A Visit to Kennedy Space Center

We have had many chances over the years to visit the Kennedy Space Center. Kathryn had an internship a few summers ago in Cocoa Beach, FL, which is just 15 minutes away from the Kennedy Space Center. And we spent a summer in Cape Canaveral, FL, when I was 11 and Kathryn was 8, while our mom spent 10 weeks working at NASA. And yet we still had never been to Kennedy Space Center.

We finally made it there during a weekend trip (the same one where we went skydiving!), and finally got to experience everything we had been missing! It was great – there was so much to see and do and learn! What I liked most was that there were so many mediums to learn, from a bus tour to interactive displays and 3D multi-media presentations.

The staff at the ticket booth recommended that we start with the bus tour because it departs every 15 minutes and you don’t want to leave it until later and miss out. So we headed to the bus depot, and got on the next bus for a tour of the Space Center grounds. We saw the Vehicle Assembly Building where the rockets and shuttles are built, a couple of the launch pads and a bonus of local wildlife – an alligator and a bald eagle nest!

The bus tour ended at the Apollo/Saturn V center, where the main attraction is the Saturn V rocket that was the length of the entire building. We also touched a moon rock and saw a Lunar Module that had to be hung from the ceiling because it was built to land on the moon and can’t support it’s own weight in earth’s gravity.

Atlantis Space Shuttle

Then we headed back to the visitor center to the Atlantis exhibit, where the retired Atlantis Space Shuttle is on display. Besides the shuttle, highlights of the exhibit were the Shuttle launch experience simulator ride and the memorial honoring the crews that lost their lives on the Columbia and the Challenger.

I’m glad we finally made it to Kennedy Space Center – there was much more to do than I expected and so many different ways to engage. We had a really fun day!

Visiting the World of Chocolate Museum and Café

Situated in a tiny strip in Orlando, Florida, the World of Chocolate Museum and Café is much bigger than it appears from the outside. Walking through the door you immediately spot a display filled with delicious looking chocolates and candies! While you could just hang out in the café, we decided to tour the chocolate museum as well. The regular price for the tour is $17 a person, but we found a groupon that made it $10 a person!

The tour began with a brief history of chocolate starting from when it was first used by the ancient Aztecs as currency. Through the decades, chocolate uses evolved from a spiced drink for the natives to the sweet chocolate we know today. The tour takes you through the history and even lets you try samples of what the Aztecs drinks were probably like. Spoiler alert, not sweet at all! Don’t try to drink your sample in one swig, try a small sip first!

Our tour guide led us through a temperature controlled room with solid chocolate sculptures of monuments around the world. Two men in Austria made all of the sculptures, each of them taking about four months! Monuments included the Taj Mahal (made of all white chocolate), the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower and 22 more. The heaviest sculpture is the Great Wall of China, weighing in at over 400lbs!

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The last part of the museum tour was a chocolate tasting where we got to try chocolates from around the world. The chocolate ranged from sweet to bitter with a bacon flavored mixed in the middle!

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After our tour we also did a wine and chocolate pairing. We got 3 different wines with three chocolate truffles. We learned to take a sip of wine first to get the taste in our mouths, take a bite of the truffle then immediately sip some wine to mix the flavors. They were delicious!

While we didn’t know about the World of Chocolate Museum and Cafe before heading to Orlando, the unique experience is one we’re glad we didn’t miss!

Step Right Up to the Ringling Museum

A week before the Ringling Bros Circus performed their last show, we made a visit to the Ringling in Sarasota, Florida! The Ringling estate is made up of three main sections, the Circus Museum, Ca d’Zan and the Museum of Art. The last living Ringling brother, John Ringling and his wife Mable owned the entire 66-acre estate and bequeathed it to the state of Florida upon his death. The five Ringling brothers created the circus empire comprised of a 100 rail-car caravan, which crossed the country each season.

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Admission to the estate is $25 for adults but $5 for students so be sure to bring your student id if you have one! The first building you will come to is the Tibbals Learning Center. The center is home to a 44,000-piece re-creation of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus combined shows. Howard Tibbals created all the miniatures starting in his Tennessee basement in 1963. The 3,800 square foot display showcases all aspects of the circus, from unloading the trains to the kitchen tents to the main event in the Big Top! Here we learned the three main sections of the circus that the public sees: the sideshow tent featuring acts like the bearded lady and conjoined twins, the menagerie filled with exotic animals, and the Big Top where the top performers and acts could be viewed!

Next to the expansive model was an interactive room. We tried our hand at tightrope walking to press a button for applause on the other side. I attempted to balance on a very still horse’s back, and fit my 6 ft frame into a tiny clown car! Along with the interactive areas there was also a small theater with circus acts through the ages playing.

Next door to the Tibbals Learning Center is the original Circus Museum, where we arrived just in time to take a guided tour. The museum houses the railroad car fit for the “King of the Circus” aka John Ringling. The railroad car, known as the Wisconsin, has various compartments solely for John and Mable Ringling, including a small kitchen, bedroom, bathroom and large sitting area. Also in this area, volunteer wood carvers restore beautifully carved parade wagons and large handcrafted animals. The volunteers only work one morning a week, so the camel we saw in progress has been under construction for the past seven years!

After seeing the thrills of the circus, we wandered the estate to see more of John and Mable’s home, the Ca d’Zan. Ca d’Zan translates as “House of John” in the old Venetian language. Situated on the edge of Sarasota Bay, the mansion is designed in the Venetian Gothic style, it looks very similar to the Doge’s Palace in Venice, Italy! At an extra cost, tours are offered of the interior of the Ca d’Zan, but we were satisfied exploring the exterior, including Mable’s Ringling Rose Garden, the oldest rose garden in Florida!

The last area on the estate that we visited was the Museum of Art. In 1925, John and Mable hired an architect to build a museum on the property to house their ever-expanding collection of art. The museum offers docent tours throughout the day included in the price of admission. Far from being art connoisseurs ourselves, we tagged along on a docent tour to learn the history behind a few of the paintings before exploring on our own.

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Until we realized how much the Ringling had to offer, we never imagined we would spend so much time there – we were there most of the day and we didn’t even see everything!

A Day in Key West, Florida

During one of my last weeks before leaving for my Peace Corps service in Liberia, I took a trip down to Florida for some family time! Mom and I headed down to the Florida Keys for a couple of days. Though we stayed in Marathon, around about mile 50 on Florida Route 1, we spent a day exploring Key West! Here’s how we spent our day…

The Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum

Our first stop in Key West was a visit to Ernest Hemingway’s Key West home and luckily, we got there just in time for the next tour. As our guide led us through the house and around the grounds, we learned about Hemingway’s life and about the history of the house. He lived in the house for about 10 years with his second (out of four!) wife and 90% of the furniture is original. In addition to the living quarters, we got to see Hemingway’s writing room above the carriage house where he wrote nearly 70% of his work!

The other draw to the Hemingway Home are the 40-50 polydactyl (six-toed) cats that live there! Most cats have 5 toes on their front paws and 4 toes in back, but Hemingway’s first cat, Snow White, had additional toes. Many of the cats on the grounds are descendants of Snow White and have inherited the polydactyl gene of extra toes as well. The cats are everywhere, so our tour guide introduced us to some of them! Hemingway used to name them after famous people so they have continued the tradition – here are some photos of Billy Holiday (notice his 6 toes on his back paw!), Humphrey Bogart and Grace Kelly (from left to right)!

Key West Lighthouse

We also visited the Key West Lighthouse and Museum, right across the street from the Hemingway House. First, we climbed the 88 steps to the top of the lighthouse – we could see the entire 2-by-4-mile island from the top! Lucky for us, there was a museum docent at the top who told us more of the history of the island and pointed out different landmarks, like the island’s port and the civil war-era Fort Taylor.

After making our way back down, we went next door to the lighthouse keeper’s quarters that is now the museum. We learned about the keepers and their families who lived there – in fact, they were mostly women! Additional exhibits explained how the light house worked and the network of lighthouses in the Keys. And we saw a true to size lighthouse lantern – it was taller than me!

Conch Tour Train

Often the best way to see the most of a city in such a short time is to do a sightseeing tour and that is what we did here too! We decided on the Conch Tour Train, a Key West icon. The driver or “engineer” is also the tour guide along the way, explaining the history of the city, pointing out the different styles of architecture and highlighting the landmarks as we passed by. We found that some tour guides were better than others, but all were very informative. There were also stops along the way that you could hop off to visit different attractions and then catch the next train, as they pass by every half hour.

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Along the tour, we saw President Truman’s Little White House and the Southern Most Point of the US, both of which we would have liked to stop at if we had more time! We also passed by the Key West Cemetery where many of the graves are above ground due to limited space and there are a few cheeky epitaphs (like “I told you I was sick!”). We went through several different neighborhoods, each with different architectural styles and drove along the beach and many resorts.

The tour ended at Mallory Square, a touristy area on the waterfront with shops, restaurants and many nearby museums. To wrap up our day in Key West, we walked through the square and along the water. And we encountered some roosters along the way – they are all over the city! Mallory Square is famous for its Sunset Celebration, when every day of the year, there are street performers and food carts, and tourists gather to watch the sunset. If we didn’t have an hour and half drive back to Marathon ahead of us, we might have stayed for it!

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Going Off the Trail in the Florida Everglades!

Back in December, I took a quick weekend trip to visit my mom in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Thanks to weather delays causing me to reschedule my flight twice and fly out of a different airport (sometimes I have the worst luck when it comes to flying!), it was an even shorter trip than anticipated, but we still had time for an awesome day visiting the Everglades National Park!

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The highlight of our time at the Everglades was the “Wild Walk in the Wilderness” Hike at Shark Valley! We arrived at the visitor’s center in the morning dressed as instructed when we made our reservations earlier in the week: long sleeve shirt, long pants and old sneakers that could get wet and muddy. We met the park ranger that was leading our hike, Anthony, and discovered that Mom and I were the only ones who signed up for the hike. This turned out great because we were able to ask lots of questions and go at our own pace.

We set off on our hike from the visitor’s center beginning on the paved bike path and after walking not even a hundred yards, we found ourselves just a few feet away from 4 or 5 baby alligators sunbathing in the water just off the road! I was nervous that the mother alligator would come charging at us if we got too close but Anthony assured us we were fine because in this part of the park they are used to people (as long as we stayed a few feet away!).

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We kept walking a little further down the path and then the real hike began, time to go “off-roading!” With that, we followed the ranger right into the ankle deep water of the marsh, walking along the trails that alligators had cut through the saw grass.

It felt like walking through a swamp, with the water getting up to our knees at times! But, technically, it’s not a swamp, the Everglades are actually considered a river. This is because the water is slowly flowing (not stagnant like a swamp) which is where they got the nickname “River of Grass.”

While we were hiking, we stopped frequently so that Anthony could point out different things (and for water and photo breaks!). We learned the difference between sawgrass which will cut you if you rub it the wrong way (the reason for long sleeves and long pants!) and the other less harmful grasses. We saw some other plants, like the duck potato plant with its pretty white and yellow flowers, and some wildlife – herons, a turtle, and a lot of snails.

Towards the end of the hike, we arrived at one of the many tree islands we could see amongst the marsh. These little islands, also called hardwood hammocks, are elevated higher than the surrounding area, which allows trees to take root and can support animal and plant species that need dry land or shelter from the wet, open marsh.  They are usually so dense that you can’t walk through them, but this one had a path cut across it, maintained by the park, that was just big enough for the 3 of us to walk across before hiking back to the visitor’s center.

I would highly recommend this hike! It was the coolest way I can imagine to see the Everglades – you can’t get much closer than stomping through the actual alligator trails in mud and water up to your knees!

If you’re interested in this hike, here are the details: The hike is called the “Wild Walk in the Wilderness” and it leaves from the Shark Valley Visitor Center at the Everglades National Park. The schedule varies by season but during the winter (the dry season), this hike is only offered one weekend a month. It is free (so we couldn’t believe there weren’t more people on our hike!) but you need to make a reservation within the week before the hike.

Mother-Daughter Skydiving Adventure

In honor of Mother’s Day coming up this weekend, we’re posting a flashback to an adventure Kathryn and I embarked on with our mom a few months ago – Skydiving!

I had always wanted to go sky diving and after finding out that our mom wanted to go too, Kathryn and I decided that’d be a great Mother’s Day gift. So only 7 months later, last November, we finally scheduled it! We planned a weekend trip to our parents’ condo in Lakeland, Florida and found SkyDive City in Zypherhills, just about a half hour away (and found discounted jumps on Groupon!).

We arrived at SkyDive City in the afternoon just before our reservation and after checking in, went to wait in a picnic area where we could watch planes take off and jumpers land. Looking around at first at the others waiting, we noticed that the crowd seemed a lot older than I would have expected. After talking to the 87-year-old man sitting near us, we learned that there was a JOS event going on – Jumpers Over Seventy. They were attempting to set a record for the most jumpers over seventy years old, 22 jumpers in one formation. Not even kidding, JOS is a real organization…still trying to find confirmation of whether they set a new record that weekend!

After chatting with our new JOS friend and watching several jumpers land, it was our turn to suit up. We were doing tandem jumps, so each of us had our own instructor who we were jumping with. They helped us into our harnesses and gave us a quick individual tutorial on what to do and what to expect.

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Post-jump, messy hair and all!

After the brief lesson, we boarded the plane. It took about 20 minutes to get up to 10,500 feet and on the way up, our instructors checked and double-checked our harnesses, repeated the instructions a few more times, and cracked a lot of jokes to help ease our nerves (like “if you look out the window on the left, you can see earth” and “I found a parachute for us to use!”).

Then it was time to jump! One tandem pair at a time, we scooted awkwardly to the door (that was open for most of the way up!), and before I had time to think, we were tumbling over the edge into the sky. It was awesome! After 45 seconds of free fall at nearly 120 MPH, my instructor gave the signal to pull the parachute and then I had a chance to help steer as we floated the rest of the 5 minutes to the ground. Mom and I ended up with sitting landings but Kathryn managed a graceful standing landing!

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Basically what we looked like in the air!

Once we were back on land, our instructors gave us a debrief, including an official entry in our new skydiving logbooks and a certificate!

It was such an awesome experience and it was great for the three of us to be able to cross this adventure off our bucket lists together!