One of the side effects of living in Central Florida for as long as I have, you become jaded. Every few weeks there is some new ride, stage show or attraction opening up. After a while, they all start to run together. This summer some very large and expensive E-Ticket attractions opened including Antarctica Empire of the Penguin and Transformers The Ride. Sea World and Universal spent a lot of money on their new additions and each are impressive in their own right. However, the stand out attraction of 2013 was definitely Atlantis at Kennedy Space Center.
After spending nearly three hours in the exhibit, I walked out feeling truly inspired. Not just theme park phony balogna, where you tear up watching a fireworks show. This exhibit truly transcends the manufactured crap you can find at Disney and Universal. Everything about this attraction revolves around the shuttle program designed by engineers at NASA, flown by real astronauts and it all happened on the grounds where you can now see Atlantis up close and personal.
According to Daren Ulmer of Mousetrappe, the company in charge of creating the pre-show experiences for Atlantis told me, the feeling of inspiration was an intentional one from the beginning of the design process. In a recent interview, Daren told me the intention was to not make the new attraction feel like a museum. Instead of mourning a loss, the idea was to celebrate the accomplishments that the shuttle program made while Atlantis was an active member of the fleet. Even going up the ramp to experience the pre-show, the walls are covered in huge posters of Atlantis while she was in flight. The message is subtle, but effective: the space program is alive and well.
The first pre-show room is set up like an engineer’s work bench. All kinds of shuttle and rocket drawings, paintings and concepts line the walls. As guests shuffle in, a sketchpad of drawings comes to life on screen. Without any dialogue, it brilliantly showcases how basic scientific principals lime propulsion and flight lead to the space program before the shuttle was introduced.
By staging guests in various pre-show rooms before the big reveal of the shuttle, it gave the creative team the chance to tell a linear story. After the lights dim, the first pre-show reenacts key moments in the development of the shuttle program. Today, the idea of being able to launch something into space like a rocket and land it like an aircraft seems easy. However, as you learn in the Atlantis exhibit, this was an extremely risky undertaking.
The final pre-show leading up to the reveal of Atlantis is truly impressive. Sixteen projectors combine to create a truly immersive experience. Jon Baker and his team worked with a full orchestra and the end result is truly inspiring. After I told Jon that the music from the film, if not the entire pavilion, felt like Epcot when it opened in 1982. He took it as a huge compliment and commented that’s exactly what they were going for. The rear projection screen complete with built in fiber optic stars that lifts up to reveal the shuttle cost seven million dollars. That number does not include the rest of what it cost to build the final theater.
That reveal of Atlantis is enough to give anyone chills. Long before Jon Baker or anyone from Mousetrappe was involved, the design of the building revolved around the moment where guests find themselves staring at a real space shuttle, nose to nose. After the captivating pre-shows Mousetrappe created and the emotional connection of Jon Baker’s score, you can’t help but feel a sense of pride on behalf of the astronauts that flew Atlantis.
Even the astronauts that were interviewed for this attraction about their on board Atlantis would get choked up just recalling some of their stories. Perhaps most importantly, this new exhibit means a lot to them. Guests may look at this as a neat attraction to showcase the shuttle program. For the astronauts and crew that worked on Atlantis for many years, she was a labor of love. Unlike most theme park attractions, the story being told here is not one of fiction and that makes the emotional impact much stronger.
Notice how the shuttle is pitched on its side and the cargo bay doors are open with the Canada Arm fully extended. This is not just a fancy way to display Atlantis, but a conscious decision on how guests perceive the shuttle program. It looks like Atlantis could just be rolled out of that building and take off again at any time. Again, without directly saying it, the idea is to show the space program as something that is alive and well – even though the shuttles no longer fly.
The post-show area takes up the vast majority of the 90,000 square foot exhibit. There is plenty to explore and do in this massive area from crawl spaces for kids, to a recreation of the living quarters for crew members aboard Atlantis. This attraction not only redefines Kennedy Space Center as a tourist destination, but any museum looking to showcase artifacts of any kind can take notes from the progressive strides the creative team took to make this a reality. I love the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in Washington D.C., but it’s not even close to being as inspiring or innovative as the Atlantis Exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center.
Even though I think this $100 million dollar addition is exactly what the Kennedy Space Center needs, it doesn’t mean the attraction is a success. There is no doubt that it’s a great addition and definitely conveys that space exploration and NASA are far from dead. However that is only half the battle. Central Florida is a fiercely competitive market and it’s not easy to convince tourists to ditch Mickey, Harry Potter and Shamu for a day and drive out to the coast. All eyes are on the marketing team for KSC to get the message out. If Atlantis is given the proper marketing and successfully brings families out to Cape Canaveral, we stand a chance of seeing more attractions like this and a very bright future for Kennedy Space Center.