10 great places to escape crowds at Disney

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By Sarah Sekula, Published in USA Today

There comes a time when even the most enthusiastic Walt Disney World visitor needs a breather. “The parks are delightful, but they’re also overwhelming — so it’s nice to have a resting spot in mind,” says Rona Gindin, who, as the author of The Little Black Book of Walt Disney World, knows every nook and cranny of the parks. With the 110th anniversary of Walt Disney’s birth (Dec. 5) in mind, she shares some of the most restful Disney World spots with Sarah Sekula for USA TODAY.

Wildlife Express Train: Animal Kingdom Park
Hop aboard the rustic-looking train for a look through the animal housing areas where guests may spot rhinos, elephants and other animals. Disembark at Rafiki’s Planet Watch, an area dedicated to animal conservation. “It is neat to see vets working on wild animals, and the train with the fake suitcases on top is a hoot,” Gindin says. disneyworld.disney.go.com/parks/animal-kingdom/attractions/wildlife-express-train

Living with the Land: Epcot

The 14-minute boat ride in Future World passes through experimental greenhouses where “they grow vegetables hydroponically, then use some of them in the Sunshine Seasons restaurant in the same building,” Gindin says. Guests float by rainforest and desert-like environments filled with rice, sugar cane and bananas, and they get a firsthand look at the Aquacell, filled with gators and fish. disneyworld.disney.go.com/parks/epcot/attractions/living-with-the-land

The Seas with Nemo and Friends Pavilion: Epcot

What better way to ditch the crowds than to explore underwater? Epcot DiveQuest lets those who are scuba-certified, and at least age 10, dive inside the 5.7-million-gallon saltwater tank and paddle alongside more than 6,000 sea creatures — including sea turtles, eagle rays and sharks. For non-scuba divers, enjoy the view from the Living Seas restaurant. Cost is $175 for the three-hour experience. disneyworld.disney.go.com/tours-and-experiences/epcot-dive-quest

Tom Sawyer Island: Magic Kingdom
Make like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and hop a raft to this tree-covered island. “It takes a lot of time to get there and back, but it’s a quiet respite from a busy day,” Gindin says. Wander around in the shade while the tykes discover rugged trails, swinging suspension bridges and caves with hidden gems. Do whatever you like for as long as you like, but keep in mind the island closes at dusk. disneyworld.disney.go.com/parks/magic-kingdom/attractions/tom-sawyer-island

The Backstage Safari tour: Animal Kingdom
Visit the Animal Nutrition Center and explore the veterinary hospital while learning from the wildlife specialists on this three-hour, $72 tour. “It’s amazing to be able to chat with the people responsible for feeding the 1,700 animals that live in the park,” Gindin says. Open to ages 16 and up, and theme park admission is required. 407-939-8687; disneyworld.disney.go.com/tours-and-experiences/backstage-safari

Festival of the Lion King: Animal Kingdom Park

Sing along with Disney characters Timon and Pumbaa as they join balletic birds and acrobatic monkeys in this stage performance. The Broadway-style show lasts 30 minutes; plenty of time to rest your feet. Plus, it’s in an air-conditioned theater. “It’s so spirited, so upbeat, that you’ll walk out singing and dancing,” Gindin says. disneyworld.disney.go.com/parks/animal-kingdom/entertainment/festival-of-the-lion-king

Harmony Barber Shop: Magic Kingdom
“I took my son for his official first haircut here, and I’m pretty certain moms are still doing that in this sweet, old-fashioned space,” Gindin says. Beyond haircuts, have your locks decorated with colored gel. The Dapper Dans barber shop quartet makes occasional surprise appearances. Tip: Make a reservation. 407-939-7529

United Kingdom Pavilion: Epcot
Among the cobblestone streets you’ll find a short hedge maze that kids will love. Adults can sip a pint of ale from the kiosk outside the British pub. Plus, “there’s this clever improv show every couple of hours near the stores,” Gindin says. “My family has seen it many times, and it cracks us up all over again every time.” disneyworld.disney.go.com/parks/epcot/attractions/united-kingdom-pavilion

Hall of Presidents: Magic Kingdom
“This Disney stage classic, which was originally envisioned by Walt Disney himself, includes audio-animatronic versions of all the U.S. presidents,” Gindin says. Listen to speeches and watch an original film that illuminates the nation’s history and the creation of the Constitution. disneyworld.disney.go.com/parks/magic-kingdom/attractions/hall-of-presidents/

China Pavilion: Epcot
Head past the gardens and reflecting ponds and pop into the House of Whispering Willows to see Chinese artifacts, including some that date back 2,000 years. “To me, the biggest kick is the replica of the tomb with the zillion little soldiers,” Gindin says. “It’s quiet in there, and the display is amazing.” disneyworld.disney.go.com/parks/epcot/attractions/china-pavilion