Been There, Smelled That explores the aromas of places around the world. Travel writer Maggie Downs investigates some of the world’s most potent smells, looks at how odor cultivates a connection to place, and presents how humans engage with smells, from scents that have endured generations to the latest innovations in aroma-making.

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There’s a specific combo of smells that serves as a portal, instantly plunging me into a different place and time. Warm sugar, fried dough, freshly popped popcorn—and then WHOOSH. It’s Orlando 1993, and I’m a frizzy-haired kid on my first trip to Disney World.

My school marching band was there to perform in a parade, but I don’t recall the actual parade or spinning in teacups or any of that. What stands out is the moment I entered the Magic Kingdom. It was magical, sure. But it was also disorienting, because splayed out before me was the cleanest place I’d ever seen.

I come from a small midwestern town. You know the kind. Good bones, good people, but random items scattered in ditches and yards. Crushed Coors cans and fast food sacks. Knots of rotting crabapples. Mattresses. One lonely sock. All of it overgrown with weeds. But Disney World was the opposite of that. The streets weren’t just litter-free; they looked as if they’d been scrubbed and polished.

What made the scene even more surprising was the scent of Disney. Prior to that moment, I had known clean places to smell sharp and astringent, like the stern punch of disinfectant in a hospital or the overwhelming Pine-Sol of a school hallway in September. The Magic Kingdom, however, offered an odd juxtaposition of spotless spaces and a mélange of warm, enveloping aromas: vanilla pastries, clouds of cotton candy, that buttery popcorn.

It was years before I discovered that these aromas are intentional.

Back in 1986, Disney was granted a patent on a smell-emitting system. Known as “Smellitizers,” these machines are strategically located throughout the parks and use pressurized gas to dispense lab-hatched fragrances. You’ll first encounter Smellitizers on Main Street, USA, where the blowing air is scented like baked goods and sugary confections.

“It smells like what you imagine a small town on a Sunday morning would smell,” said Todd Martens, who covers theme parks for the Los Angeles Times and is a Disney enthusiast. “It’s like this idealization of a place that never quite existed, but you feel like it should have.”

Disney’s smell technology is also used to enhance the experience of popular attractions, like Mickey’s PhilharMagic, which mists the air with a cinnamon apple pie odor during the “Be Our Guest” performance. Another olfactory parade is Soarin’ Around the World, a virtual ride that travels over epic sights around the globe. As the artificial breeze whips through your hair, the distinct odors of rosebuds, pine forests, and salty ocean help transport guests to the Taj Mahal, Swiss Alps, and Sydney Harbor.

There are also the fan faves smells, the ones that people package and sell as candles on Etsy: the stew of bromine / musty cave / wet wood of Pirates of the Caribbean, the cedar beam and dusty attic odors of Haunted Mansion, and the smoky, crackling fire scent as Rome burns on Spaceship Earth.

A more recent patent, filed in 2019, indicates that Disney has built upon the original Smellitizer technology. Their new machine can blend scents together, pump them gradually instead of all at once, and handle multiple scents for a multifaceted experience. And Imagineers, the creatives who bring Disney concepts to life, use these fragrances to link visitors with the place and form a connection to it.

“The goal is to make you remember the space and think fondly of it, whether it’s a recent trip or one that was a decade ago,” Martens said. “The smell doesn’t change. It foments your memory of the place.”

It’s worth noting that the scentscapes of Disney parks are as much about what you don’t smell as what you do. Walt Disney was famously obsessed with cleanliness, so you’ll find a trash receptacle placed every thirty feet. But Walt also knew that odors wafting from garbage cans in the hot California sun would break the illusion for guests. So he hired engineers to create a more modern trash can—a covered bin with swinging doors to keep the smells inside—which is still used throughout the parks today.

And the odors don’t stop at the park exit. Every Disney resort has its own signature fragrance (said to be curated by ScentAir, a scent marketing company).

It struck me as manipulative at first, how Disney was deliberately shaping the guest experience. But isn’t that the whole thing with theme parks? Nobody steps into the Magic Kingdom for reality. You’re there for the story.

“I think it’s all part of the world-building. You’re going to a place where they’ve put so much thought into the visual design, where every little thing is part of a narrative,” Martens said. “It makes sense that you would want aromas to match that.”