So many people helped me out on these forums the least I can do is to post a few TRs which I hope will help others in the future.
I did see the launch of STS131 , the last 'dawn' launch of the shuttle.
How was it? Well it simply was breathtaking, amazing, nothing short of mind-blowing. Superlatives lack the descriptive power to detail what was nothing short of a once in a lifetime experience.
Before I forget, I need to tell you that if you want to see one of the remaining launches the best location is the causeway if you have tickets and titusville spaceview if you don't. Do NOT go to the visitor center in kennedy as the view is limited compared to titusville. Also jetty park and cocoa beach are often recommended but not that good, see launchphotography.com/Shuttle_Launch_Viewing… for pictures of what I mean.
I landed in Orlando at 00:30 the day of the launch. I didn't have a car either. But viewing the launch was a long time dream of mine so I just dropped off the suitcases at the hotel and took a cab there, family of 4 in tow, including 2 kids (14 and 10). That's after 20 hours of travel getting to Orlando from London via Washington DC. As I said, nothing was to get in my way!
Cab fare was 210 USD one way including tips through http://www.orlandoonwheels.com/. Before you scream bloody h**l, you should know that very few companies will take you from Orlando to Titusville or back on a launch day, due to traffic issues. Mears simply refused rather abruptly when I called them.
In fact, the only reason I think the above company accepted to take us there is that they though the launch would be in the daytime. Same thing for the fare back. We used AAA taxis 321-868-8888 to come back, the only local cab company that would even pick up the phone, and yet took 1 hour to reach us. Again, they didn't know there was a launch, and that's the only reason they picked us up (you should have seen the face of the driver when he realized it would be a 3 HOURS drive back to Orlando). Cost was 200 bucks including tips that way round.
So, anyway, once on site (we arrived around 2am), I was planning to watch from the spaceview park. Well that was packed already at the front row, so we went to a little beach-like place nearby, a few minute walk to the south (near the watchoska bank). We managed to land a spot behind some people camping there, which wasn't too bad considering they were setting up camera tripods, leaving us plenty of room to watch.
This felt magical to me. The launch pad was lit up a bit like that pyramid building in Vegas, projecting spotlights high up in the clear night sky. (sorry couldn't find pix online, but I'm sure someone must have posted). The hushed voices of the campers, the soft glow of the computer screens and the AM radios relaying NASA audio all added up for an experience unlike any other. The best way I can describe it is that scene in encounters of the 3rd kind when the 'contactees' all grouped together to go watch the landings in that mountain. You felt as if part of a special group about to witness HISTORY. It was truly magical, and I struggle to put it into words.
Now just before the launch, people starting shouting 'it's here' and point towards the sky. I kid you not the ISS made a pass in the perfectly clean sky. To think the people sitting in that shuttle would actually go an meet that space station in a few moments. This is the stuff childhood dreams and careers aspirations are made off. Had I been a kid I would have been dead set on becoming an astronaut at that point.
The wife and kids might not have found it as magical. Yes it's Florida but it's cold at night, and the lack of sleep and jetlag added up to some pretty cranky mindsets. I knew this might happen, so I took it on the chin.
Now for the countdown. Incredible. The shuttle launched in complete silence due to the distance involved. It was akin to watching the sun rise. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NaxX5Wmrk74) A soft glow quickly intensifying into a great fireball. Interestingly what I noticed the most was the 'texture' to the jet of fire that engulfed the launchpad. Cameras, even pro ones, don't pickup the rich quality and true colour of this phenomenon as the brightness from the burning gazes overpowers the camera CCDs. The fireball has edges and 'grows' with swirling black and red smoke, an almost organic look. It's rather startling.
Now the shuttle rises in the sky with whoos and ahhss and 'oh my God' from the crowd. I was very surprised how 'large' the whole thing was. I mean Titusville is miles away from the launchpad yet that firecolumn rising in the sky looked huge. I have no idea how tall it is, but let me tell you, it's TALL.
After maybe 25 seconds (I'm no scientist, check wikipedia for the details :-)), the sound from the shuttle reached us. WOW what a RUMBLE. It triggered the car alarms nearby, which elicited laughs from the crowd. Apparently the sonic boom is covered by the sound of the engines, but I did hear a few booms which I'm told is the boosters firing up or something. Whatever it was, it was awe inspiring, and truly grandiose. People shouted 'YEAH!!!' like only Americans can shout 'Yeah!!!' :-) and by then many where commenting aloud on what they were seeing, finding it impossible to hold the feelings back. I was one of them.
When the shuttle was quite high we saw the glowing boosters fall back in the Atlantic. I mean how crazy is that?? I couldn't believe it.
There was still one last surprise in store for us. When the shuttle disappeared it emitted a bit of a cloud of smoke that was different from the one it made when launching. I have no idea what that was made of, or how it got to appear, but everyone took pictures of it because as a nearby teen described it, it 'looked like a galaxy'. That 'galaxy cloud' then got colorized by the rising sun and ended up looking like a dragon after it got spread a bit by the wind. Search for 'sts131 dragon' on google and you'll find pix, like this one: http://www.examiner.com/x-36159-NASA-Examiner~y2010m4d9-NASA-we-have-a-problem--Lori-Garver
Basically it was mad. I overhead a lady saying this somehow 'meant something'. I'm not as spiritual as her but let me tell you, I think all present felt a bit spiritual that night and seriously 'touched' by what they had witnessed.
You probably didn't read the above if you ask it was worth the 410 bucks in taxis, the exhausted kids and the rather expensive plane tickets. I will never forget that night, and just watching the videos some people posted gives me goosebumps.