound effects mimics the acceleration to orbit.

After achieving "orbit," the cabins face a large projection and plasma television screen held on robotic arms. Then the payload bay door opens to reveal "Earth."

The attraction is meant to provide both entertainment and education, which Kennedy Space Center officials said would help set the Shuttle Launch Experience apart from most thrill rides across the country, including Epcot's Mission: Space.

For example, as visitors exit the simulator, they'll leave via a spiral ramp under a star-studded field that takes them through the history of shuttle flights and the space program.

Another difference is the technology. While Mission: Space uses centrifugal force to create the sensation of increased gravity forces, the Shuttle Launch Experience uses a pneumatic deflating device in the seat and seat pitch to create the illusion of increased gravity forces.

Riders must be at least 48 inches tall to board the ride.

Meanwhile, a number of hotels are piggybacking on the interest generated by the new attraction by offering packages that include tickets to the Visitor Complex. The goal, hoteliers say, is to promote the Space Center and position Brevard County as a primary destination, not just a day trip from Orlando.

The Hilton Cocoa Beach, for example, is offering a Space Break package that includes two adult admission tickets to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Additional tickets will be sold for a 15% discount at check-in.

The Holiday Inn Cocoa Beach Oceanfront Resort is marketing a two-night package that includes breakfast, parking and admission for two to the Visitor Complex.

Gearing up for an influx of visitors to the new attraction, the Kennedy Space Center is spending about $10 million to upgrade the Visitor Center and make upgrades to the park.

The Kennedy Space Center said there will be upgrades to its Web site, KennedySpaceCenter.com, to include promotions and hotel package information.

To contact reporter Jorge Sidron, send e-mail to [email protected].

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