Smellitizers, another secret of Disney magic

Smellitizers, another secret of Disney magic

I don't know about you, but for me, the smells of different Disney locations are as familiar as the buildings. Places like Pirates of the Caribbean or Main Street have a distinctive smell, somehow reaching your nose through the crowds of people, churro carts and popcorn buckets. Smell is an important component in Magic Kingdom.

The sense of smell is closely linked to memories, and Disney is built on memories and nostalgia.

Everything at Disney operates under the control of Imagineerswhich are responsible for all the magic, and smell is no different. So how does Disney control such a complicated detail? Meet the Smellitizers.

From the vanilla candy on Main Street, to the slow wood burning at Spaceship Earth and the barrage of ocean breezes and orange groves in the various iterations of Soarin, Disney's scent machines rely on relatively simple technology to enhance your park's sensory experience and make your memories that much stronger.

How do Disney's perfume machines work?

SimplifyingDisney scents involve positioning a scented substance (either real popcorn or an artificial perfume) between a strong airflow source (fan or pressurized air) and the audience, turning the airflow on and off so that it blows through the substance and toward the audience. This process works because of the way chemicals are transported through the air and how we smell, explained below.

From patent for Soarin' sniffer system seen in the image above, a nozzle 62 can be located near the fan 55. The nozzle of FIG. 4 is connected to a reservoir 70 located upstream of the nozzle. Compressed air is supplied through a compressed air inlet 65. The airflow pulls in an aroma material 67 from the aroma tank 70 and delivers it through the mouthpiece 62 into the fan region. The perfumed air then moves through the air plenum 58which directs it out of the canopy and down onto the passenger.


The Science Behind the Magic

Smells are caused by substances that are sufficiently volatile. Volatility doesn't mean that the substances are bad or evil like Scar or Maleficent, but rather, a volatile substance has the tendency to vaporize or change into a gaseous form. We are only able to smell things when the molecules that make them up are in gaseous form, because only gases can reach the space in our skull where we detect smells. But how do substances that are not gases change into gases?

Normally, substances pass from liquid to gas form, as when we boil liquid water and it turns into water vapor. Similarly, scented candles dispense perfume by heating the solid wax first into a liquid and then into a gas. But liquids are difficult to control in machines, so scenters don't always use substances in liquid form. (Yes, the patent image may look like a liquid, but this has not been confirmed. Also, having a different liquid container for each scent in Soarin' may be inefficient compared to the methods described below)

Because we are still able to smell the scents of things like candles, soaps, and solid air fresheners, even when they are in a seemingly solid form, is there another way for scenters to achieve the desired effect? Yes! They could rely on containers of chemicals already in gaseous form or on a process of transforming a solid into a gas called sublimation.


Sublimation requires very special conditions, depending on the material, for the molecules of a solid to have enough energy to become a gas. Heating a solid air freshener is one way to cause sublimation and distribute the aroma, but I find it unlikely that Disney would use near-constant heat in all their air fresheners, if this can be avoided due to the high cost of providing enough energy for such a process. Also, regular life experience seems to indicate that solid air purifiers work quite effectively even when not in a heated location. Thus, alternative materials or conditions need to be used to make a solid substance into a strong smell.

The most likely explanation is that blowing cold air over the scented substance (usually composed of volatile organic compounds) with a powerful fan or compressed air tank reduces the air pressure above the scented substance, blowing away the molecules that were present before.

The same process occurs when wind blowing over a puddle causes it to evaporate more quickly. With fewer molecules present above the scented substance or puddle, more molecules can escape into the air. More molecules turning into gas result in a higher probability that we will detect a smell.

How do we smell?

Chemicals from odor-producing objects travel through the air, into our nostrils (or through our mouth and back into our throat), through our nasal cavity until they reach a section of the nasal cavity called the olfactory epithelium.

Design of the olfactory system


The olfactory epithelium is a mucus-covered membrane that captures the chemicals for smell and is filled with 40 million olfactory neurons. Each of these neurons has special proteins in its membrane that work like locks that are only opened by the key of the appropriate smell molecule.

After the molecule unblocks all possible receptors, the neurons with these receptors are activated and send a signal to a different part of the sensory nervous system, called the olfactory bulb, which is just a bundle of neurons.

In addition to sending the olfactory bulb directly to the olfactory cortex (where higher order processing occurs), the signal is sent to both the amygdala, which is responsible for emotions, and the hippocampus, which is necessary for memory formation.

Why is smell so powerful in triggering memories and emotions?

The various neurons activated by the molecules of a smell are usually arranged in a specific spatial pattern in the olfactory bulb that is gradually (by repetition) associated with the object that caused the smell.

This recognition is how a memory for a smell is formed, just as the activation patterns associated with an image of Mickey Mouse's face in the visual cortex or Mickey's voice in the auditory cortex are paired over time.

Because we have more unique types of receptors for smells (at least 350!) than for vision, our memories for smells can be much more specific and also require less complicated integration of sensory information. This specificity may be one reason why we can recall a more specific set of memories of a smell than just an image (such as a picture of a perfume bottle or the word "rose" rather than the smell associated with each).

Also, there are fewer steps involved in recognizing patterns of smells (through the olfactory bulb and then into the cortex) than in recognizing patterns of images or sounds (which must first pass through a traffic control center called the thalamus). The sensory pathways of smell are much more integrated with the amygdala and hippocampus than other sensory pathways, which probably served our ancestors well in their survival: having a better memory for smells of predators and dangerous foods would prevent death.

In addition, scent memories are some of the best preserved memories over time. If the first time the memory of a scent is formed occurs during childhood, the positive emotions associated with nostalgia can make that memory even more powerful. This may explain why the faintest whiff of a churro can bring back childhood memories of leaving school, and walking into a commercial building here in Orlando quickly reminds me of when I worked at IBM and lived in NY.

The importance of accuracy

What's so special about Disney's sniffers is that the scents are precisely timed, released relatively discreetly and directly, dissipate quickly, and can be used repeatedly for about 80 to 100 showings per day per theater. Imagine not smelling the dirt from Mount Kilimanjaro to the Parisian scene of Soarin' - it really doesn't make you feel transported to any location, does it?

This kind of problem affected a 1950s technology called Smell-O-Vision. Originally used in movie theaters, Smell-O-Vision quickly declined in popularity because the mechanism detracted from, rather than enhanced, the movie-watching experience. Fans used to dissipate the smells were loud, covering up the music and dialogue, and the smells took too long to reach the audience's nose, so the smells were not properly synchronized with the film.

Combining knowledge of chemistry, engineering, and neuroscience, Disney's scent sniffers make their attractions much more magical and realistic.

From classics like Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean, to Soarin' and Flight of Passage, the "created" scents are powerful in helping families remember their vacations for years to come.

The Magic created in the Disney parks are everywhere, from the hidden Mickeys to the scent calculated to generate unforgettable memories

Are you in doubt?

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