"People are coming out cheering and crying. The wow factor works," Macy says. "There's no doubt about it, it's memorable."
Behind Atlantis is a LED screen showing an orbital sunrise, which furthers the illusion. Guests exit the theater at eye level with Atlantis, slanted to represent the angle at which it undocked from the International Space Station. A ramp near the back of the room leads to viewing areas beneath the shuttle. The tiles of the underside resemble snake skin and the shape of the backlit orbiter looks like a stingray.
Cool, dark tones — think night sky — dominate the interior of the new attraction. It gives the space a museum-style feel. There are 1,700 theatrical lighting fixtures aimed at Atlantis, scorch marks and all.
"I used to say, 'She's ugly, but she's pretty,' you know? But she's just pretty," Macy says.
'A lot of pizazz'
On all levels, there are spots to delve into space exploration. The attraction includes a film about the Hubble Space Telescope, which was hauled by space shuttle Discovery in 1990. A replica of the telescope looms nearby.
Monitors running the length of Atlantis show an "X-ray" of its control systems, while simulators challenge guests to perform a spacewalk. Simulators also present virtual missions of exploring the payload bay, or repairing the Hubble and the space station's ESP2 platform.
Hands-on, high-tech attractions are a lure for kids, who learn differently than their parents did, Macy says.
"You have to have a lot of interactivity, a lot of pizazz to make it work," he says.
More low-tech but still educational is a giant slide leading to the ground floor. It's designed to represent a landing space shuttle, including the high-banked "S" curves.
The attraction also includes a multilevel version of the International Space Station, which includes the Microgravity Theater and shows how astronauts live, eat and work in space today.
No tax dollars were used to create the Space Shuttle Atlantis attraction. The development and operation of the complex, operated by Delaware North Companies Parks & Resorts, is funded through ticket, food and merchandise sales.
Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex was one of 40 organizations that wanted to house a shuttle after the fleet was retired.
"We had to start building a home and thinking about a home before we knew we had a shuttle," says Bill Moore, chief operating officer of the complex. "The hardest part was not knowing if we were getting one," he says.
Eventually, space shuttle Endeavour was awarded to the California Science Center in Los Angeles, Discovery to Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Chantilly, Va., and Atlantis to Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.
Atlantis retires where its career began and where all 135 space shuttle missions took off from.
"This is home," Moore says. "And for the last one to fly to be home? Perfect."
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Space Shuttle Atlantis
Where: Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, State Road 405 in Brevard County. From Orlando, take State Road 528 east to State Road 407 north to State Road 405 east.
When: Grand opening is 9:30 a.m. Saturday.
Cost: $50 ($40 for ages 3-11)