The Time I Tried to Uncover Magic Kingdom’s Secret Scent

“It smells like a horse in here,” a kid proclaimed.

The monorail doors closed as we began our rapture to the magical destination. I was at Magic Kingdom twelve years ago as a 10-year-old.  Now, a 10-year-old’s observation shook me out of my vision of past memories and anticipation of the coming magic. I sniffed. It did smell like a horse. The barn air was unmistakable, but I was more surprised where I was smelling this — on a monorail taking my family to Disney.

As we got off and walked down Main Street, I decided to observe the scents surrounding me. The smells of popcorn, sweaty sunscreen, and sickly sweet waffle cones all baked in the Florida heat greeted my nose. But there was something subtle buried beneath all these compacted bodies, something my sense of smell was failing to identify. I kept asking my family if they smelled “something”. Maybe I was trying too hard.

My epiphany arrived in the most unexpected way. We were in Stich’s Great Escape, a multi-sensory attraction inspired by the movie Lilo and Stitch. During the show, seats bounced, strobes flashed, and scents fired at the audience. Even animatronic Stitch escaped and started running around the room. The room went black, Stich jumped on my shoulders, and my worst fears were confirmed. Despite the rule of no food and drinks, Stitch found a chili dog and was kind enough to burp it back into my face. So much for the rule. The smell was unsettling, yet accurate. How did they create something so close to a barfed up chili dog on a hot August day? It was as if they found vomit in the park, bottled up the aroma, and then unleashed it upon unsuspecting people.

Leaving the show, I dragged my overstimulated body and damaged olfactory organ to lunch at the Pinocchio Village Haus. As I took a bite into a Caprese flatbread, my head spun. I sniffed. Chili dog stench returned with vengeance, but I felt guilty letting a $10 flatbread go to waste. The problem was everything in the park started to remind me of the smell, leading me to a few close calls with vomiting. It smelled like a twisted engineer took all the smell of Magic Kingdom, combined it, and then made it evil.

It hit me. As we continued our journey in Fantasyland, I became more sensitive to the subtle “something” in the air. What if this “something” I smelled in the air was a scent engineered for Magic Kingdom? If they could create such a horrible aroma for a show, could they not create a more pleasant aroma for the entire park as well? A magical fairy dust, if you will?

Disney has engineered Magic Kingdom to be the most magical place on earth. They have even thought out the way you enter the park. Main Street is the rolling credit scene, leading to the main feature — the castle. Later, I discovered a book of all the secret Mickey Mouse faces hidden throughout the park, a testimony to Disney’s religious obsession to details. They are not just designing a park; they’re creating an experience.

This was on full display at Peter Pan’s Flight. When getting inside the flying vehicle for the ride, I eyed the lap bar with suspicion. Did the lap bar come down automatically? Or was I to pull it down manually? Since I had a 50/50 chance to get it right or look stupid, I decided to take matters into my own hands. As my sister poked me, the sign I had chosen the stupid option, I looked up to see a cast member beside our flying vehicle. She was waving her hands over the lap bar. Then the most amazing thing happened. The lap bar, at her command, came down. Without thinking, I looked up at her and said, “Oh! It’s magic.”

I’m not sure who was more confused — me or the girl. She moved to the next flying vehicle without a word, leaving me wondering if I broke some Disney code. My sister laughed. But I began to notice how all the cast members had this aura of mystery around them. This was an experience for me to enjoy, not to ask questions about. Leaving Peter Pan for Liberty Square, I decided not to ask any employees about my new magic-fairy-dust-smell theory.

As we stood in line for the Haunted Mansion and I worried if I was guilty of conspiracy accusations, I noticed a little boy in front of me. He stared enthralled at a squirrel searching for acorns. For the rest of the day, I noticed other kids chasing finches and brave squirrels looking for a snack. They look overjoyed and thrilled to see this moving piece of life, the magic of nature, before them. Without a doubt, these were the happiest humans I observed in the entire park.

I thought back to the last time I was here at Magic Kingdom twelve years ago. Even though I was 10 years old, I remember almost nothing. A few fleeting moments, glimpses of memories, and that’s it. What would these kids, who were not even into their double digits yet, remember 10 years from now? After $3 water bottles and $300 princess dresses, the only magical experience they may remember is a squirrel. Or the finch.

But smells. They have the power to recall memories. Every time I open a bottle of Manuka honey, I travel back to New Zealand every time. Those morning walks before the tide came in, the pure air, silver ferns along the path. When I buy Manuka honey, I’m not just buying honey. I know deep down I’m buying an experience, a memory of a place I want to remember as long as I live.

As the self-proclaimed most magical place on earth, it would make sense if Disney used a scent to help people remember their experience. Would I want to dump a ton of money on an experience? Only to loose those memories to time? In the best interest of their customers, what if Disney engineers decided to solve this issue? An aroma to bring back those floods of memories from Magic Kingdom. Where even the sight of Mickey Mouse’s ears could make my Pavlov’s nose breathe in the magic.

Maybe my earlier hunch was closer to the truth than I thought. Maybe there was something — something in the air. A fairy dust scent to create the full, multi-sensory magical experience.

I sat on a motorized raft, the last ride from Tom Sawyer island to Adventureland for the afternoon. A young man, not much older than myself, was helping the last few people on to our overcrowded vessel. Stuck in the corner, I decided to try to start a conversation with the raft pilot, Seth.

“How hard is it to pilot this raft?” I asked.

“It’s not that hard,” Seth assured me, explaining how it was like sailing a sailboat. To the novice, he sounded quite knowledgeable about water vessels.

“Yeah, I sailed canal boats back in Ohio.”

“That is so cool!” I said. “What were the canal boats carrying?”

He laughed. “Only people. It was a reenactment museum.”

I loved how down-to-earth he was. He wasn’t afraid to have an in-depth conversation, unlike the other cast members I had met. I can’t blame the others. Surrounded by crowds, they gave directions and kept a smile painted on their face for the entire shift. Understandably, my previous attempts to steer the conversation to smells, scents, and aromas had failed.

I thanked the raft pilot and we made our way back to Main Street. At 8 PM, my sunburnt body finally made contact with the car seat. Sinking deep into the seat, it hit me. I forgot something. I didn’t ask Seth my most pressing question about engineered fairy dust smells.

Driving away, a dream of lights faded behind pine trees. Time in this world would move on. But I knew the moment I would remember most — my conversation with an Ohioan raft pilot.

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