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It's a wild world, after all

Stephen Rule, 10, bends low over some muddy indentations along a marsh bed, gently moving aside a clump of tall, wet grasses to get an unobstructed look.

"I see animal evidence!" he yells excitedly, and 11 other children come running to see what turn out to be alligator tracks.

Two girls in yellow rain slickers whip out disposable cameras to capture the find, and a boy with a Ziploc bag scrutinizes the surroundings for droppings he thinks would make a good show-and-tell project to take back to school in Massachusetts.

Just the day before, they were prowling the rides, shows and concession stands of the Magic Kingdom and lining up for autographs from people dressed as cartoon animals _ mice in bow ties, goofy ducks, giant red monkeys from Toy Story.

But on this drizzly morning they are focused on the lives and needs of real creatures as they explore marsh and lake life on a four-hour Kidventure, one of several little-publicized outdoor discovery programs that Disney operates to help children (and sometimes adults) experience its Wilder Kingdom:

Kidventure, a naturalist-led weekly excursion by boat and foot for children ages 8 to 14.

Disney Wildlife Adventure, a twice-weekly, six-hour nature safari for 10- to 15-year-olds.

Guided bass fishing.

Epcot Dive Quest, where a guide leads certified divers on an underwater tour at the Living Seas Pavilion aquariums.

Horseback riding, canoeing, cycling and hiking out of Disney's 750-acre Fort Wilderness Campground.

This year Disney launched its most ambitious participatory learning adventure yet with the opening of the Disney Institute, a 457-room resort down the road from Epcot, with programs for children ages 10 to 17. Among 80 programs in a variety of fields, from cooking to comic-strip drawing, are outdoor adventures such as rock climbing, overnight canoe trips and nature photography courses. The "campus," with its huge sports and fitness center, performing arts buildings and communal dining room, is walking distance from accommodations.

"Everybody thinks of Disney World as all rides and artificial creations, but nature is very much a part of our world here," says Marie Ockman, a naturalist who, along with Maureen Higgins, is leading this week's Kidventure.

The day begins with boat pickup at Disney's Contemporary Hotel, Wilderness Lodge and Fort Wilderness Campground, whose docks abut Bay Lake. Despite rainy weather, this morning's program has drawn 12 participants.

As the canopied pontoon boat glides along Bay Lake past the artificial geyser at the Wilderness Lodge and the stark geometrics of the Contemporary Resort, the children start to focus on a shoreline of tall marsh grasses, from where egrets and other birds can be seen soaring skyward.

The boat docks at Marshmallow Marsh, a forested reserve with trails and a sandy shore lined with tall grasses. Marie distributes Ziploc bags for collecting moss and little shells, and small aquarium nets for scooping water life from alongside the lake shore, as she helps the children discover alligator tracks and explains the symbiotic relationships among trees, fungus, insects and birds.

The next stop is Discovery Island, where the group members lunch and stroll through the heavily wooded zoo. The island has 100 species of animals and 250 species of plants, a huge walk-through aviary (the third largest in the world), and an animal hospital and nursery for healing sick and wounded creatures.

The big excitement on this morning is an intimate visit with a hedgehog named Turbo, a skunk named Flower and an unnamed, tightly coiled Florida king snake that provokes shouts of "Ooh, gross!"

If you go

Kidventure: Four-hour naturalist-led program by boat and foot for children. Call (407) 824-3784.

Disney Wildlife Adventure: Six-hour safari through Walt Disney World Conservation Area (for 10- to 15-year-olds). Call (407) 354-1855.

Fishing: Guided bass-fishing trips several times a day on Bay Lake and Seven Seas Lagoon. Call (407) 824-2621.

Horseback Riding: Guided trail rides for children and adults. Call (407) 824-2832.

Canoeing: Independent canoeing along the miles of wooded canals that crisscross the Fort Wilderness Campground. Call (407) 824-2742.

Cycling: Bikes can be rented at the Fort Wilderness Bike Barn for $4 per hour, $8 per day. Call (407) 824-2742.

Fort Wilderness Campground: Camping in tents or RVs amid 750 wooded acres. For reservations, call (407) 934-7639.

Disney Institute: For information and reservations, call (800) 282-9282.

_ JUDI DASH

Judi Dash, who lives in Beachwood, Ohio, is a contributing editor to Family Circle magazine and frequently writes about travel.

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