4 Haunting Disney World Smells

My first trip to Walt Disney World was in the early 70s. My family would go every year. We lived in Indiana, so needless to say, we drove (the first airplane was not sighted in Indiana until Reagan’s second term).

My childhood was spent marking time between Disney World visits like a prisoner making notches on the wall — fitting, since my mother often compared my bedroom  to a subterranean dungeon. We had a large family, so park time was limited to one day per trip. I would devise touring strategies down to the second. These were usually rendered obsolete by my sister’s need to use the bathroom every thirty minutes.

The Disney trip was the highlight of my year, and as I grew older, I came to recognize that the strangest things could ignite sudden flashbacks to that magical day in the park. They say the sense of smell is one of the most powerful memory triggers. To this day, there are four scents that will instantly trigger a fond, sepia-toned, bell-bottomed memory deep within my soul.

The ironic thing is, three of the four are probably considered unpleasant smells by everyone else in the known universe.

#4 – Exhaust

This can happen almost anywhere. I’m standing on the corner, waiting to cross the street, and suddenly a diesel engine will belch out a noxious cloud of fumes. As pedestrians drop like flies, hacking and coughing from the overwhelming pollution, I stand in the calm center of calamity, inhaling deeply. For there is nothing quite like the smell of a parking lot tram in the morning.

Where the magic begins.

This is the smell I associate with the very height of anticipation. If you grew up like I did, you weren’t staying on the resort line. You were parking in the Chip’n’Dale lot, standing dutifully by the post, waiting for that gorgeous orange snake to make its way from the Transportation and Ticket Center to your aisle, while your kid brother squirmed in his stroller. When that tram hissed to a stop and you caught that first whiff of exhaust, you knew you were almost there.

The corollary to this is the smell of asphalt baking in the summer heat. That harsh scent of melting tar, shimmering in a stifling, sultry tropical air. This is when you knew that your parents were too cheap to spring for hot dogs, and you were back in the parking lot, with your lunch coming from the cooler in the van.

#3 – Sunscreen

To this day, I think sunscreen is the finest cologne a man can wear. Nothing feels more like vacation than the application of sunscreen. Remember, I’m from Indiana, where 9 months out of the year, the sun is something you read about in history class.

“The Beach” cologne is by far Kramer’s best idea.

I truly do not get why some sunscreens advertise themselves as having no scent. What is the point in that? I don’t care if I develop cancerous growths on my largest organ, or if my shoulders resemble Harvey Dent at the end of The Dark Knight. As long as I smell like coconut, I’m good.

I’m sure part of this sunscreen love comes more from the pool and beach time than walking around the parks, but it’s still a symbol of fun and frivolity, and I confess that in the dark days of winter in the Midwest, I would sometimes use it instead of hand lotion, just to make myself feel better about the fact that the stupid groundhog kept seeing his shadow.

For the record, Coppertone is the best.

#2 – Air Conditioning

Not just any air conditioning. It needs to be the kind of air conditioning that gets condensation pooling somewhere in its bowels, which turns foul with some kind of mold, so that it can pump out the smell of dirty socks into every corner of the room. It’s the smell of a bayou swamp, mixed with the frigid air of a Swedish laundry, and if possible it should blasting you full in the face.

In other words, it’s the smell of Future World.

I don’t know who had the AC contract for Spaceship Earth, Universe of Energy, Horizons, World of Motion, Imagination, or the Land, but whoever they were, they created an odor so distinctive that I will literally pause in the tepid blast of some paper mill air vent and fill my lungs with the fragrance of tropical blossoms rotting in the freezer.

I had a car once that came very close to recreating the Future World smell. My dad once recommended I get the AC cleaned. I laughed him off and just played the Epcot soundtrack nonstop until the stereo ate the tape.

Famous for its dueling scents of oranges and day-old jockstrap.

#1 – Cigarette Smoke

My parents didn’t smoke, their friends didn’t smoke, nobody at our church ever smoked (at least not on Sunday mornings), and if my teachers smoked, they had the good graces to do it in their private lounge. So as you can imagine, the only time I was every really surrounded by a thick cloud of cigarette smoke was in the middle of Fantasyland.

Smoking was not only socially acceptable, it was darn near required. You couldn’t do it on indoor rides, of course (the AC exhaust was probably flammable), but you could smoke everywhere else, including waiting along Main Street for the parade, riding up the elevator to Star Jets, and dangling over the Speedway in your Skyway bucket. I don’t remember even being conscious of cigarettes when I was at Disney World. All I know is that it is the definitive smell of my childhood trips.

My wife is super sensitive to cigarette smoke. While she is apt to move to the other side of the street to avoid following a smoker, I am more likely to duck walk behind them, breathing through my nose, trying to recapture my childhood. When they call the police, it takes awhile to explain that my addiction is to Disney World, not nicotine. Sometimes they understand. And sometimes it takes a few applications of sunscreen before they’ll let me go.

Don Draper, Roger Sterling, and Pete Campbell were frequent passengers on the monorail.

Comments (15)

  1. Its too much to stand around other peoples clothing while your trying to get on the rides … Draculer!

  2. All of your smells are my memories too! Also, whenever I smell pizza in a dumpster…for some reason that makes me think of WDW.

    There used to be a smell in the Delta Dreamflight (the room with the single light spinning before the big screen room) that I would close my eyes and inhale while thinking, “I’m really here!”. There is a similar smell on Dinosaur.

    Also, the smell of The Electric Umbrella to whet the appetite. Fried food and carpet. Mmmmm.

    • Fried food and carpet is a brilliant one! I do agree with the pizza in a dumpster, but that is not so pleasant.

  3. Sweet, sweet pirate juice…

  4. Its all about oranges and burned wood chips for me!

  5. @downundersugarglider – Steal away! Everybody has their own sense memories.

  6. So if I’m to understand correctly… Melissa is now addicted to Pirates water and has been ingesting it by the bucketful.

  7. Bravo – wonderful idea for a post and resonates with everyone – I have all those smells – and more. Nicely done (I am so stealing this idea)

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  9. I’ve heard people say that it’s not actual chlorine in the PotC water, but it sure smells like it. However, the last time I went I got a big eyeful of it after coming down the hill, and it didn’t burn like I’d expect chlorinated water to. Maybe it’s a mild dose or something.

  10. And George, that article of yours is awesome. I had not seen it before. I’m glad I’m not the only sunscreen aficionado. How long before Disney starts marketing their own brand, like they now do with candy?

  11. Two votes for the chlorine smell! I have to admit, that’s a very strong one (both in odor, and in relevance). Not sure why I didn’t think of it, but it is definitely in the top 5.

  12. Shane,

    It was a great post. I was a little disappointed that the Smell of Chlorine did not make the list. I think this had to do with where we stayed in the early 80’s when I was going at a young age. We always stayed at WIlson WOrld, which had the indoor pool. Not that I do not smell the Chlorine in the outdoor ones, but, the inside smell of Chlorine was much stronger. To this day every time I smell that smell it brings me back.

  13. Terrific post! I know exactly what you’re talking about. It’s the smell of heavily chlorinated water that triggers those fond Disney memories for me.

    Chlorine would not normally be a pleasant odor in my way of thinking, but after all these years, rather than evoking some negative reaction, that chemical smell simply brings back all those good times on Splash Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean, and other water rides. Funny thing, the nose.

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