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45 Years of Welcoming Visitors to Kennedy
Temporary trailer houses Kennedy Visitor Information Center in 1965.

Image above: In 1965, this trailer was used as the Tourist Information Center while the permanent buildings were being constructed. The trailer was located at the west end of the Indian River Causeway. Image credit: NASA
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Visitor Complex from the air.

Image above: Shown in an aerial view from 1970, the rectangular buildings connected by the portico remain the heart of the Visitor Complex. Image credit: NASA
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Artist rendering depicting Atlantis displayed as if in flight

Image above: This initial design concept for the new exhibit showcases Atlantis as though it were in flight. Artist rendering courtesy of PGAV Destinations for Delaware North Parks & Resorts
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Artist rendering depicting external tank and twin solid rocket booster replicas at the Atlantis exhibit entrance

Image above: This artist rendering reveals a full-scale external tank and twin solid rocket booster replicas standing at the exhibit entrance. Artist rendering courtesy of PGAV Destinations for Delaware North Parks & Resorts
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When plans for a permanent welcome station for guests to Kennedy Space Center were germinating, Walt Disney briefed Kennedy's senior management on a tourist attraction he envisioned for Central Florida. In his presentation, Disney revealed that he was going to spend a lot of money on technology for exhibits and shows, a sum that would be impractical for NASA to match. He made it clear, however, that NASA had something to showcase to the public that he did not -- real-world technology in action.

Construction of a permanent Visitor Information Center (VIC) began outside Kennedy's security gates not far from the center's industrial area. The approach to the site, though -- over a causeway to the east side of the Indian River -- provided visitors with the sense that they no longer were on the mainland. They had arrived at Cape Canaveral where astronauts would soon launch to the moon.

The design connected two rectangular buildings by a portico. Food service, a souvenir shop and ticket booth were housed on one side; exhibits and a small theater, on the other. With support from NASA Headquarters and non-appropriated funding from bus tours of the center, the VIC opened in August 1967.

The Magic Kingdom theme park at Walt Disney World Resort outside Orlando followed four years later, opening in October 1971.

The millionth visitor to the VIC was recorded in July 1968, just three months before launch of the first crewed Apollo mission in October. In the intervening years, the VIC was rebranded the "Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex" (KSCVC) to capture in name the ongoing growth of the compound. The complex has been managed by Delaware North Companies Parks and Resorts since 1995.

A full-scale, high-fidelity replica of a space shuttle -- dubbed Explorer -- made its debut in 1993, alongside a gantry-style tower and a replica of an external tank mated to two solid rocket boosters. Nearby, a facility housing the "Shuttle Launch Experience," an attraction that puts guests through a simulated shuttle launch, opened in May 2007. Two IMAX theaters show space program-related movies daily, as well as an occasional science fiction-themed Hollywood film release.

Attendance has grown to 1.5 million visitors a year but is expected to increase when space shuttle Atlantis goes on display next year. In anticipation, a new entry, ticket plaza and the main circulation path are being constructed. Called the Vapor Trail, it will start in the Rocket Garden (instead of the middle of the visitor complex as is the case now) and lead to the Shuttle Plaza, site of the new home for Atlantis. The Vapor Trail will provide places for families to stay together as some play, rest and relax. It will include water features, interactive zones for children and comfortable seating. The Vapor Trail should be ready to welcome guests in the fall of 2012.

In December 2011, following the conclusion of the shuttle program in July, the high-fidelity shuttle replica was moved to Kennedy's Launch Complex 39 turn basin to await transport by barge to NASA Johnson Space Center's visitor center in Houston. There it will be given a new name and another opportunity to inspire the next generation of dreamers. The move made way for the ground-breaking Jan. 18 for the future home of Atlantis, which will be displayed permanently at the visitor complex.

"This is an incredible day for our nation's space program,” said Bill Moore, chief operating officer of the KSCVC. "Today marks the start of a new era in which this magnificent ship, Atlantis, which has traveled to space and back an astounding 33 times, will remain docked in her home port, displayed in all her glory with a new mission to uphold -- to inspire a new generation of space explorers who will take us to even greater heights."

The $100 million, 65,000-square-foot exhibit will provide guests a unique vantage point to view Atlantis up close, with payload bay doors open and the Canadarm extended, while telling the story of the 30-year Space Shuttle Program through a number of hands-on, interactive and immersive mediums. The exhibit also will feature a crawl-through model of the International Space Station. The six-story exhibit will be in the complex' Shuttle Plaza adjacent to the Shuttle Launch Experience. Designed by the architects of PGAV Destinations of St. Louis, Mo., the structure will be built by Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. from Orlando.

Atlantis is scheduled to make the trek from Launch Complex 39 to the visitor complex in November, with the grand opening of its showcase facility slated for July 2013.

For more information, visit the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex website.

Kay Grinter
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center