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Kennedy Space Center

Kennedy_Space_CenterLast year, while touring the southeastern USA I finally managed to visit the Kennedy Space Center. I have been to Florida before, I even lived for a while in Orlando, barely an hour away, but somehow I have never managed to tick this point off my bucket list. The closest I have ever come to that was in 2001 when, during my summer job in Disney World, we were organizing a group visit. Unfortunately due to confusion between the teams in three different cars I was literally left behind. Everyone thought I was in another car. And at that time I didn’t have a mobile phone (I know, it is nowadays hard to believe there was ever a time without them) to get in touch with anyone. So I got stranded and never got to Cape Canaveral.

Anyway, back to last year.

Apollo_11_BridgeAfter a night spent in the outskirts of Orlando I arrived to Kennedy Space Center early in the morning. I chose a midweek day to avoid the worst crowds and a quick glance at the vast parking lots assured me that it had been a good idea. I quickly got my (rather expensive) tickets and entered the complex. Close to the entrance there is an area called the Rocket Garden where you can see some of the historic rockets. There is also the bridge used by the crew of the Apollo 11 mission to enter their craft before the launch. That means you can actually walk in the footsteps of Neil Armstrong! Of course the bridge is nowadays only a foot or so above the ground rather than hundreds of feet as it was back then. Still it is a cool experience.

Vehicle_Assembly_BuildingThe first big highlight of my trip was the bus tour of the complex. During the tour you can see how big the Space Center is. A lot of the area is actually protected and it is managed as Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and Canaveral National Seashore. Because of that it is possible to see a lot of wildlife, including alligators on the side of the road (one was pointed out to us by our driver). During the tour the bus passes close to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), where the rockets and the space shuttles were once prepared for launches (and which is one of the world’s largest buildings by volume). After VAB we were driven close to several launching pads. On some of them it is possible to see preparations for commercial launches as NASA is renting facilities to private space companies. We could also see the huge transporters used to move ready rockets to the pads.

Alan_Shephard_SuitEventually we reached the exhibition designated to the Apollo program. Here, in a vast building, is located one of the two surviving Saturn V rockets (out of 13 built). I had already seen the other one (2 were never used) in Houston but it is always an impressive sight and worth admiring. But what I found the most fascinating here was the lunar vault. Among other exhibits one can see is the moon dust covered spacesuit of Alan Shepard from the Apollo 14 mission as well as the Apollo 14 module itself. You can clearly see the scorch marks from re-entering the earth’s atmosphere. There are several training mock-ups of various landing craft and samples of lunar rock. There is even the little van used to transport the astronauts to the launch pad, parked in the corner.Apollo_14

After that I took the bus back to the main part of the complex where it was time to see the Space Shuttle Atlantis. This was actually the main reason for my visit to Cape Canaveral as I had already seen a lot of Apollo related stuff in the Johnson Space Center in Houston

Space_Shuttle_Atlantis_2To enter the shuttle exhibition building one has to come through a queuing system and not one but two cinematic experience rooms. In the first one there is a video explaining the origins of the space shuttle program and its development. It is quite short and informative. But the real fun begins in the next room which is yet another movie experience. But this time you can watch amazing shots of the shuttle which were taken in space. They are displayed on the screen in front as well as on the ceiling and the walls of the room. In typical American fashion It is all very inspirational. And I really mean it in a positive sense. Eventually there is a shot of the shuttle facing the audience with its loading bay door wide open. Suddenly I noticed that it actually wasn’t a movie shot any more. Just towards the end of the movie the screen changed to transparent so what we were looking at was the actual shuttle in front of us. In this moment the screen lifted and the public could enter the main viewing gallery. It was all very well done, I have to admit that my jaw literally dropped. Americans definitely know how to put on a show.

The viewing gallery allows a really close look of the shuttle which is suspended in the massive room at an angle, as if floating in space. It is so close that one could almost (but not quite) touch it. All the scorch marks and any signs of wear and tear are clearly visible, one can be sure that it is not yet another model but the “real thing”. After getting down from the galley it s possible to walk directly underneath the shuttle. You can have a close look at all the tiles lining the underbelly of it and protecting the craft during the re-entry to earth’s atmosphere. Apart from the shuttle the building is filled with all sorts of displays explaining the science behind it as well as other aspects of space exploration (like the International Space Station). Real heaven for anyone who is even partly as geeky as I am.Space_Shuttle_Atlantis

Another shuttle related attraction was the IMAX cinema showing a movie shot in space in 3D. It was filmed during an actual shuttle mission, the one when astronauts were fixing the Hubble telescope, and it offered some truly amazing footage. There are two screens at the cinema, the other one was showing another good movie, this time about space exploration in general, which was narrated by my favourite Star Trek captain, Jean-Luc Picard (aka Patrick Stewart). IMAX cinema is a good option for the late afternoon when it gets really hot and most of visitors (including myself) are already tired after their intensive exploration of the space center. Just check what is showing as the films do change regularly.

I’m from the generation which grew up watching news of the shuttle missions. From the sad day of the Challenger disaster (I was then 9 years old) through fixing the Hubble telescope, all the years of building the ISS to the last flights of the surviving shuttles. For me the space shuttle rather than the Apollo program was the symbol of space exploration. That’s why I have to admit that the Space Shuttle Atlantis is one of the absolute highlights of any of my many trips to the US. On par with the likes of the Grand Canyon, Golden Gate Bridge or Yellowstone. And I can wholeheartedly recommend a visit to anyone, young or old and from any background.Saturn_V

I had spent a whole day in the Kennedy Space Center and I could have easily stay longer but I had to move as the place was closing for the day. After a quick bite I joined the I-95 and settled in for a great evening drive all the way to Miami. Cruising along the wide interstate in the light of the setting sun is one of the best uses one can get out of an V8 powered Ford Mustang. But let’s finish for now as Miami deserve its own chapter.Atlantis_Building


Downtown_Mobile_SkylineFor a while Alabama was the last of the lower 48 states which I hadn’t visited. But finally, in the spring of 2016 , I managed to tick it off the list.

I entered the state from the Florida Panhandle, crossing the state boundary near the small town of Florala which is located near to Britton Hill, the highest point in Florida. It is a barely 105 metres high and you can actually drive to the top of it. Well, “the top” is a bit of an exaggeration as it is a low hill really, with a car park beside. Still, the highest point it is so I couldn’t resist the temptation to see it. Anyway, Alabama now.

First I headed straight to the state capital, Montgomery. It is a rather small place, without much of a buzz or excitement, but it is an interesting place for a history buff like myself. I started my visit, like in many other state capitals, by touring the state capitol. Completed in 1851 the capitol building also served temporarily as the Confederate Capitol; in 1861 when Montgomery was capital of the Confederate Sates of America. In fact the Confederacy was born in the senate chamber, where the delegates from the southern states voted to establish it. Alabama_State_Capitol

It is a gracious Greek Revival structure located on a prominent hill and, like most of the state capitols, it is topped by an impressive dome. It is a strikingly white structure and there are plenty of impressive columns (Greek Revival style is named as such for a reason).

Alabama_muralsThe exterior and the interior of the building are generally less elaborate that in some other state capitols (like for example one of my favourites, the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City) but there are some interesting details nonetheless. Namely the murals at the base of the dome’s interior, which depict events from the history of Alabama. They were created in the 1920s and bear visible Art Deco influences. There are also multiple coats of arms indicating that the Alabama territory was, at some stage, governed by Spain, France, Britain and the United States. Probably the finest feature of the building is the twin cantilevered spiral stairways that reach up to the third floor.

Next to the capitol building is located the First White House of the Confederacy which was the residence of Jefferson Davies (the Confederate president) for a few months in 1861 while Montgomery was the confederate capital. It is nowadays a quite interesting museum concentrating on the domestic life of the Davies family. There is actually very little mention of the slavery, which was at the end an underlying problem of the confederacy. A quite grand Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Memorial is also located nearby, on the state capitol grounds. It all paints a picture of slight glorification of the confederacy in parts of Montgomery. Sure the city also celebrates the civil rights movement events from the 1960s but it seems that the monuments and sites related to Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King are aimed at completely different audience.White_House_of_Confederacy

In general I had a feeling that the city tourist board has a hard job of promoting two different sets of attractions. The confederate sites to the nostalgic folks, often older, conservative and predominantly white, and the civil rights sites aimed at the African Americans and younger liberal crowd . I guess such is modern divided America.

I didn’t stay long in the Alabama’s capital as, at the the end of day, there isn’t that much to see or do there. My next destination was the city of Mobile located 170 miles the the south-west of Montgomery, on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico (in place where Alabama River flows to the Mobile Bay, to be precise). It is the third largest metropolitan area in the state and by far the largest in the southern half of it.

Coat_of_armsI wasn’t sure what to expect from the city but I knew that it was one of the oldest settlements in this part of America, founded in 1702 by Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville and Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville. The second one of them also established New Orleans, (some 16 years later) which shows how old Mobile is. In fact it was the first capital of the French colony of La Louisiane. Since then the city changed hands to the British, the Spanish and finally the Americans.

I decided to stop in one of the chain motels conveniently located right beside the city’s compact centre, which allowed me to explore all the interesting areas on foot.

First I went for a stroll around the downtown, which has more than a bit of the New Orleans’ feel. This pleasant part of the city has similar architecture to its “French cousin”, with the characteristic wrought iron balconies and verandas. It is all of course on a much smaller scale here than in the Big Easy but on the other hand Mobile is much less touristy and you don’t have to fight with boozy crowds on every corner. The main entertainment area, with quite a few bars and restaurants, is located around the Dauphin Street, Bienville Square and Cathedral Plaza. I really enjoyed this part of town but I actually decided to spend the evening in an Irish bar which I found online and which was located a short walk from the downtown. On the way there I passed some quiet streets illuminated by the gas lighting which, together with the historic architecture, created a great ambient for an evening walk. The pub itself, called The Callaghan Irish Social Club, was established in 1946. Only in America would you boast age like this for a pub, but it was nonetheless a fun place to have a few pints.Downtown_Mobile

The next day started badly. It was raining heavily from the early hours. Which was really annoying as I really wanted to grab my camera and explore some of the historic areas which I had visited the previous evening on my way to the bar. Finally the sky cleared somehow and I left my motel room.

De_Tonti_Square_DistrictFirst I decided to explore the De Tonti Square Historic District. This nine-block area is roughly bounded by Adams, St. Anthony, Claiborne, and Conception Streets and it contains some fine examples of the townhouses built between 1840 and 1860. Big trees covered with Spanish moss, empty streets and the cloudy grey sky completed the district’s haunted vibe. I took tons of pictures before heading to Fort Conde which is a reconstruction, at 4/5 scale, of the original 1720s French Fort Condé at the original site. Actually only the third of the original fort was reconstructed and it is located just above the entrance to the tunnels which carry Interstate 10 under the Mobile River so you can hear the constant noise of the traffic. Still the interior offers an interesting exposition on the history of the fort and the city.Fort_Conde_1

While I was in the fort it started raining again. In fact it was pouring as the tropical storm was just reaching Mobile. I was stuck in the fort for about an hour until a slightly less heavy rain allowed me to get back to my car. I really didn’t want to leave Mobile yet so I decide to drive to the Church Street East Historic District and to the Oakleigh Garden Historic District. These are the areas which I have explored the previous evening, when I was on my way to the The Callaghan. Like the De Tonti Square they are also listed on the National Register of Historic Places and are full of historic architecture (mostly from the 19th century but with some fine buildings from the early 20th too). Lush vegetation only added to the amazing character of the place. Historic_Mobile_4

Unfortunately by this time the heavens really opened. All I could do was to drive slowly around, avoiding all the puddles which were getting bigger and deeper with every minute, as the potholed streets in this part of the city filled with huge amounts of water falling from the leaden clouds. I only managed to take a few pictures from the car which is pity as this part of Mobile looked so photogenic, even on a rainy day (or maybe especially on a rainy day).Historic_Mobile_8

After checking weather forecasts I realised that I have to leave Mobile and head east. And fast. The heavy rains, caused by an unusual for March weather system, triggered massive floods in east Texas and in Louisiana and the system was just reaching Alabama. The last thing I needed was to be stuck in some flooded areas on my holiday so I decided to drive back east towards central Florida and Cape Canaveral, which I will write about later.Historic_Mobile_6

Overall I think Mobile is a really fascinating place with a lot to offer. Especially for those who are interested in historic architecture of the American South. I would have spent more time there if not for the weather as it was great to just walk around the city’s historic neighbourhoods with a camera.

Who knows, I might be back, but in the meantime I strongly recommend it to anyone looking for an interesting southern city which is not as dominated by tourism as the likes of New Orleans, Charleston or Savannah.

Alabama definitely deserves a visit.Historic_Mobile_1

15 Years of my American Adventure

kissimmeeEarlier this year I flew to Florida, almost exactly 15 years after my fist visit to the US, which also began in the Sunshine State. What then started as an unexpected summer job in Walt Disney World (after friend asked me to accompany her for the interview) developed into a lifelong passion for America.

This year I chose Florida as my destination because it was the cheapest place to fly which was also close to Alabama. And Alabama was the last of the lower 48 states which I haven’t visited yet.

I mean we drove across its panhandle, all those years ago on our way from Florida to California, but it doesn’t really count as we didn’t stop there at all.

Alabama happened to be more interesting that I expected and deserve its own chapter (especially the fascinating city of Mobile) so here let me write more generally about being back in Florida all those years after my Disney job.

Often when I mention this episode of my life people react with rolling their eyes and the looks of pity. But there is no reason for that as it was one of the best summers I have ever experienced. The weather was great, we lived in a huge campus full of young people from all around the world working for Disney, we had our own swimming pool, free access to all the amusement parks and the job wasn’t really too hard. And don’t let me even get started about the parties. Yes, summer 2001 was definitely an awesome time for me. Ever since then I have a soft spot for Orlando. orlando-eye

Which is weird because I normally hate places like that. Full of kitsch, driven by tourism and naked commercialism. That’s why I don’t go to the Mediterranean resorts. And to be honest I would probably never go to Orlando if I didn’t get that summer job in Disney.

So, why do I go back?

Well, like most relationships, it is complicated. First, I have a friend who still lives in Orlando. One of our group at university, (four of us went to work there together) never went back to Poland and still lives in Orlando. It is always nice to meet and catch up with the old times. This year we decided to meet for a dinner in Disney Springs. It is a family friendly shopping, dining and entertainment area close to all the major Disney parks which is open to general public free of charge. All those years ago it was called Downtown Disney and Pleasure Island and as soon as I entered it I got a strong feeling of a deja vu. The smell, the noise, the crowds, it all immediately felt familiar. Normally it would be quintessence of all I hate when travelling but somehow I loved every moment of that evening. I really didn’t realise how much my experience in Disney made a lasting imprint in my head. It is probably due to fact that it was my first experience of America and a place where my fascination with that continent germinated.

disney-springsOn top of that, all those 15 years ago we had some proper fun out there. Back then Disney was trying to expand towards the older clientele (by older I mean not kids) so the Pleasure Island was an area full of bars and night clubs. I still remember the weekly staff nights when, as Disney employees, we had free access to all the establishments and discount on drinks in some of them. Nowadays most of the nightclubs are gone and young revellers are replaced by ever growing crowds of families. Still, I didn’t stop me from wandering aimlessly late into the night, long after my friend and her kids drove home. I only had one night in Orlando so I guess I wanted to use every moment of it to immerse myself in the past.

After a night in a cheap motel in Kissimmee (town south of Orlando full of budget hotels, dated shopping malls and ever more kitschy tourist attractions, including place where you can shoot machine guns) I drove back to Orlando and went to see the campus where we all used to live in 2001. It was weird. Chatham Square is a gated community and without employee pass one cannot enter it. So I parked just outside the gate and just stared at it. I looked at the bus stop where all those years ago every day we were boarding buses taking us to work all over the Walt Disney World. I have to say that it might be one of the most bizarre bus stops in the world as many of Disney staff are already wearing their costumes while waiting for a bus. I must be getting old because I felt strangely sentimental.machine-guns

In the afternoon I drove a bit around Orlando, did some shopping and briefly met my friend again at her house. But it was clearly time to move and go to some more interesting places which I didn’t manage to visit previously, namely the Kennedy Space Center often also called Cape Canaveral.

So how was Orlando all those year after my first visit?

Strange. On one hand Orlando metropolitan area grew significantly in recent years. In fact its population grew over 11% between 2010 and 2015 alone, making it one of the fastest growing places in the US. On the other hand it felt smaller than I remembered it. It was probably due to two factors. Back in the days I had to use public transport to get around. Disney buses to get to work and city transit to go anywhere else. It was painfully slow way of travelling. This time I could zoom around in my convertible Ford Mustang. Also, most places do feel bigger during the first visit.

Now, normally I end my chapters strongly recommending visit to a particular place. With Orlando it is a bit difficult. Unless someone is a huge fan of Disney, amusement parks and thrill rides (which there are some awesome examples in Disney World, Universal and SeaWorld) it is a hard place to recommend wholeheartedly. But on a personal level I had a great time there, recalling all the memories.

I will probably be back, just not too soon.disney