Home » 12 Best (and Worst!) Smells To INSTANTLY Transport You to Iconic Theme Park Rides

12 Best (and Worst!) Smells To INSTANTLY Transport You to Iconic Theme Park Rides

How can you visit a Disney or Universal park without a ticket? It’s not as impossible as you think. Last month, we took an emotional trip down memory lane by seeing how Disney Parks background music can instantly transport you back to the happiest place on Earth. But even if the music of Main Street, the energy of Adventureland, or the techno-tunes of Tomorrowland can bring a tear to your eye, there’s one sense that can do better…

It’s been suggested that smell is more closely connected to memory than any other sense. Don’t believe us? Take a read through our absolutely unforgettable theme park scents (good and bad!) and just imagine… it’s almost like you can smell them right here, right now…! Which have we missed? Add your favorite Disney and Universal park smells in the comments below!

1. Soarin’ scents

Image: keut kate, Flickr

Attraction: Soarin’
Smells: rain-covered evergreens, orange zest, salty waves

When the Lost Legend: Soarin’ Over California opened in 2001, it changed what simulators could do. Instead of wild, extreme trips through the galaxy, into the human body, and back to the future, Soarin’ was graceful; elegant; simple. Though the ride featured spectacular scenes of California’s deserts, mountains, cities, and coasts synched with a cinematic score by composer Jerry Goldsmith, one of its most talked-about features was also its most subtle: scents of evergreens, orange groves, and salty ocean surf were released at key moments during the ride, adding an incredible layer of detail.

Today, four Soarin’ attractions exist in the world – in California, Florida, China, and Japan. All have updated to or premiered with a new flight film touring over modern and natural wonders of the world. Though the new ride film and score (inspired by the original) have been met with mixed reviews, new scents have been swapped into the experience, like fresh-cut roses as you soar over the Taj Mahal, soil and grass in the African savannah, and sea breeze in Fiji. None have quite reached the iconic status of the original’s “orange groves,” but the scents are still spectacular.

2. Sailing through PIRATE WATERS

Attraction: Pirates of the Caribbean
Smells: musty water, low-hanging fog, moonlit bays

The smells of Pirates of the Caribbean are truly special to Disney Parks fans, capable of instantly setting the ride’s tone. Floating along gently-churning channels carved through ancient grottos, sailing directly into the midst of a fog-enshrouded pirate battle as cannon fire explodes, drifting through a Caribbean village set aflame… What is it that makes Pirates smell… well… like Pirates?

At least part of the answer lies in a chemical called bromine. Like chlorine, bromine is a chemical cleaner used to treat water that comes in contact with people (which, as you know, the water on Pirates sure does!). The difference is that bromine’s unique and difficult-to-describe smell is less noxious than chlorine’s. So why don’t more pools, fountains, and splash pads cut down on the chlorine smell and adopt the more agreeable scent of bromine? Simple: bromine is more expensive.

3. Dining in the THREE BROOMSTICKS

Image: Universal / Warner Bros.

Attraction: The Three Broomsticks Tavern

The village of Hogsmeade is a legendary storybook location beloved by generations of Harry Potter fans, and the snowcapped Scottish town is recreated in staggering detail at Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter in California, Florida, and Japan. Owing to series creator J.K. Rowling’s insistence on maintaining the town’s “real” scale even in a theme park setting, Hogsmeade’s authenticity literally created the idea of remaking physical places from films into to-scale habitable lands, letting guests shop where their favorite characters shop… and eat where they eat.

One escape from the hustle-and-bustle of jam-packed shops is the Three Broomsticks tavern, legendary home to the iconic Butterbeer shared by Harry, Ron, and Hermione in the series. The Three Broomsticks serves British fare and Wizarding World drinks (like Pumpkin Juice, Fizzy Otters, and specialty beers) with no Coca-Cola in sight. The smell of sweet Butterbeer, roasted meets, and the cluttered wood of the interior creates a one-of-a-kind scent that feels like home to Potter fans.

4. Excavating a LOST TEMPLE

Image: Disney

Attraction: Indiana Jones Adventure
Smell: ancient passageways, musty tunnels, stale air

We’ve already sung the praises of the Modern Marvel: Indiana Jones Adventure many times, so it won’t surprise you when we call out the spectacular smell of the ride and its half-mile queue weaving through the Temple of the Forbidden Eye and its pre-tripped booby traps. As guests tour through the collapsing temple en route to the Chamber of Destiny where Mara’s three doors await, they descent further into the temple… and into its ancient, musty, stale smell…  

Like Pirates of the Caribbean, Disney isn’t intentionally pumping a given scent into the Temple of the Forbidden Eye to create the smell in question. Rather, it’s a lot of things coming together in a memorable way, like the open-air bits of the queue shaded by tropical flora and wafting scents from the Jungle Cruise, sealed-off subterranean chambers farther along in the queue, and eventually the ride’s antechamber where hydraulically-powered vehicles join the mix. The ride itself features misty lava pools, fog explosions from Mara’s deadly eyes, and those delicious dark ride smells, coalescing into a distinct scent identity that’s become synonymous with “Temple of the Forbidden Eye” in guests’ minds.

5. Smelling the FALL OF ROME

Image: EasyWDW.com

Attraction: Spaceship Earth
Smell: burning logs, crackling campfire

The fall of Rome may not be highlight of human history, but it sure is a memorable moment on Epcot’s anchor attraction, Spaceship Earth. After a scene depicting the Roman Empire’s roll in expanding global communication with chariots converging on Rome from afar, the city’s pillaging by mercinary invaders follows. 

The Fall of Rome may be one of the first times Disney intentionally pumped scents into a dark ride to increase its effectiveness, and boy is it effective. Some are reticent to say it smells good (it is the destruction of a bulk of humanity’s recorded knowledge, after all), but the smoking, fiery scent of the city in ruins is definitely unique.

6. Queuing in a REDWOOD FOREST

Image: Universal

Attraction: E.T. Adventure
Smell: Forest, wet moss, wood

There’s something absolutely magical about E.T. Adventure, the opening day dark ride at Universal Studios Florida. The king of all throwback attractions, the ride is set up as a sequel to the 1982 film featuring a unique story developed by Steven Spielberg. In a pre-show video, Spielberg himself explains that E.T.’s “Green Planet” home is dying and needs his magical touch to come back to life. Our job is to get him there by boarding unique bicycle-stylized seats that will fly through the stars to the barren (and frankly, scary) planet just in time to bring it back to musical, colorful, watery life. 

Believe it or not, one of the highlights of the attraction is its queue, in which guests are instantly transported into a massive Californian redwood forest of towering trees disappearing into the dark canopy above. The misty, moonlight forest is caked in moss with replicas of film props (like the Speak & Spell) and even an impressive queue animatronic. But the real highlight is the smell. Ostensibly matching the deep, wet, mossy forest, it could very well be that the smell of E.T. Adventure’s queue has merely been “ret-conned” into smelling like forest when really no forest on Earth smells like it. In any case, the intoxicating and powerful smell of night time air, wet wood, evergreens, and moss is well-loved by almost everyone.

But not all theme park smells are so beloved… One of our least favorite is up next…

7. Getting SKUNKED by a former friend

Image: Ray, Flickr

Attraction: Journey into Imagination with Figment
Smell: Garbage, burnt coffee

There’s no ride on Earth with a story as captivating as Epcot’s dark ride through Imagination. Originally, the Lost Legend: Journey into Imagination, took guests on a soaring trip through lands of literature, theater, art, and science with the enigmatic Dreamfinder and his purple dragon Figment – one of the most iconic, beloved, and missed attractions ever. As the new millennium approached, the ride was overhauled from scratch, eliminating the beloved characters and transforming into a sort of “sensory funhouse” of sight gags narrated by Monty Python’s Eric Idle… most fans agree that that Declassified Disaster: Journey into YOUR Imagination, was the worst ride Disney World’s ever had.

Luckily, the awful ride closed after barely a year. When it re-opened, Figment had been haphazardly inserted into the bizarre Imagination Institute story with a new personality – a pesky troublemaker intent on derailing the tour through sensory labs by inspiring guests to think outside the box. One of his more fabled pranks is to spray guests with skunk smell. Don’t worry; no tomato juice baths necessary – the scent is actually burnt coffee. It’s just repulsive enough (when mixed with the skunk visual) to leave guests “eww”ing. Mission accomplishment?

8. Driving the ROADS OF TOMORROW

Image: Disney

Attraction: Autopia / Tomorrowland Speedway
Smell: Gasoline

When Disneyland opened in 1955, the Interstate Highway Act had not yet been signed. That’s what made Autopia a perfect fit for Tomorrowland, giving guests of all ages a glimpse into what the wonders of the multi-lane interstate highway system would bring. Though highways were no longer futuristic by Magic Kingdom’s 1971 opening, a simpler version of the ride was exported to Florida as the Tomorrowland Speedway. In fact, similar car rides have become staples of Tomorrowlands, opening in Japan (removed), Hong Kong (also removed), and even Paris’ 1890s-themed Discoveryland.

Still, the most iconic thing about Disney’s car rides today? The sputtering, rumbling vehicles emit one heck of a smell – yep, they run on gasoline. The cars feature rear-mounted engines that are air-cooled, four-stroke, 270cc single-cylinder rated at 8.5 horsepower – engines that would otherwise be used for pressure washers or wood chippers, though they sound and move like lawn-mowers, moving at a clip of 6 mph. Fans have criticized the rides’ placements in Tomorrowland, especially given that Disney’s never switched the cars over to electric (which Hong Kong’s Autopia was before it closed). In any case, the gas-guzzling cars bellow the smell of spilled gasoline and exhaust throughout their courses, even earning Cast Members stationed there hazard pay for the exposure. 

9. Being BURPED ON

Image: Disney

Attraction: Stitch’s Great Escape
Smell: Chili dog

Back in the 1990s, Disney Imagineers were tasked with bringing Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland out of the ’70s and into the present. Their solution was to transform the retro-sleek land into an industrial, silver “city” of comic book colors and characters, inspired by 1930s pulp sci-fi comics. The lands inhabitants were all original stories, and all interconnected by the frame story of the “real” city. One of its most infamous occupants was the Lost Legend: Alien Encounter, a horrifying interstellar tech display gone terribly wrong. Re-using the “theater in the round” seating of a former show (and equipping each seat with special-effects-filled shoulder restraints), Alien Encounter set a massive insectoid alien loose in the crowd in Magic Kingdom’s only PG-13 experience.

The results deeply offended parents whose little ones were traumatized, leading Disney to pull the plug and insert a flavor-of-the-week character who’d just hit his apex: Stitch. Aboard Stich’s Great Escape, guests were still horrified… just in a different way. The slimy sci-fi attack became a gross-out slapstick cartoon attraction that was too dumb for anyone over 10, and too scary for anyone younger. Perhaps the ride’s lowest point is when Stitch “burped,” filling the theater with the scent of chili dogs… which regrettably soaked through the ceiling and into the model of EPCOT visible from the Peoplemover. The sickening smell was just one of the awful elements of the Declassified Disaster: Stitch’s Great Escape, which has been closed for a year now… but whose final closure Disney has never announced or made official.


Image: Disney

Who doesn’t love warm, buttery, freshly-popped popcorn? And just ask anyone who’s stepped a little too close to the concession stand in a movie theater lobby – there’s nothing that makes you want popcorn more than smelling popcorn. Disney’s onto it, too. Though it’s one of the worst kept secrets in Disney Parks, we’d be remiss if we didn’t note that Disney famously has artificial popcorn smell emit from its Main Street popcorn stands (and beyond) – a siren song for tired travelers to grab a bucket.

And popcorn isn’t all… Vanilla and peppermint are also known to be used in key places and times in the parks… Keep your nose open and you may smell them.

11. One-of-a-kind SKREWT SCENTS

Image: Universal

Attraction: Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure
Smell: Rotting fish? Flaming marshmallows?

Guests lucky enough to have tackled Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure rave about the roller coaster, which races along the edge of the Forbidden Forest just beyond Hogwarts. The ride’s story has guests attending a Care of Magical Creatures class with Hagrid where an unexpected field trip arises: to find the missing Blast-Ended Skrewts (creatures mentioned, but never seen, in the books and films) that have escaped his stables and could potentially wreak havoc.

In fact, after racing out of the ancient abbey ruins that serve as the ride’s queue, the first show scene is in that stable – exploded outward from the Blast-Ended Skrewts – where a single Skrewt remains. With Hagrid nearby, guests come face-to-… well… blast end with the creature, which sprays mist and a rather unusual scent. While Universal suggested these creatures smell like “rotten fish,” guests have found the Skrewts’ smell to be… unusually alluring… sweet, but off-putting (not so different from the way folks are describing Blue Milk at Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge)! So while it may be hard to describe, guests who’ve smelled it can’t seem to forget it.

12. The smells of MO’ARA

Image: Disney / Fox

Attraction: AVATAR Flight of Passage
Smell: Distant oceans and moons

Here at Theme Park Tourist, we dove into the history of theme park simulators in a must-read feature –Artificial Worlds: The Rise of Screens at Theme Parks – but by most any measure, Flight of Passage in Animal Kingdom’s Pandora – The World of AVATAR must rank among the best on Earth. Capturing the thrill of free-flight on the bank of a Pandoran Banshee, the trip is sensational, electrifying, and even spiritual. In that way, it’s easy to see that Flight of Passage combines all that Disney’s learned from its simulator predecessors, including the use of smell.

On the journey, you’ll be overcome by the mists of Pandora’s oceans – a supernatural sort of salty and minty smell – and otherworldly scents of Pandora’s bioluminscent plant life and rich soil. As in Soarin’, the smells are subtle enough to simply feel like an obvious element of the experience you’re in the midst of; it’s part of what gives this simulator something visceral, multi-sensory, and real to ground the experience.