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Big toys let imaginations loose

Nicole Gulledge scrambles up a ramp to a large fort that towers over her store on Ehrlich Road. She strolls across a bridge connecting two huts, spins a pretend ship's steering wheel, adjusts the built-in telescope and peers down the curvy yellow slide.

This is a serious fort, the kind that turns sensible and mature grownups into kids again.

"Come on," urges Gulledge. "It's just us girls."

So the other grownup kicks off her flip-flops, hikes up her dress and climbs up, too.

"Isn't this awesome?" Gulledge raves. "Imagine if you were still a kid, sitting up here having lunch or a sleepover or pretending that you were a pirate walking the plank."

The scene is classic Gulledge _ full of the playfulness and imagination that are as much her business as they are her personality.

Gulledge, 38, and her husband, Jason, 34, own Woodplay of Tampa Bay, where they sell, assemble and maintain outdoor play sets, forts and playhouses.

These aren't your typical playhouses, though. The Gulledges sell the creme de la creme of forts, shipped from a dealer in North Carolina that specializes in redwood, rather than the cedar play sets common in chain stores. Prices range from $895 to more than $6,000. For that, the Gulledges will go to a customer's home and put the set together. They go back periodically for tuneups, tightening screws and reapplying stain to keep the piece as manicured as the family's main house.

They opened the store two years ago, after consulting a franchise broker. The couple wanted to own a business but didn't know what kind. Jason Gulledge was the "Captain Fear" pirate mascot for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Nicole Gulledge sold houses.

The broker encouraged them to look for something they could enjoy. What they enjoyed was childlike fun. So they set up shop in the building at Ehrlich Road and Gunn Highway, adorned it with murals and hoped for a storybook ending.

Now, Nicole wears shorts and sneakers to work and their business is thriving. The Gulledges plan to open a second store in Sarasota and are considering other business ventures in Palm Harbor and Valrico. They are among about 50 dealers nationwide that sell Woodplay outdoor products.

"I knew we had to do something we had a passion for, that we loved and wanted to do," she says. "Needless to say, we weren't going to buy a cleaning franchise."

The economy may be in a slump, but apparently times are good for child's play.

"Playhouses and forts were very popular 30 to 40 years ago and then sort of disappeared. Now they're back in vogue again," says Jeanie Stiles, a writer who has built playhouses and coauthored books on the topic with her husband, David.

The New York couple built a fort in Rockefeller Plaza during a live appearance on the Today Show last year. "We did it in three hours," Jeanie Stiles said. "Of course, we had all the wood cut and we knew what we were doing."

David Stiles wrote his first book about treehouses in 1972. A few years ago, the Stileses began receiving letters and e-mails from parents who remembered the book from their childhoods and wanted copies for their kids. That prompted the couple to write an updated version.

"There has definitely been a resurgence of interest in the whole topic," Jeanie Stiles said.

The availability of inexpensive wood and supplies at places like Home Depot and Lowe's may have something to do with it, she says.

Also, Stiles says, parents may be feeling the urge to get their children away from the computer screen and into the fresh outdoors. "Kids have really overdosed on electronics," she says. "They need time to meditate, get away from it, seek the opposite, if only for a tiny part of the day."

The Stileses take a do-it-yourself approach to fort building and encourage people to make it a family project.

"Give the kids things to do that they can handle and that aren't too hard," Jeanie Stiles says. "Have family meetings about things like colors and decorating."

Think like a kid, she says. A simple refrigerator box can be transformed into a tiny dream house, using wallpaper samples, fabric, ribbons and cardboard rectangle shutters with hearts cut out. A portable cube fashioned from Masonite and rope is ideal for apartment dwellers wanting to set up a playhouse for an afternoon on the grass somewhere.

"It's basically just a square box that can easily be taken apart and put together again," Stiles says.

The Stileses' newest book on the subject, Fun Projects for You and Your Kids, offers suggestions on playhouse and fort accessories like flagpoles, escape hatches and little mailboxes.

Be it modest or extravagant, they say, the ideal playhouse is simply a place for a child to dream and imagine, read a book, learn social skills or just hang out.

Parents may find further inspiration from A.A. Milne. Remember what Pooh had to say on the subject?

"You have a house, Piglet, and I have a house, and they are very good houses. And Christopher Robin has a house, and Owl and Kanga and Rabbit have houses, and even Rabbit's friends and relations have houses or something, but poor Eeyore has nothing. So what I've been thinking is: Let's build him a house.

"That is a Grand Idea," said Piglet. "Where shall we build it?"

In real-world Tampa, Kim and Frank Messina of Lutz bought a play set and fort from the Gulledges when their daughter Grace was 11 months old. Now 2{, Grace climbs up the rope ramp into the hut by herself while her father snaps his palms together and pretends he is an alligator below.

"We had taken her to the park and saw how much she enjoyed playing with what was there," says Kim Messina, a part-time social worker. "And we thought, why not have it at home?"

The Gulledges have easily configured play sets and forts into a sliver of side yard, a nook in the woods, a manicured lawn overlooking Tampa Bay. When the basics aren't enough, accessories include fire poles, chain ladders, rock-climbing walls, picnic tables and, of course, swings _ kiddie swings, tire swings, adult-size swings with drink holders.

"I encourage parents to let their kids play for at least a half-hour or so before buying," Nicole Gulledge says. "After the "wow' factor has worn off, kids naturally go back to the options they like best."

She spent 17 years selling new homes for local builders and developers such as Hannah-Bartoletta and Taylor Woodrow, so Gulledge knows that even the littlest customers can be finicky when choosing the perfect playhouse.

"It's a lot like selling real houses," she says, "except these can take as little as four days to build instead of six months."

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