The sun was still cresting over the California Adventure horizon as I listened to the jovial cast member explain his process. His weathered brown hands didn’t cease their movement, and I expended substantial effort trying to keep my eyes on his nimble digits and my ears on his enthusiastic words. With an elegant, practiced motion his brush slid across the smooth exterior of the banister, the fibers lovingly embracing the round edges and nooks of the Tuscan-themed structure, which was awash in subtle-yet-vibrant new color as a parting gift from their intimate encounter. Without ceasing his description, he dipped the rigid hairs back and forth between alternating containers of paint and water, combining and diluting the earth-tone hues for a desired composition known only to him.
Perhaps it was his demeanor, a reflection in his eye from the torch of pride that lights in every true tradesman’s heart when you ask him about his craft. Perhaps it was the remarkable simplicity of such an eye-catching process. Whatever the case, I left the conversation confident, thinking, “Yes. I can do this.”
That moment, over half a year ago as of this article, was what opened my mind to personal theming. It’s something that I’ve always done — and maybe you do it as well — but this random encounter caused me to up my game, get a bit more creative with it, and receive some wondrous results.
So if you’ve got a few minutes to spare, follow me on this journey as I walk you through what personal theming is and how those of us open and willing to try can use it to rewrite the tone our own stories.
My exchange with the painter outside of Wine Country Trattoria took place while we were filming the project “What We Love About the Disneyland Resort.” Through the course of recording, we each were the subject of interviews by Pete Werner and had the benefit of filming in some remarkable locations away from the hustle and bustle of the daily park crowds. As Teresa Echols was upstairs thoughtfully and passionately responding to Pete’s prompts, I lingered on the street chatting up the cast member.
Prior to writing and editing for The DIS, I spent a significant portion of my life in construction and home remodeling, so when I see a worker doing something interesting, I like to get an idea of their process, provided they aren't too busy and seem open to a few questions. When I saw the color wash artist, I jumped at the chance. He was not only a craftsman but also a cast member, so he gladly took advantage of his own opportunity to make a guest’s day a little bit better.
The reason I wanted to know how exactly he did what he did has to do with my own personal theming. You probably know a few Disney or Universal fans in your life, if not in person then certainly online. I myself know a ton. Very often you’ll see park decorations peppered throughout their houses to varying degrees. Some may have a few sentimental pieces of memorabilia to remind them of trips past, while others have so many Mickeys strewn about that it looks like they just robbed a Disney Store truck and haven’t found a way to fence the loot yet.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. In fact, if it adds one additional smile to your year then I highly encourage it. It’s not my style though. I’m less interested in reminding myself that my favorite theme parks exist, and more interested in learning from them.
The reason I love theme parks — not amusement parks, theme parks — is that they do their best to immerse me in another world so that I can feel like I’m part of a story, an adventure. I’ve gone on at length about the importance of storytelling in this manner, but there is another aspect of this subject I’ve yet to mention. The tone of our own stories can alter our moods, and therefor change how we face the day and interact with our fellow human beings.
Have you ever seen an action movie, maybe an adventure or superhero film? Did you leave the theater a little more confident, ready for any danger that may come your way? Have you read a romance novel, finding yourself more open to love and relationships for a little while? Seen a detective film and caught yourself looking at the rest of your day more curious and analytical than usual? I still remember the movie theater after the first The Fast and the Furious debuted, the air clogged with tire smoke from every teenager and 20-something in sight peeling out of the parking lot, pushing their Toyota Corollas and Pontiac Sunfires to the limit. While the effect is short-lived, stories can have a profound impact on our moods and actions.
We feel those effects and have a desire to repeat them. If you have a favorite Christmas film you watch every year, at this point the experience is probably less about the plot and more about how it makes you feel. You love it because of fond memories of years past, but also because it makes your world feel like Christmas, and you end up acting more Christmassy by watching it.
Theme parks give us another avenue. Instead of having us follow a story, they do their best to make us part of it.
So if I can bring some of that theme park magic into my life, not just remind myself of Disney but use their techniques to recreate those effects, I get to choose the tone of my story. After all, while to others we may be side characters, in our own minds, we are all protagonists in our own tale. Who exactly is writing or reading our stories is a larger question that I can't answer, but we certainly get some say in setting the narrative. That’s where personal theming comes in.
Through the calculated use of music, design, décor, and personal style, we can decide which kind of story we are in. It doesn’t have to have to be overt — I wouldn’t ask you to dress like a cowboy every day to get your Frontierland fix, unless you're an actual cowboy of course — it can be as subtle as you like. In fact, no one else even needs to know what you are doing. The effect is meant for you alone.
One personal example of this I can throw your way comes from my workout habits. I enjoy doing various pull-up-related exercises at the lake near my place of residence. What no one around me notices, is that on the cooler days I’m wearing a long-sleeve black shirt because it reminds me of Netflix’s brilliant-but-cancelled Daredevil. Now I know that I’m not training to fight crime lords or ninjas, but the tone of the character is great for pushing myself physically. Frankly, many days I don’t feel like going out and lifting my own body weight repetitively in 15 different ways for two hours. It seems even less appealing writing it out like that. Yet, when I add some seemingly insignificant personal theming I find myself motivated for a great workout. I’m Daredevil-bounding.
Disneybounding, for those of you who might not know, is the practice of using colors and styles of dress to pay homage to certain Disney characters while in the parks. The practice comes in large part from necessity, as Disney has strict regulations which don’t allow guests to dress in costume. The wonderful thing about Disneybounding is that most folks who take up the practice would look normal anywhere outside the park. While inside the Magic Kingdom you see Snow White, inside the grocery store you just see a lady in red lipstick wearing red, blue, and yellow. I do this sort of thing all the time and have never been called out on it, because only I’m aware of the character I’m referencing and I’m using clothing I would wear regardless. Over two years ago I purchased a medallion that pays homage to the protagonist of a series of books and video games I love. It’s usually under my shirt and very few people recognize it, but it makes my attitude more adventurous in situations which might seem mundane.
The same thing is true for my surroundings. Months after my Disneyland color wash tutorial I decided to give it a go in my own apartment. I guess I had always assumed that painting in the parks included some technical wizardry us regular folks aren't capable of, but once I saw the process I was itching to try it. I have a friend who, as it turns out, does some of the more sophisticated themed painting in Walt Disney World and Universal, but I ended up not needing his assistance; some YouTube tutorials and a quick hardware store run and I was good to go.
The old saying goes that “a man’s home is his castle,” and yet mine has never felt like one. I have always been enthralled by Fantasyland and the Wizarding World, yet can’t really afford to replace my drywall with stonework. So, I found a color wash technique online that looks quite contemporary in the daylight, yet at night has more of that dark castle feel to it. I was surprised at how easy and inexpensive it was, and now offer my bargain-basement color wash theming to any friend who will take me up on it.
Next was the lighting. We often forget how much of the theming from our favorite parks is a direct result of well-planned lighting — until we’re there at night and marveling at how wonderful everything looks. I like natural lighting, and some cheap candle sconces on the wall added a little more fantasy flair. They don’t look medieval per se, but they add a little more to the theme. Then I added some blue LEDs in the corner for that dark castle feel, and a deep red one in my lamp for a warmer tone in the center. I throw a sword on the wall and I’m set. During the day it all seems pretty normal, but at night I’m living my theme park adventure.
The important thing is that it works for me, regardless of if anyone else gets anything from it. Now I'm all in, and gradually adding to my surroundings as I see fit yet making sure most of my changes are subtle and cost effective.
It helps to use the parks for inspiration. Do you love Pirates of the Caribbean and secretly want some fun-filled adventure added to your day? Replace an ottoman or end table with an antique-looking chest, get a few wrought iron decorations or fixtures, choose a paint or tile scheme that slightly mimics that cavernous buccaneer hideout, look for thrift store or discounted furniture and curtains that fit the mystique, and get some orange or yellow LED bulbs for your lamps. You don’t have to cover your floor in cannonballs — start subtle and see what you’re comfortable with.
This isn’t just for fun, either. Our environments have an incredible impact on our attitudes and state of mind. If you start and end every day in the house of “Todd who hates his job” then you’ve set yourself up for continuing disappointment. If you start and end your day as “Todd who owns a secret pirate lair” it may remind you to tap into the fun-loving, adventurous core inside of yourself. The tone of your story changes and you begin to act accordingly.
If you are having trouble coming up with ideas for how to get started, Pinterest is a wonderful place to see other folks’ creative takes on home décor and Etsy has just about every custom knickknack you can imagine. Don’t limit yourself, be creative, and once again — use the parks for inspiration. See what works for them, and then replicate the less-costly aspects.
You’ll have to leave your abode at some point though, and that is where the music comes in. Thanks to the wondrous age we are living in you have near constant access to worlds of sound. Of course, you can always listen to in-park music like “Grim Grinning Ghosts” to get your fix, but you don’t have to limit yourself to just those songs.
Look for the vibe you want, then search for music related to that theme. Sometimes when I’m alone walking through the parks I’ll put in my headphones and listen to my own mood music, like this song by Two Steps from Hell which always reminds me of Big Thunder Mountain and Frontierland. Cinema score soundtracks are also a great way to throw yourself into the story and change your world from humdrum to epic in an instant. I’ve been known to throw in the Fellowship of the Ring, Band of Brothers, or Last of the Mohicans soundtrack on road trips just to add a little sense of urgency and adventure to my travels.
Now if what I’m saying doesn’t spark a few ideas to you, and maybe this outlook seems a bit childish, I have one last pitch to make. I believe that in many ways we humans lose ourselves the older we get — because we forget what works. Stories are a useful tool for guiding our outlook and leading us towards our goals. When I was a child in the backyard using a wooden dowel as a sword I lived by a knightly code, one that never quite existed in history but did in my story. I was a hero, so I did what heroes do and made sure my decisions fit the narrative of someone who was brave, just, and true. When my story changed to that of a confused adult trying to make ends meet, I changed with it.
I’m at my best when I live in the real world but act according to my story. Is my tale a complex drama about the nature of modern society, or is it an adventure story with love, redemption, and friendship? I’d rather be the Dread Pirate Roberts than Gordon Gekko any day of the week. Choosing to see my story this way — and altering my world ever so slightly to accommodate that perspective — consciously and subconsciously reminds me of the way I should be treating people, the way I should be acting in difficult situations, and how incredibly lucky I am to be alive in such an exciting and awe-inspiring world.
Images for this article belong to The DIS with the notable exception of Netflix's Daredevil and a 2001 Toyota Corolla attributed to Mr.choppers from Wikimedia Commons.