North and Central Florida Coast

Sunday, 29 December 2013 15:30
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Christmas at the Kennedy Space CenterBeaches, rockets, and Disneyworld.


After leaving lovely Savannah, I headed down Rt. 17 and Florida A1A toward St. Augustine, where I’d planned to spend a couple of days at an Airbnb hanging out on the intracoastal. I was sort of killing some time so that I could coordinate an arrival in Orlando later with some things that were going on at Disneyworld, but the area was also very nice. Not to put too many qualifiers on it, but St. Augustine is the oldest continuously occupied settlement/city in the US that was established by Europeans. (That’s often just shortened to “oldest city in America”, but that honor actually goes to Taos Pueblo, NM, which has been an occupied community since about 1000 AD.) Legend also has it that Ponce de Leon also visited the area in his search for the Fountain of Youth, but  like many legends, there’s more than a bit of embellishment to all of that. In any case, I’d reached Florida.

Still staying ahead of the cold weather...

I spent the next day or so doing some light exploring. I first went to Fort Matanzas, an 1742 Spanish fort that was used to guard the southern approach to St. Augustine. The National Park Service runs a free ferry out to the fort, so I went over and took the little boat ride out there. Unfortunately, it was pretty foggy that morning, so there wasn’t all that much to see, but it was still fun to wander around the fort and the island for a bit. As usual, I also met several people in the parking lot who were checking out the car, and had my daily conversations with people from all over. The car is still doing a fine job as ambassador to the world.

A little early morning fishing near the fort Fort Matanzas, coming out of the fog Keystone at the fort; compressed shell/coral matrix
A couple of egrets near the fort Drying the dew off the wings Looking for some fish

My next stop in my time-killing tour of the eastern Florida coast was Daytona Beach, where it was very off-season and very inexpensive. I’d gotten a hotel right on the beach for cheap, which was great, and I spent the next couple of days basically being a bum; swimming in the ocean and reading on the beach. They also let you drive on the beach in Daytona (something I hadn’t done since Washington state), so I cruised the beaches in the Datsun, and also made a brief pilgrimage out to Daytona International Speedway. There really wasn’t much else to do in Daytona, as practically everything else was closed for the season, but it gave me a nice chance to relax a little bit and catch up on some blogging.

On the beach with a few hundred friends Plenty of seagulls Hanging out at the Speedway
More beach driving Florida cultural exhibits abound World's Most Famous Beach

Once I was fully waterlogged and suntanned, I started on my trip over to Orlando. The plan for Orlando was to stay at one of the Disney resort hotels (Coronado Springs), as that was close to the park, and I was planning to meet and hang out with a lot of the Disney and FTSI guys that I used to work with. They were in the midst of testing on a couple of projects that I was involved with before I left, so it was pretty cool to be able to see the progress they’d made since then. There were also a couple of my old friends from Ukraine there for software support, so it was definitely quite a get-together.

I got all checked in at the hotel (which was pretty nice, in an everything-is-done-for-you Disney kind of way), then got directions from Chris (my passenger from Colorado, if you remember) to the testing area backstage at Animal Kingdom. I can’t actually discuss what was being tested or what it’s for, nor can I show any pictures of any of it, so you guys will just have to stay in suspense until it opens. Let’s just say that it’s probably the high point of implementation for the technologies that we developed while I was at FTSI, and it’s really gratifying to see it all come to fruition.

I had a good time hanging out backstage and seeing all my friends. Michael Curry (from wakesurfing in my Portland entry) was also there, and he seemed pretty surprised that I was actually still on the same trip from back then, but it was great getting all caught up with everyone. After a long evening of watching the magic happen (and giving a couple of rides in the Datsun), I went back to the hotel to turn in.

I went back to the park the next day to check out some of the other technology applications with Chris and walk around backstage a bit more, after which I went into the park and hung out for a while. There were some attractions that I’d seen in development but hadn’t seen in the flesh yet, so I focused on those. One was the “Lumiere” animatronic figure at “Enchanted Tales With Belle”, which is a next-generation (and extremely impressive) animatron. I’d seen the background technology for the figure at a “Blue Sky” presentation at Imagineering in Glendale a few years earlier, but seeing it in action was really remarkable. It was a little odd being “that creepy guy in the hoodie at the back of the room” in an attraction that was otherwise populated by parents with young girls in princess costumes, but I got past that and tried not to look too menacing.

After hanging with Belle, I wandered around the rest of the park, watched a couple more shows, went on some rides, checked out all of the Christmas decorations, and generally got my Disney on. It’s not really a great place to hang out by yourself, but I figured it was for science and research, so I stuck with it.

Lumiere and Belle, playing to the audience The big castle on a very nice day in Central Florida Nighttime fireworks with very low cloud cover

The next day, I needed to do a little Christmas shopping, so I headed south toward Kissimmee. I was unsuccessful finding what I was looking for, but I was completely successful finding something I wasn’t looking for. I stumbled across a sign for a “warbird” museum only a few minutes from the shops I was at, so I went over to check it out. Not only did they have warbirds (WWII fighter aircraft), but they also took people up in them. It was a pretty slow day, so I was able to just go up and ask for a flight (and pay for it, of course), and within 15 minutes I was in the front seat of a 1946 North American T-6 “Texan”, taxiing out onto the runway with the pilot, Neal, in the second seat behind me. I had thought it was going to be more of just a ride-along, but it was much more hands-on than I expected. I’m sure the pilots hands were never more than a few millimeters from the controls, but once we were up over 1500’ or so, he gave me a heading and an airspeed to maintain and I was flying the plane.

The T-6 Texan that I flew in The view from the cockpit
The Aerocar. Wings, prop, and rudder are on the cart to the right. Precious Metal, a very modified P-51 Mustang

We flew for few minutes to an empty area where he gave me some very quick and very basic instruction in doing some aerobatic maneuvers like aileron rolls and wingovers (and demonstrated a couple of them), then let me take a shot at doing a few myself. It was a pretty big jump to go from never having flown an airplane before to flying upside down in a 67 year old warbird, but it was a huge amount of fun. If you’re in the Orlando area and you’re looking for something fun and unusual to do, I highly recommend it. The museum itself was pretty neat too, with a couple more Texans, a highly modified P-51 Mustang race plane, a MiG airframe tucked into a back corner, and the only remaining airworthy (and fully functional) Aerocar, among a lot of other eclectic and very cool stuff. (The video below is an edited-down version of my in-flight video.)


There was one more demonstration to attend that night backstage at the Animal Kingdom, and everything went well. I’d tell you more, but Mickey Mouse would have to come to your house and kill you. We had dinner and drinks with the Disney guys afterward, and made some quick plans to visit the Kennedy Space Center the next day, as I was leaving Orlando and that was definitely on my list of things to check out.

We signed up for the “Megatour” of the KSC, which included tours of the vehicle assembly building and Pad 39-A, home to the launches of the Apollo and Space Shuttle missions. They had just started tours of the VAB up again recently, and they won’t be going on forever as they’ll likely restrict visits again once the Orion and/or SLS programs get ramped up further. While out near the launch pad, we also got to see some of the local wildlife, including a bunch of alligators and a few manatee relaxing in the numerous ponds around the complex.

Christmas at the Space Center The new Orion crew capsule, sans skin The doors (big gray things) on the Vehicle Assembly Building
The other side of the VAB. Launch control center to the right. Pad 39A, with the Shuttle launch apparatus still on it (not for long, though) The flame trough on 39A

After the pad tour, we went to the Saturn V display, where they’ve got a complete un-launched Saturn V rocket on its side in an enormous display building. There are three of these on display in the country, one at the US Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, AL, one at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, and this one at the Kennedy Space Center. The rockets at the Kennedy and Johnson space centers were unused production models (SA-514 and SA-515) that were idled when Congress cut funding for the Apollo program, and the one in Huntsville was used for dynamic testing and was never launched. I had seen the single engine they’ve got on display at the Smithsonian Air & Space museum in Washington and was impressed by that, but until now had never seen one of these beasts complete and in person. It’s an amazing machine, and incredibly huge. The space center also had helpful docents around the display to answer questions, and we ended up chatting very much in depth with a gentleman who was a former ordinance engineer for the Saturn V program. ‘Ordinance engineering’ for rockets means you’re the guy who designs and implements the explosives that ride on board the rocket for use in the event that they have to abort a launch and blow it up. Interestingly, it also meant he was on the team that handled the stage separations of the three stage rocket. I had always thought the stages separated via explosive bolts or some similar method, but it turns out that the stages were riveted together using a band of aluminum plate all the way around the rocket, and the separation was accomplished by blowing a full-diameter shaped explosive charge that cut through that plate and allowed the stages to come apart.

No smoking The mighty Saturn V, with Chris and Taras in front for scale Apollo launch control
One of five F-1 rocket engines on the first stage of the Saturn V Split between the second and third stages It's a big rocket

The next and last stop on the tour was the Atlantis space shuttle, which was the first to be decommissioned and displayed. This makes three shuttles for me on this trip (Endeavor in Los Angeles, Discovery in Washington, and Atlantis in Florida). There are four that are on display, but Enterprise was damaged during Hurricane Sandy in New York, so it wasn’t there when I was. Enterprise was a glide model anyway and never launched, so I did get to see the three that actually flew. This was also the best display of the three; they had it up on stands and tilted at an angle, with the cargo bay doors open and one of the manipulator arms deployed, so it was much easier to see a lot of the details than it was at the other displays. I believe the eventual plan for Endeavor in LA is to display it in its launch position (vertical), complete with external fuel tank and boosters, so that should be pretty cool when it’s done, but until then this is probably the best shuttle display in the country.

Space Shuttle Atlantis Driver's side window for when they need to go through the drive-thru Thrusters on the tail end for maneuvering in space
Rear underside Wing and cargo bay door Sunset at the rocket garden

My post-Orlando plans for Florida were mostly to spend a little time in Miami and then do Christmas in the Florida Keys, so I was in no hurry as I continued working my way down the coast. I stopped at another really inexpensive off-season beach hotel in Jensen Beach, where I replicated my swim-in-the-ocean-and-hang-on-the-beach plan from Daytona, and also did a bit of driving around and checking out the local Christmas decorations. However, like Daytona, Jensen Beach was mostly closed for the season, so after I’d gotten my swimming and relaxing done, I headed out toward the more exciting locales of South Florida, starting with Miami Beach.

Next stop: Miami and The Keys


#1 FairladySPL 2013-12-29 15:13
Didn't I see a commercial where a little Datsun roadster was pulling a space shuttle across a bridge somewhere after it landed? I guess as long as you were in the neighborhood with some extra time to kill ...

Nice update Scott, add old warbirds to our list of common interests. -- Paul
#2 Monkeygym 2013-12-29 16:05
Kickass flight and stuff, Scott--thank for the updates!
Hope you had a good Christmas, and have a fabulous New Year!
#3 laceytrynn 2013-12-29 16:10
LOVE the in-flight video! (Not that I would ever attempt anything like that, of course)… so many unexpected adventures on this trip!
#4 Mom 2013-12-29 17:16
You neglected to tell me you were flying upside that it is over, I can say it was awesome to watch ..although I always get a little nervous with landings felt a bit tense knowing it was my boy doing it..

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