Teetering at the edge, I'm 18,000 feet above land.
I'm trying to process what's happening, but it's happening too fast. There's no barrier between me and the open air, and the wind whips my face as I look out at the horizon. We rock back and forth, and before I can take a final breath, we pitch forward and tumble toward the ground.
When I land, I'm still alive and still in Florida's Space Coast, a coastal area with an appetite for adventure and an affinity for space. The Space Coast is just 45 minutes east of Orlando, the city's closest beach, and I'm here because I'm a thrill-seeker.
And this place? Filled with thrills. They launch rockets here! They have the world's highest skydive jump here! They have gators and dolphins and manatees here. And they have adventure. See for yourself. (Tap the plus-signs below for more info about each activity!)
Kiteboarding is an afternoon activity and one whose success totally depends on the weather. This won't be the only time we learn that lesson, but it is the first time we sort of ignore it. I show up to 321 Kiteboarding with my photographer, Lauren, and we're greeted by our instructor, Tim, and a guy named Jupiter who zips by us on a onewheel.
We learn that a) Jupiter is his real name, and b) unfortunately, the wind is too low for our lesson. Not to be deterred, Jupiter pulls us outside, and we onewheel around the parking lot for cheap thrills until Tim suddenly announces that we gotta go...now; the wind has picked up. We drive to Banana River, and that's where we stay for the next four hours. Tim teaches me how to unpack the kite, launch it, correct its position in the water, relaunch it, and park it high in the sky where, for one empowering minute, it floats undisturbed. Then the wind catches the kite, jerks it away from me, and I totally eat it in the waist-high water.
Eventually I gain a semblance of control and learn downwind body drags — or how to let the kite pull my body through the water quick to get exactly where I need to be. I never get up on a board (beginners would do themselves a favor not to expect to on their first go), but I feel like a badass anyway and leave eager to book another lesson ASAP.
The first thing to know about the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex is that it's a full-day affair. We show up as soon as it opens and are greeted by the national anthem playing out over the Complex speakers (a daily occurrence). Our Space Coast trip is dominated by physical activities, but this is an entirely different type of thrill.
We meet astronaut Jon McBride, experience a space shuttle launch simulation, and have to pick up our jaws from the floor when we come face to face with Space Shuttle Atlantis, on full display and tilted at exactly 43.21 degrees (a nod to the legendary countdown to liftoff: "4, 3, 2, 1"). We learn about literal legends as we walk through the US Astronaut Hall of Fame, and the entire experience is honestly so dizzying and exciting and humbling that the regret I've felt my entire life over my decision not to go to Space Camp in fifth grade completely fades away. This is better.
Owned by the awesome husband-and-wife team of Matt and Kelly VanDenBeldt, Cocoa Beach Aerial Adventures is where all of my American Ninja Warrior dreams came true. An outdoor adventure park that's part ropes course, part treehouse, the park has three levels of courses filled with multiple obstacles (a total of 50) that increase in difficulty the farther along you go and challenge your strength, balance, problem-solving skills, and agility.
And though the challenges are more than suitable for kids, it's equally a good time for grown-ups. Imagine your childhood playground; now imagine it on steroids. That's what this is. During our time there, I walk on a not-so-sturdy log, cross a swinging bridge made of planks, balance on gymnastics rings, crawl through tunnels, climb across a rope net, and zip-line my way to Lara Croft–meets–Indiana Jones levels of adrenaline rush. I want to spend hours there, but more adventure awaits.
I've caught countless flights and flown in a seaplane, but because I've never been a contestant on The Bachelor, I've never been in a helicopter before. This trip seems as good an excuse as any, so Lauren and I make our way to Florida Air Tours, and after a quick safety briefing and without much ado, we lift off. Now, to the casual observer, a helicopter liftoff may not warrant much fanfare, but it is indeed pretty exciting to realize while sitting inside one that, oh yeah, you don't need a runway.
Within seconds, we're hovering above the ground, then zooming smoothly over the land below. We pass a solar-powered farm, the Kennedy Space Center, NASA launch pads, the St. John's and Banana Rivers, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, cows, manatees, and an alligator or two. Our pilot, Shannon, suddenly spots a fanboat and decides to "give 'em a scare." At one point, a guy comes over our radio and says, "Two triple niner," and while I don't know what the heck that means, it does make me feel very, very cool.
Skydive Space Center offers the world's highest jump at 18,000 feet. "AMAZING! THIS IS AWESOME!" are the only things my dumb brain and mouth can manage to squeak out as I plunge to the ground. This is my second time skydiving, and it's only 10,000 feet more insane than the first time.
It's hard to describe the experience, but I'll try: The stomach-dropping sensation that's so common with roller coasters isn't there; instead, your nerves or fears (or lack thereof, depending on who you are) join you as you ascend into the sky in a tiny plane. Your instructor sits right behind you and makes adjustments to your harness. Things get tighter; the two of you get closer. Eventually, someone lifts up the plastic "door" that's shielding you from the outside. Then it's your turn, and you scoot to the opening where the door was just moments ago. For a second, your instincts kick in, and you realize this isn't natural, but before you can confront that thought, you're falling and flipping and in total shock.
The first few seconds remind me of jumping into freezing cold water, the cold shock response when you gasp uncontrollably and can't breathe. But then you find your breath as you free fall and feel like you're flying until your instructor pulls the parachute and you float to the ground. And just like that it's over — and you wish you could do it again.
When we meet Cory Redwine of All Water Adventures, she's smiling and laughing with her captain, Adam. Right away, I know we're in for a good time. Together, Lauren, Cory, Adam, and I set out on a pontoon boat down the Banana and Indian Rivers, and we cruise into the sunset watching porpoises play alongside us and more manatees not too far away. We pass people fishing and kids swinging from rope swings. "That's what it's like to grow up here," Adam says, "not on your phone." Cory nods in agreement.
When we come to where the rivers open up, we drop our paddleboards into the water and turn back. Lauren, Cory, and I stand up and paddle as the sun sets. It gets darker out, and eventually everything around us is black except for the glowsticks we put around our wrists earlier. Suddenly there's a flash of green in the water, and then another, and we realize the fish around us are darting out of our way, moving in the waters around them and triggering the bioluminescence. We try to take pictures, but photos don't do it justice.
The rest of the night is filled with bursts of neon as we plunge our paddles deeper, trying to light up the waters around us. Our arms grow tired, and eventually we pile back onto the boat. It's one of the more laid-back activities on our itinerary, but it's a literal highlight of the trip.
In the end, we cross six adrenaline-pumping activities off our bucket list.
We had hoped for more (and there is so much more), but the wind got in the way of parasailing 800 feet in the air with Cocoa Beach Parasail, and we missed a chance to go flyboarding like Leo. But that's OK; I'm all adrenalined out for now anyway.
Besides, it just means there are more thrills to be had next time.
Photographs by Lauren Zaser / Design by Victoria Reyes / © BuzzFeed
Seeking adventure? Get your heart racing and blood pumping on Florida's Space Coast.