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Go to your (fantastic) room!

A parent's command would be some children's wish when a bedroom is a box full of whimsy.

By ELIZABETH BETTENDORF
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 21, 2003


LUTZ -- Every little girl dreams of sleeping in a pink castle.

Larissa Simon is no exception.

The 5-year-old slumbers in a twin bed canopied by a magenta castle with purple turrets and rippling pennants. On the opposite wall, Cinderella's carriage rolls past an 8-foot-tall tree that conceals a TV and a toy cabinet in its trunk. In the middle of the room, a child-size knight greets her with a grin when she awakens.

"Oh, it's just me wanting to spoil her rotten," says Larissa's mother, Julie Simon.

Simon is dreaming of yet another room for a second child, a boy, due in April. The baby's room has a safari theme, but in a few years Simon will consider a new decorating idea:

A wrestling ring.

Her husband, Dean Simon, formerly the WWF wrestler Dean Malenko and now a promoter with World Wrestling Entertainment, has definitely influenced her thinking. Faux ropes painted around the room's perimeter and faces of famous TV wrestlers past peering from the sidelines should make baby -- and dad -- feel right at home.

Dean's old wrestling trophies will serve as accent pieces.

"I think a great bedroom can really foster development and imagination," Julie Simon says. "It can help a child learn and grow."

True. But whatever happened to those French provincial bedroom sets of the 40-something childhoods? Remember when a couple of bunk beds with plaid bedspreads spelled "boys room" or a plastic vanity table stuffed with Tinkerbell cosmetics defined little-girl luxury?

Remember the kids' rooms on The Brady Bunch? Neat, but nothing to write home about. These days, some children's rooms have become fantastic whims of imagination, sort of domestic movie sets that transport their occupants to another place and time.

Stephanie Alfano wanted her son, Guy, to sleep in a make-believe world occupied by his favorite thing: trains.

She and her husband, David Alfano, a pediatric dentist in Carrollwood, wanted to give Guy an extra special room. Now the 3-year-old plays beside a colorful mural of a train that appears to chug around the walls of the room.

The mural, created by Carrollwood artists Beverly Bakalyar and Karen Davis, includes a tunnel, hills, mountains, sky, clouds and a helicopter.

"He's very, very proud of his room," Mrs. Alfano says. "It's a place where he can go that's his own. If he's just sitting, he's imagining. Many times, the two of us will sit alone in there together and he will tell me what he's thinking, about trains."

Dave Van Nocker, a design specialist who owns New Tampa Interiors, thinks a great child's room incorporates "lots of color -- a multitude of colors -- because kids get bored really easily."

He advises parents to stay away from dark, drab colors when designing a room for a young child.

Jennifer Winchell, an artist and interior designer from Lutz, thinks "cool to look at" is just fine when it comes to kids' rooms, but larger issues need to be addressed.

"When I do a child's room, I tend to not go with a theme," she says. "I like something a little more generic, a little more practical. There needs to be room for all their stuff and enough floor room for them to spread out and play. I always ask parents first: How do they play? Do they like to create forts? Make spaceships? I try to keep it fairly simple because kids grow up. They grow out of themes."

Bruce Barry of Wacky World Studios in Oldsmar, which designed Larissa Simon's room, thinks parents are reliving their own childhoods when they choose a design. His have included shipwrecks, hot rods and King Tut's tomb.

Barry employs 38 artists in his 22,000-square-foot warehouse studio. The business once focused solely on children's rooms, but now turns out once-upon-a-time designs for the Rainforest Cafes as well as for church playrooms all over the country.

"We want what our kids want," Barry says, "and this goes far beyond a picture of a castle and some bookshelves."

Barry's room transformation process typically involves a maquette, or artist's model, that he presents first to parents. When the design has been approved, his artists typically spend days creating the murals and prefabricated goodies (like waving knights and fairy tale trees that hide television sets).

The Simons spent $9,000 on Larissa's room, he says, but a much more modest room can be done for $1,000.

Barry's most elaborate children's room? A sunken galleon built so that the stern provided a cavelike headboard for the bed. The bow concealed a toy chest, and broken columns represented the mythical lost city of Atlantis.

For now Larissa is content with a simple pink fairy castle. She rummages in the base of her big tree and pulls out a pink fairy wand. She waves it in the air, and then issues her decree:

"I used to play inside the tree with my best friend across the street," she says. "But then we got too big."

Maybe a nice French provincial bedroom set is just around the corner.

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