What makes me hum Soarin’s score when peeling an orange? Why does a peculiar smell of ‘burning wood’ put a smile on my face? What makes the scent of shampoo remind me of Walt Disney World? Does anyone else find alien mushroom caves oddly alluring? Am I just a lunatic with a weird obsession?! Probably, but there are dozens of us…dozens! (Updated August 7, 2023.)
It turns out that something else might be at play. “Scent-evoked nostalgia,” is a hot topic among scholars and might explain why certain Walt Disney World scents trigger emotional reactions and memories. For Disney fans, this might seem like old news. Disney perfected the art of triggering emotions via scent years ago.
In fact, there’s probably no better case study of scent-evoked nostalgia than exists in Disney fans. That’s in large part due to the concerted efforts of WDI’s division of Smellagineers. (I don’t think that’s an actual type of Imagineer, but it totally should be.)
Nostalgia is something I contemplate regularly when it comes to Disney. How it keeps pulling me back, causes me to view the parks from a certain perspective, and ultimately, gives me certain biases. From a sensory perspective, nostalgia is undoubtedly strong, too. We covered how the sounds of the parks have this impact a while ago, and virtually every other post covers the visual and culinary feast the parks are for our nostalgia.
While scents are probably less obvious, their role is no less vital–and they are just as compelling. Heck, there are multiple brands of candles and other products that exist to evoke memories of scents from the parks and resorts! So I can’t possibly be alone…and there are probably more than dozens of scent-obsessed Walt Disney World fans.
Here are the 10 most memorable scents of Walt Disney World for me…
10. Pirates of Caribbean Water
Try explaining to a non-Disney fans that one of the scents that puts a smile on your face is, essentially, dirty water that boats float around in all day. Seriously, try it. If your friends and family didn’t already think you’re crazy, this could be what pushes them over the top.
Yet, despite the reality of what this water is, many of you were probably nodding in agreement as you read this entry on the list. I’m guessing/hoping that it’s some cleansing agent treating the stagnant, slightly musty water that gives it that “special” smell I love. Regardless, I have no shame in admitting that the smell of dirty boat water puts a smile on my face.
9. Main Street, USA
If you’ve ever read one of the myriad “37 Unbelievable Disney Secrets!” sorts of lists on the various clickbait sites, you’ve undoubtedly read about the “piped in” scents outside the Confectionary and Main Street Bakery that lure guests into those shops.
It’s not just that Disney pioneered the use of “Smellitzers” in attractions (some of which are discussed below)–the parks also savvily use artificial scents to enhance real smells and entice guests. Even the Starbucks signature scent of burnt coffee plus sweets is largely artificial (both at Walt Disney World and the real world). Regardless, these shops evoke strong memories of wandering Main Street at night.
8. PhilharMagic Pie
PhilharMagic makes me nostalgic for the “Disney Renaissance” animated classics with which I grew up, and the smell of apple pie makes me nostalgic for PhilharMagic, and for Magic Kingdom.
This Glade apple pie spray–a dead ringer for the PhilharMagic smell–in turn makes me nostalgic for college, because Sarah and I used to spray it heavily in our dumpy apartment back in the day. Phew, that’s a lot of nostalgia!
7. Soarin’ Around the World
Soarin’ Around the World had a tough act to follow. From the orange groves of Camarillo to the pines of Lake Tahoe to the ocean mist of Malibu, Soarin’ proved once and for all that California is the best-smelling state in the U.S.
Personally, I don’t think Soarin’ Around the World manages to hit these same high notes on the olfactory scale. (But it’s already grown on me, so maybe I’ll feel differently in another few years once scent nostalgia takes hold.) Sure, there’s the wonderful fragrance of the Taj Mahal, and some other great scents, but others leave something to be desired. Overall, though, it’s still one of the best attractions at Walt Disney World from a scent perspective.
6. H2O Soaps
I’ll be honest with you: I can’t remember the last time I bought shampoo. Every time we travel to Walt Disney World (or any Disney destination), I stock up on shampoo from our room. The exact scents vary (from resort tier to tier, and they’ve also changed over time), but each of the scents is a distinct reminder of Disney.
It’s probably because that’s how I remember smelling from particular trips (much the way that certain sunscreen still reminds me of childhood visits to Typhoon Lagoon), and I love the memories the soaps can trigger. There are certain bottles of shampoo that are more treasured that others that I only use on special occasions, such as my Hotel MiraCosta shampoos that I’ve been rationing for the last 2 years.
While my collection might seem large in the photo above, this is only a small sample of what our drawers look like. With that said, our H2O+ stockpile is slowly shrinking, and will probably only get worse from here. Not only are most shampoo and conditioner dispensers wall-mounted, but Disney’s Bath Brand is Ending (or rather, has ended). It’s likely that Walt Disney World and Disneyland will run out of their current supply of soaps sometime between the end of summer and early fall. Expect a new bath brand partnership to be announced for 2024 and beyond any day now.
5. Norway, World Showcase
My fatal flaw when I tried to convince Sarah that she should buy the perfume Laila was saying that it reminded me of my grandma’s house. Apparently, wives do not want to smell like grandmas. (Who knew?) That was an unfortunate choice of words on my part, as Laila is probably my all-time favorite perfume, and not just for its inextricable association with Norway and Maelstrom it has for me.
Basically, Laila is the smell of freshly-bathed angels prancing around Norwegian mountain lily fields while playing the sjøfløyte. That’s about the best way to describe its divine smell, but I suppose you could also call it a fusion of natural oil with the delicate scent of Norwegian wild flowers and a refreshing touch of lavender that is subtle but distinct, light yet long-lasting and incredibly clean and crisp.
4. Pandorian Mushroom Cave
Along the same lines of Soarin, Avatar Flight of Passage has a variety of scents to help immerse you in the experience. From the crisp scent of intergalactic ocean water to the alien savannah, these immerse you into the world of Pandora.
There’s one scene, however, that surpasses them all. When your banshee stops for a rest in a Pandorian mushroom cave (I’m aware that this is probably not what it is at all), you experience the most serene and enchanting moment of the attraction, and that’s in large part because of the scent that wafts through the air as the scene completely envelopes you.
I cannot put my finger on why this scent resonates with me so much. It’s like a mix between a sweet perfume and freshly cut flowers–the best way to describe it might be as the ocean in Soarin’ meets the Norway pavilion. Perhaps this is the actual fragrance of alien mushroom-flowers!
3. Burning Rome, Spaceship Earth
Nature enthusiasts love the smell of burning timber because it reminds them of fun times spent camping; Disney enthusiasts love the smell of burning books because it reminds them of fun times spent dark ridin’. Ever since I became an active member of the Disney fan community, I’ve been hearing about efforts to re-create this scent and different methods of replicating it.
It’s another one that would be odd to the uninitiated, but for Disney fans, this is arguably the most distinct and memorable scent in all of Walt Disney World. If I weren’t a married man, this is another one I’d wear in cologne form; I fear such a cologne would contain a dangerous number of seductive pheromones, making it a wear at your own risk kinda thing.
2. Deluxe Resort Lobbies
As I’m writing this, I am seeing this slowly devolve into “Tom’s Disney Scent Fetishes,” but whatever. In addition to dirty water, shampoo, and the smell of burning, the smell of cleaning products–or whatever makes the resort lobbies smell as nicely as they do–also make me nostalgic. The two resorts with the most memorable smells for me are Yacht Club and Grand Floridian. Wilderness Lodge and Contemporary follow close behind those, with the rest of the Deluxes also represented.
I can’t pinpoint what, exactly any of these smells are, but I know Yacht Club and Wilderness Lodge have a sharp, masculine edge, while Grand Floridian smells floral and elegant, and Contemporary’s smell reminds me of “modern” (somehow). I’m not saying I’d hang out in the lobby of any of these hotels for hours just to smell them, but I’m not not saying that, either.
1. Journey Into Imagination
I know what you might be thinking, and to quash that: no, the skunk scene is about as far from this list as possible. I’m talking about the original Journey into Imagination. Every once in a while, I catch a whiff of something (to this day I can’t figure out what…I’m thinking a specific cleaning product or perfume), and I am swept back to the Art Room in Journey into Imagination, where a flowery scent is sprayed into the air.
This happens about once a year, and is always a fleeting moment. I get goosebumps as I try to savor and inhale as much of the smell as possible, holding onto the moment back in time. This #1 is a very personal one, and I doubt anyone(?) else will remember it, but it’s my far and away top scent ever at Walt Disney World. (Update: the name of the perfume that was sprayed into the air was “Morning Mist.” Not sure if that’s the actual name of the fragrance, but if anyone knows, please let me know!)
As a bit of an aside, the skunk stench versus the perfume fragrance is a perfectly succinct summation of the new attraction as compared to the original. While the entries on this list demonstrate just how powerful scent is as a nostalgic tool that can be harnessed to tug at our emotional heartstrings, some uses (that skunk smell, Stitch’s burp, etc.) demonstrate its potential for misuse in creating a negative experience, too.
Fortunately, examples of this are few and far between. Most of the scents of Walt Disney World trigger happy memories…even if those scents are a bit weird to non-fans. But, you know what’s even more weird? Not being a Disney fan. 😉
Which Disney scents are most nostalgia-evoking for you? Any aromas that instantly transport you back to a certain moment from past visits to Walt Disney World? Any favorites you recreate around your house? Any that you don’t like? Do you agree or disagree with our picks? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback—even when you disagree with us—is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!