Have you ever tried to figure out what makes Disney parks smell so darn good? Join me as I dive into the science behind the sneaky Disney Smellitizers that pump scents throughout the parks!
If you’ve ever been to any of the Disney parks around the world, you’ve probably whiffed popcorn along Main Street.
Or maybe you’ve caught the scent of burning as you pass by Rome on Spaceship Earth?
Whatever smells you’ve sniffed, you might be wondering how Disney artificially creates the strongest scents throughout their parks.
And I’m here to tell you that it’s all about a fascinating mechanism called the Disney Smellitizer.
They’re essentially systems of pressurized air (mixed with a fan system!) that pump scents through the parks.
But there’s way more to these nifty machines than first meets the eye. And I’m about to tell you all about them!
Now let’s do this!
What are Disney Smellitizers?
Disney Smellitizers aren’t so much a thing as they are a process that involves airflow, pressurizing, and exhausts.
Creating scents at Disney is important as it essentially brings about a feeling of nostalgia.
The Smellitizers combine a strong-smelling substance (that smells like popcorn or something else!) with a powerful source of air. And the air has to be moving in a pressurized way like a powerful fan.
This propels the scent toward guests while an exhaust sucks it back in. This means that the smells won’t get contaminated or lost.
You’ll smell these scents during shows like Philharmagic and Muppet*Vision 3D (which run around 80 times a day!). So, it’s important that the Imagineers get things right.
Believe it or not, Disney tested over 3000 scents before landing on the final ones they used around the parks.
For each new scent in the parks, the Imagineers go through approximately 40 different variations before picking THE ONE.
Now that’s a lot of sniffs.
How Do Disney Smellitizers Work: The Science!
Disney keeps their Smellitizer technology relatively under wraps. So, it’s tricky to pin down the exact science of this fascinating park feature.
But Disney has shared a study on Soarin’s system that shows how things work.
The Smellitizer relies on a reservoir of scented liquid that flows through a compressed air inlet.
It’s then pushed in front of a special fan.
This then flows through the canopy of the ride’s (or area’s!) mechanism before being directed toward guests.
After it hits guests, it’s sucked back through an exhaust to repeat the process again.
If we want to look more deeply at the science behind Smellitizers, we need to understand how these scents reach the nose in the first place.
And it’s all about how small scent molecules reach the olfactory nerve (which is the shortest of the nerves in the cranium!).
These olfactory receptors are designed to process sensory information related to scents.
So, the smelling process actually starts in your brain before reaching the upper and inside sections of your nose!
There’s a lot that goes into sniffing, and you’ll rely on the tiny Smellitizer molecules to stimulate your olfactory receptors and the olfactory epithelium in the nasal cavity.
Once this happens, you can identify and process the smell of popcorn, candy, and virtually anything else!
Unlike solids and liquids, these gaseous particles reach your nose relatively quickly. This allows them to dissolve in a layer of mucus near the olfactory cleft.
There are 40 million neurons that cover this part of the body, and they’re designed to lock in smells (where the brain then registers them!)
And that’s where the olfactory bulb comes in.
These neurons in the nose essentially pass signals to the brain which helps to register smells.
Although we can still smell things like Disney candles (which also smell like the parks, BTW!), our noses instantly detect gases.
Why Does Disney Use Smells and Why Do Scents Trigger Emotions?
Although you might understand how we smell, you might be wondering why Disney tries to create scent associations.
And it’s mainly because scents naturally trigger intense memories.
If you’re trying to figure out why, it’s because the olfactory system sends signals to the amygdala and the hippocampus which control emotions and memory.
The result? You associate smells with Disney (and major moments in your life, of course!). And that’s why the phrase olfactory memory exists!
The way the olfactory system is set up also means that the limbic system receives messages from our noses in a flash.
As a result, our brain instantly associates specific smells with actions, emotions, or things we may have been doing at the time.
This incredible connection has even been proven by MRI scans, where people sniffed scents that triggered picture-linked memories.
The images of the brain showed that the colors of the hippocampus and amygdala lit up!
So, scents directly caused increased brain activity in the areas that are linked to memory and emotion!
It’s all about associative learning, which essentially occurs when our brain links two things together that aren’t necessarily connected.
And in Disney’s case, it’s walking down Main Street and smelling popcorn or smelling burning inside the EPCOT ball!
This associative learning pattern is why we often feel nostalgic when visiting Disneyland, as we may have sniffed specific scents during childhood.
It’s also why I’m instantly transported to Singapore when I sniff satay or chicken rice (as I grew up there!).
There’s also a lot to say about smelling mulled wine or gingerbread and thinking of Christmas markets – they’re intrinsically linked!
Where Are Disney Smellitizers Located (and WHAT Are They?)
There are a few obvious Disney Smellitizers on rides, but if you want a full rundown of those park smells – I’ve got you covered.
Candy and Pastries: Main Street
There’s something about walking down Main Street that makes Disney lovers feel right at home.
And if you’re visiting Disney World, you’ll smell the whiff of fresh pastries coming from Main Street Bakery.
There’s some scent coming from the actual food, but it’s significantly boosted by the Disney Smellitizers.
Popcorn: Main Street
Another famous smell that comes from Main Street is popcorn, and you’ll smell this around virtually any popcorn stand.
I’d like to say that they want you to just revel in the glorious buttery scent of the popcorn, but it’s all about trying to get you to buy something!
And I’m not going to lie – they often succeed with me!
Apple Pie: Philharmagic
If you’ve ever watched Philarmagic, you’ve probably been assaulted by wind and water during the show.
But have you ever noticed the smell of pie during the Be Our Guest segment? It comes through the seats and it smells like buttery pastry.
I think it really adds to the atmosphere, but it’ll certainly make you hungry!
Dirt, fruit, and ocean breeze: Soarin’
I’d say that Soarin’ is one of the most amazing places to check out Disney Smellitizers are there is so much going on here.
Not only will you smell trampled grass and fresh dirt as you head over Africa, but you’ll also smell flowers, plants, and the Pacific Ocean as you ride!
It’s quite a complex setup, but it works the same way as any other Smellitizer – there are just several running at once!
Burning: Spaceship Earth
Okay, so this one may not sound overly appealing, but you’ll smell Rome burning as you head through Spaceship Earth.
It doesn’t smell like horrific, heavy charcoal, but something like a gentle fire crackling away on the hearth.
So, it’s actually extremely pleasant!
There are several smells that waft around the resorts, and people spend a lot of time trying to recreate these scents at home.
The Grand Floridian uses a delicate mix of ylang-ylang, cedar, jasmine, and white lily, while the Polynesian is all about citrus and ginger.
And at the Contemporary? You’ll sniff green aloe!
These scents create associations in your mind every time you step into the resorts (to make you come back, of course!).
Bromine: Pirates of the Caribbean + Water Parks
Have you ever noticed how the Pirates ride smells kind of like chlorine and sea salt?
You can thank Smellitizers for that!
You’ll also smell a strong smell of bromine at the water parks as it keeps the water sanitary throughout the day.
Candy corn and peppermint: around the parks during the holidays
During the holiday season at Disney World, you’ll notice pumpkins and garlands popping up everywhere.
But you should also keep a sniffer out for the smells of cookies, candy corn, and peppermint while you’re walking around the parks!
It’s all part of the atmosphere.
Florals: Flight of Passage
If you’ve ever ridden Flight of Passage, you’ll notice a strong floral scent as you visit the Valley of Mo’ara. This replicates the stunning scents of Pandora (which you’ll also spot around the Tree of Life!).
Although it’s only quick, the smell alone is worth the long wait time.
General grossness: It’s Tough to Be A Bug
Okay, this is a weird one.
But you’ll get about 3 or 4 seconds where a foul odor is released during It’s Tough to Be A Bug.
Don’t worry, it’s designed to be gross.
You’ll just catch it, but the Imagineers tried tons of different things to make this magic happen. Including trapping stinkbugs in bags and letting them marinate.
Yep – I know.
They ended up toning things down for the final ride experience for a slightly pungent and gritty scent.
Why Are Disney Smellitizers So Important to the Park Experience?
Disney is famous for creating an incredible experience for their guests from beginning to end.
And the Smellitizers are a huge part of that as they create positive associations from the word “GO”.
The Executive Special Effects Designer at Disney World, Gary Powell (who’s an amazing Imagineer) even said:
“We want [Guests] to be able to forget about everything that may be going on in the world and just really enjoy themselves and their family time and make memories that will last forever.”
By creating a specific mood and smell throughout the parks, they automatically improve the overall guest experience.
And they’re not afraid to go back again and again until they choose the perfect scents.
In fact, the process is so important, that a scent development team at Disney painstakingly chooses specific formulas for all attractions.
From the orange groves of Soarin’ to the strong popcorn scent on Main Street, they carefully consider it ALL!
And Powell has proved that the team isn’t afraid to go back to the drawing board if things aren’t quite right.
He stated that:
“When we brought [the samples] over to the creative team…we found out that none of them really worked from a creative perspective. That’s when the Imagineers came up with a low-tech solution—drop a brand-new pair of socks in the ocean and ask the perfumers to mimic that smell. When they sent us back the samples, the first reaction from Creative was they loved it. It was exactly what they were looking for.”
In order to find the right scent for Soarin’ they had to test an incredible 40 different scent combinations before they struck gold.
Overall, it’s clear that the Walt Disney Company is the master of creating scents, making memories, and forming associations in our brains.
Whether that’s with images of famous characters or using sneaky Smellitizers, it’s clear that the parks will always leave a lasting impression!
There you have it: the ultimate guide to Disney Smellitizers that’ll show you why the park’s popcorn has such an effect!
Do you know about Disney Smellitizers? What’s your favorite scent around the parks? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!
- How Many Kids Go Missing at Disney World? (+ Safety Tips!)
- The Best Coffee in Disneyland: 19 Amazing Spots!
- Best Age For Disney World: When to Take Kids!
- How Far is Universal Studios From Disney World? The Lowdown.
- 17 Things to Do at Disney World In the Rain: + Top Tips!
- Disneyland Pickles: What They Are + Where to Find Them!
Grace is the creator, editor, and sole writer for Pixie Dust and Passports – a blog that’s ALL about Disney! She’s made it her life’s mission to visit the Disney parks as much as possible and loves trying new snacks, grabbing the latest spirit jerseys, and rocking Loungefly bags. Oh, and she also holds a BA in History from UCL, which makes her a research and deep-dive enthusiast into all things Imagineering.