Figure 1. McGowan, Brian. “Beautiful black horse standing near the Town Square park on Main Street, U.S.A.” August 18, 2020.<br />
Historically Themed Attractions
6th September 2023
by Liam R. Findlay
Created at:
6th September 2023
Liam R. Findlay
[click to copy]
Figure 1. McGowan, Brian. “Beautiful black horse standing near the Town Square park on Main Street, U.S.A.” August 18, 2020.<br />
Since the opening of Disneyland, California, in 1955, and the subsequent growth of the modern themed entertainment industry, there has been a noticeable presence of smells in historically themed attractions. As Walsh suggests, ‘there is no doubt that the development of many heritage attractions owes a great deal to Disney’ (Walsh 1992, 97). This influence may stem from Disney parks’ efforts to immerse visitors in staged historical time periods, particularly in how ‘the older generation can recapture the nostalgia of days gone by’ (TV Radio Mirror 1954, 62). Disneyland’s mantra, as is stated on a plaque above its entrance, echoes its core artistic intent: ‘Here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy’ (Jenkins 1966). In this entry, the term ‘historically themed attraction’ is used to refer to any attraction that presents a life-sized setting based on the past, so visitors can explore and gain some understanding of how life used to be. This definition can include a range of venue types, including theme parks (such as Disneyland), immersive theatrical experiences (such as The Amsterdam Dungeon), living museums (such as Black Country Living Museum) and traditional museums (such as Museum of London Docklands, with its themed sets known as Sailortown). Each historically themed attraction may dance between traditionally didactic and theatrical content to varying degrees, depending on its intentions. ‘Walt [Disney] was a master at combining everything, including the sense of smell,’ according to themed entertainment designer Tony Baxter, when describing Disney’s use of multisensory storytelling at his theme parks (Tony Baxter, Zeitgeist’s Spirit of the Time event via Zoom, June 16, 2023). While a theme park might prioritise entertainment over historical ‘accuracy’, the historically inspired, smell-based experiences created during the theme park industry’s early years have been reflected in many educational settings that followed. Using examples, this entry presents the continuous interplay between the uses of smells in historically themed attractions, and how the likes of theme parks and museums have influenced each other’s approaches.
Environmental smells

Disneyland smells (clean of course) of people and popcorn and well-worn doorknobs and benches and candy. Like the park in your old home town where you used to go on Saturday night to hear a band play, or maybe watch one of those 1940s outdoor movies. (LaMont 1972, 12).

When visitors arrive at Disneyland, they step onto Main Street, U.S.A., which was ‘authentically recreated to get the feel of a typical small town thoroughfare of the 1900 era with which [Walt Disney] was familiar.’ The 1956 staff handbook that this quote comes from encourages staff to ‘note the results of years of research’ and ‘the demanding attention to detail designed and built into every nook’ (Disneyland 1956, 2). The 1957 Disneyland Dictionary, also for staff, lists Main Street, U.S.A.’s ‘authentic gas lights’, the book shop with ‘authentic 1900 decor’, an ‘exact replica of the drugstore of this era’ and a penny arcade with ‘antique originals’, among numerous other references to authenticity and the inclusion of real antiques (Disneyland 1957, 3-10). Similarly, the nearby area of Frontierland is described as having its own recreations ‘authentic’ to 1840, ‘characteristic merchandise of the Frontier era’ and even a Davey Crockett Museum (15-16). Upon opening in 1955, much of Disneyland, with special focus on Main Street, U.S.A., was comparable to a living museum on a grand scale. Walsh suggests that ‘Disney may have been influenced by the successes of the early open-air museums, such as Greenfield and Williamsburg’ (Walsh 1992, 97). This said, Walsh also notes that with many a historical recreation, or ‘heritage spectacle’ (106), ‘the emphasis is on an authenticity of form, rather than an authenticity of experience,’ (112); the idealised Main Street, U.S.A. is certainly more of a nostalgic evocation than the past brought back to life.

Figure 1. McGowan, Brian. “Beautiful black horse standing near the Town Square park on Main Street, U.S.A.” August 18, 2020.

In reference to Main Street, U.S.A.’s horse-drawn ‘reproductions of 19th Century streetcars’, the 1956 staff handbook celebrates multisensory indulgence:

There is no other place in the world where time is deliberately pushed back more than 60 years to make it possible for a guest to re-live (or experience for the first time) the sensations of feeling, seeing, hearing, and yes – even smelling – everything associated with a turn-of-the-century “hay-burning Oatsmobile.” (Disneyland 1956, 3)

Main Street, U.S.A. also opened with newly made (Schultz 2023) steam locomotives ‘authentically styled in a period long gone’ (The Santa Fe Magazine 1955, 10), before 1958 saw the introduction of another locomotive that had actually been built in 1894 (DeGaetano 2015, 145). Not so true to the turn-of-the-century, the trains ran on diesel. However, when in 2007 this was replaced by a clean-burning fuel, which apparently smelt ‘like cooking oil’, engineers appreciated that ‘old-timers may miss the diesel smell’ (Geffner 2008, 52).

Contrasting with the odours of the railways, Disney parks around the world also include the fragrances of landscaping, which often link to their intended historical contexts. In 1977, Walt Disney World landscaper Jim Ellis told the Disney News magazine that Main Street, U.S.A. was purposely adorned with flowers that might have been popular at the start of the 20th Century. Meanwhile, so-called ‘early American flowers’ had been selected for the gold rush settlement of Frontierland (Disney News 1977, 2); today, fans appreciate the inclusion of firs, pines (Hendrie 2019) and the fragrant flowers of Jerusalem thorns in this area (Dis 2017).

Today, the wet weather at Disneyland Paris comes into play around its Adventureland setting, where wood, rope, metal, stone and dense plant life can be damp and aromatic. This carries the potential to heighten visitors’ awareness of the traditional materials around them, which contribute to the imitation 18th Century setting near the Pirates of the Caribbean ride (Fig 2.)

Figure 2. Findlay, Liam. “Author’s photograph of pungent, wet materials at Adventureland, Disneyland Paris.” September 24, 2019.

Although smoking is banned across Disneyland today (Rueb 2019), the smell of cigarettes may have been commonly associated with the attraction in its first fifty years. Even when three Scandinavian princesses were photographed on the Mad Tea Party ride in 1960, a formally dressed gentleman in the cup beside them could be seen with a cigarette hanging from his mouth [Fig. 3] (Bettmann 1960). Since its opening, Main Street, U.S.A. also had a Tobacco Shop (Disneyland 1957, 7), selling ‘worldwide tobacco and smoking accessories’ (Disneyland 1983), and this would stay open until 1990. Initially, smoking was allowed anywhere in the park, except indoors or in queues, where the ashtrays likely contributed odours instead (Yesterland 2019). 

Although tobacco smoke may have been an everyday smell in 1955 (National Center for Health Statistics 1970), it could still have provided a sense of authenticity in Disneyland’s historical settings. At the time, a deodorised, smoke-free historical setting might have been jarring. Visiting Disneyland Paris today, one might think it intentional that the 18th-20th Century themed settings of Frontierland and Adventureland have a total of seven smoking areas in close proximity. This is noticeably more than can be found in other parts of the park (Disneyland Paris 2022), which are themed around science fiction and fairytales, and where cigarette odours may distract from the storytelling.

Smells made in-house

Some historically themed attractions, whose environmental smellscapes aren’t as elaborate as Disneyland’s, have resorted to applying smells by hand. In 1974, Brian Lambie, curator of the faux Victorian streets at Gladstone Court Museum, was filmed by BBC’s Nationwide wiping camphorated oil onto heating pipes in the chemist shop, rubbing rosin onto old boots in the cobbler’s, and grinding coffee beans in the grocer’s, all to imply the presence of active trade (BBC Archive 2019). In another independent pursuit for accuracy, before opening the immersive Tutankhamun Exhibition in 1987, Dr Michael Ridley sniffed a jar of preserved air from Tutankhamun’s tomb to inform his own homemade recreation. The outcome involved dried material not dissimilar to potpourri (Tim Batty, curator interview with author, December 2017). Olfactory immersion can also be tied into scheduled activities at an attraction, such as the charcoal burning visitors can experience at Weald and Downland Living Museum (‘Rosemary’ 2022) (Weald and Downland Museum commenter 2020), as well as the botanical tour at Roma World (Roma World 2023), where a costumed guide invites visitors to smell the plants used in Ancient Roman practices.

Smells made by suppliers

Historically themed attractions have been known to work with professional smell makers to help them tell stories. The company AromaPrime supplies many these venues with olfactory solutions, focussing on immersive storytelling. Businessman Fred Dale founded AromaPrime, then called Dale Air, in 1973, selling aroma oils and diffusion products to shops, hotels and care facilities. Through this, Dale started developing nostalgic smells, like those of coal fires and carbolic soap, for elderly care home residents who had memories of the 1920s and 1930s.

In the early 1980s, Dale was commissioned by Jorvik Viking Centre to develop a range of smells representing York in 975 C.E., based on archaeological findings from the Coppergate Dig. These smells included cesspits, fish, leather and metalwork. Dale also advised on the attraction’s blueprints, suggesting adjustments that could be made to improve the containment and flow of the smells in different recreated scenes.

The success of Jorvik Viking Centre, and perhaps a subsequent family holiday to Walt Disney World, inspired Dale to make his company the world’s first to specialise in off-the-shelf smells for museums and themed entertainment. According to John Sunderland, Jorvik Viking Centre’s Project Designer, ‘[Fred Dale] after his success at Jorvik became the go-to person in museum and display design’, and ‘[his] company created the themed aromas industry’ (Sunderland 2013, 237). Working in both the museum and entertainment sectors provided Dale’s team with a broad understanding of smell usage. For example, designing a damp odour to inspire feelings of anxiety in the loading station for The Vampire, a roller coaster at Chessington World of Adventures, would likely have been informative when working on the harrowing, immersive Trench Experience at the Imperial War Museum during the same year, 1990. Not only did The Vampire give the team an opportunity to experiment with how an odour could affect visitors’ reactions, but they could also observe how lighting, sounds, crowd flow and the placement of diffusers changed the impact of a smell.

In the early 1990s, AromaPrime created a historically informed Egyptian mummy smell for museums, which would also enrich an upcoming project with Chessington World of Adventures. Because of the research AromaPrime had carried out, the 1994 ride Terror Tomb could boast a degree of accuracy in its Ancient Egyptian burial chamber scenes, despite the fantastical storyline (Relative and past employee of Fred Dale, interview with author, February 2023).
In 1982, Disney opened the Epcot theme park, which was described at the time as ‘the thinking man’s theme park’ (News and Views 1982, 28) due to its focus on education. The Universe of Energy dark ride— ‘dark ride’ being a term for rides involving vehicles that pass specially lit tableaux —took visitors past a prehistoric swamp and an erupting volcano, both of which emitted artificial smells (EPCOT Center Today 1981). Meanwhile, the Spaceship Earth dark ride takes visitors through the history of human communication; when passing the burning Library of Alexandria, noses are met with the artificial smell of ‘acrid decay, like coal’, according to Tony Baxter’s personal memories (Tony Baxter, Zeitgeist’s Spirit of the Time event via Zoom, June 16, 2023).

Opening around eighteen months after Spaceship Earth, Jorvik Viking Centre gained attention for its own dark ride (Hinckley Times 1984, 14) (Sunderland 2013), which takes visitors through a recreation of Viking York. Like Spaceship Earth, the Viking ride plays narration from speakers in its vehicles, and it features a plethora of immersive, artificial smells. Similarities between Spaceship Earth and Jorvik Viking Centre have been described in numerous reviews (Faiiint 2015) (Yorkshire Wonders 2018) (Ocean Hops 2021). At a time when many museum displays were regarded as dull (Walsh 1992, 94), Jorvik Viking Centre’s Project Designer John Sunderland, who had been inspired by childhood visits to a reconstructed Jacobean room and also the cinema, aspired to make museums ‘more like films’, with an effort to engage visitors through multisensory experience (Sunderland 2013, 16-21).

As Walsh suggests, attempts to recreate the past at visitor attractions ‘were probably best symbolized during the 1980s by the trend towards the provision of heritage smells’, making reference to AromaPrime, who created the smells for all the experiences described forthwith. From 1985 to 1987, John Sunderland designed The Canterbury Tales walk-through attraction (John Sunderland 2013, “1985-87 The Canterbury Tales”), which included a stable smell (Liam R. Findlay 2023, 16:05-16:31) and tableaux visitors would pass much in the spirit of a dark ride (Continuum Attractions 2013). The following year, The London Dungeon introduced its first walk-through, themed set, which was a scented Great Fire of London interpretation (Euro Theme Park Archive 2019). Entering 1990, The Timewalk was another of Sunderland’s projects with an array of smells, where visitors could ‘travel through 600 years of Weymouth’s history’ to ‘see, hear and smell the past’, according to the attraction’s leaflet (The Timewalk c. 1990). The Timewalk used the same tableau format as The Canterbury Tales, and its value as an educational attraction was reflected in its venue, which was the historic Devenish Brewery. Many sets also included real artefacts from Weymouth Museum’s collection (The Art of Themed Attractions 2018); some old documents, wicker baskets, ropes, metal lamps and wooden chests provided their own ‘antique shop smell’ when accumulated together in an attic scene, drawing attention to their presence and relevance to the stories being told.

Figure 3. Findlay, Liam. “Author’s leaflet advertising The Timewalk.” Circa 1990.

In 1992, Blackpool Tower’s Dawn of Time dark ride opened with similarities to Disney’s Universe of Energy, including animatronic dinosaurs, and the smells of lava and a swamp (Liam R. Findlay 2023, 6:05-6:37). The vehicles’ in-built speakers provided narration (Dark Ride Database 2023), suggesting inspiration from the successes of Spaceship Earth and Jorvik Viking Centre. The concept of odiferous, simulated time travel was visited once more at Madame Tussauds London in 1993, where the Spirit of London dark ride took visitors through a retelling of London’s past, with olfactory interpretations of plague, the Great Fire of London and the Industrial Revolution (Liam R. Findlay 2023, 9:10-9:41) (John Sunderland 2013, “1988-1990 The Spirit of London”). From 1994, Warwick Castle welcomed visitors to its Medieval-themed Kingmaker experience, where people could take their time to explore settings with wax figures, sounds and hands-on props. These features were based on ‘an exhaustive amount of historical research’, according to a writer for The Independent who visited during Kingmaker’s opening year. This writer observed a ‘startling … horsy smell’ (Bealby-Wright 1994), which was accompanied by other blends representing the likes of herbs, leather and smoke in the blacksmith’s workshop (Park World 2020). Beyond Great Britain, 1994 also saw an aquarium added to the mixing pot of venues installing such intricate, historically themed attractions. Kelly Tarlton’s Underwater World in New Zealand built a life-size recreation of the hut used during the fatal Antarctic trek of Robert Falcon Scott. The 2005 website of Dale Air, now AromaPrime, described the odours commissioned for the project:

The door opens and there is the smell of ponies in the air, though they have been gone almost 100 years. The pony stalls smell of leather and horseflesh … You expect the occupants to return at any time. It is a haunting experience enhanced by the aromas that permeate the surroundings. (Dale Air 2005, “Scott’s Hut”)

There is nothing to say that any of these historically themed attractions were directly influenced by theme parks, or by each other, but there was a noticeable trend in the similar approaches to multisensory, set-based storytelling during the late 20th Century.

Beyond the smells of cesspits, plagued streets and pre-historic swamps, which lend themselves to attractions more inclined towards fantastical presentations, the use of familiar smells could encourage a more grounded sense of familiarity with those who lived through recent history. Insights into lives and cultures at New York’s Tenement Museum were provided through homely smells by Dale Air in 2001. Still open today, each apartment is recreated to match how it looked when it was inhabited by immigrants and migrants between the 1860s and 1980s (Tenement Museum 2023). When applying the smells, collections manager Vin Lenza wanted it ‘to seem like the families just stepped out for a few minutes.’ The smells reflected the different residents’ lives, such as a coffee smell for the 1916 apartment of a Jewish family from Turkey, and the smells of oranges and garlic for a 1935 Italian-American family’s kitchen (Dale Air 2005, “Tenement Museum”) (Dale Air press document 2001).

The museum has been known ‘to foster tolerance for diversity’ in its recreated apartments (Thirteen c. 2001), and Lenza explained that his aim in using smells was to ‘help visitors better understand what life was like for these families from different ethnic backgrounds’ (Dale Air press document 2001). Today, educational, historically focussed attractions continue to use smells alongside varying degrees of immersive storytelling. Historium in Bruges involves elaborate sets with projections showing actors, changing lighting effects (Historium Brugge 2019), and smells reflective of the settings (AromaPrime 2020). Black Country Living Museum is more life-like with its traditional approach, featuring an outdoor historical village, but it enhances storytelling with artificial smells nonetheless. Meanwhile, Museum of London Docklands, which is more formal in its presentation, houses dark, scented, Victorian street sets known as Sailortown (AromaPrime Themed Scents 2022); the entrance and exit are in unscented rooms, full of artefacts and text, allowing visitors a balance of immersive and traditionally didactic learning.

Both theme parks and museums aim to tell stories in memorable, emotive ways, which makes it unsurprising that design approaches, concerning all senses, have overlapped at certain attractions. However, the use of smell to represent the past is met with scepticism from some. When discussing smells in museums, Walsh suggests ‘a danger that the titillating spectacle will engulf the visitor’s perception … and consequently negate the potential impact of the didactic presentation’ (Walsh 1992, 110). He also questions efforts to ‘titillate the senses’ in interpretations that could result in a ‘post-modern past … where anything is possible, where fantasy is potentially as real as history’ (Walsh 1992, 113). Sharing similar concerns, Drobnick believes that in certain instances of ‘reliving’ smells, ‘spectacle and myth collide with education and history’ (Drobnick 2004, 269).

Contrasting these views, Tullett argues that representing the past through smell is ‘no different to our tendency to offer up interpretations of the past in words’. An olfactory description of history and a written description of history can both be appreciated in their capacities as ‘interpretation … of the past using tools, techniques and disciplinary conventions.’ Furthermore, an historically informed smell is not by default a claim to be ‘how the past smelled’ any more than an historically informed text is by default a claim to be ‘how the past read’ (Tullett 2023, 94); both smell and text can be presented with acknowledgement of their limitations and still hold great educational value.

To the credit of Jorvik Viking Centre, a 1999 study by Cardiff University’s School of Psychology suggested that the use of smells was ‘sufficient to induce a highly significant improvement in recall of the museum’s contents’, even on an average of six years after participants’ last visit. (Aggleton and Waskett 1999, 1-7). If a contrived smellscape really does encourage spectacle and myth, it can still carry educational benefits.

Rowan Arnold, a designer who has worked with AromaPrime to scent The Blackpool Tower Dungeon, Deva Roman Experience and Sick to Death, feels that smells provide ‘learning value’ if used ‘carefully and sincerely’, even in a family entertainment context. He explains:

No recreation of the past will ever be totally accurate, but scents can represent history in ways that spark emotions or take visitors to another place without them having to read long interpretation panels. If you take the time to choose the right scent, it can open people’s minds to learning in a way that can’t be initiated through any other means. (Rowan Arnold, interview with author, June 2023)

The emphasis on approaching scenting thoughtfully is echoed by Spence, who when discussing galleries and museums, suggests that those involved ‘would do well to consider what outcome they hope to achieve, and whether it will necessarily deliver the positive effects that are hoped for’ (Spence 2020).

By 1973 at Disneyland, having aromatic, traditionally made food on Main Street, U.S.A. was something that staff exploited, particularly at the Candy Palace shop. An issue of Disney News from the time elaborates:

Every time a batch of freshly-made candy is prepared, a “liquid scent” of chocolate, vanilla, or mint is put on a hot plate and placed in front of a fan. The fan blows the alluring aroma out two little holes beneath the display window and sends it drifting to all who walk down Main Street. (Disney News 1973, 7)

In the early 2000s, the hot plate and fan were replaced by fan powered diffusion units, which contained cartridges of artificial smells. These were positioned at the ventilation holes below the display window (ScentAir 2004) (Finding Mickey c. 2009), and this reflected the industry-wide transition to using technology by specialist suppliers.

Disney had used smell diffusion technology prior to this in 1982 for Epcot’s educational dark rides, but it was something they had to create themselves to fit their specific needs. This was partly because there were no specialist suppliers for scenting themed attractions at the time. Disney’s ‘Smellitzer’ machine, named after the howitzer cannon, was designed by Bob McCarthy, who had worked alongside Michael Todd Junior on Smell-O-Vision in the 1950s. McCarthy’s Smellitzer functioned like an air cannon, firing a smell across a vehicle’s path just prior to it passing. Eventually, the smell would hit an exhaust system which would take it from the room. This computer operated method allowed for control over the olfactory effects in the dark ride scenes, without risk of crossover and spreading (EPCOT Center Today 1981). Not every historically themed attraction could afford to create their own technology like Disney could, and in Europe, economical, specialist solutions would eventually be provided by AromaPrime. There would also be a growth in specialist attraction design organisations like T3 Creative Agency, Sarner International and Dead Walk Designs, who could help source relevant equipment.

From 1973-2020, AromaPrime sold heated units that would evaporate oils into the air; the Vortex Standard had a constant temperature, while the Vortex Variable included a dial, allowing users to adjust the temperature and therefore the strength of the smell. Today, AromaPrime sells machines that nebulise aroma oils as fine mist, with in-built timing settings. Like Disney’s Smellitzer, these units allow precise control and can send a smell across a long distance (AromaPrime 2022).

Figure 4. Findlay, Liam. “Author’s set of photographs. Left image: An AromaPrime Vortex machine, emitting a ‘machine oil’ smell, is hidden beneath the floor in the engine room of Brunel’s SS Great Britain, positioned by the entrance for an immediate effect. Middle and right images: A Vortex machine is hidden behind props at the indoor Victorian street recreation at York Castle Museum.” 2022.

Brunel’s SS Great Britain is a vast, highly themed historic ship, with each level redressed to reflect how it looked in the mid-1800s. Its ambient Vortex Variables are carefully, often cleverly hidden. The machine in the engine room is below a floor grate which can be lifted by staff. In one bathroom, the machine diffusing a urine smell is not by the toilet but behind an open door which is padlocked to the wall, meaning visitors cannot move the door to see the machine, but staff can open the padlock to access it. The machine in the surgeon’s cabin is under a chair, unlikely to be seen by guests focussing on a mannequin who has blood leaking from his hand. The kitchen’s oven is out of reach but visible, and its Vortex machine is right in front of it, painted black to blend into the metalwork. Quite cleverly, the machine in stewardess Annie Green’s cabin is at the back of the room, behind Annie’s ‘vomiting’ mannequin, and this placement not only hides the machine but also limits the travel of its vomit odour. Annie blocks the airflow somewhat, and the door is only partially open; visitors can only catch a whiff if they lean right into the room, and those outside the room don’t get their noses assaulted!

During the 2022 Easter school holiday, to further engage visitors in the themed Victorian setting, Brunel’s SS Great Britain hosted an olfactory banquet in its Dining Saloon. After smelling the different rooms of the ship, visitors could sit down to sniff pots containing smells that corresponded with a Victorian menu available to read. Closing their eyes, nasal diners could imagine meals were in front of them at the table, and children could amuse themselves with the pong of boiled cabbage. A chocolate dessert smell was included to encourage conversation around one of the ship’s first passengers, a Swiss chocolatier named Phillipe Suchard (Brunel’s SS Great Britain 2022).

The smelly pots were a means of what is known as dry diffusion, because they contained dry, scented sponge, rather than liquid. Similarly, AromaPrime’s Aroma Blocks are a dry diffusion tool for scenting a space of up to around four cubic metres. They consist of a metal case with a lid which can be removed to let the smell rise from the scented, spongy block beneath the grate within. Dry diffusion of this kind is often used in historic rooms, because from a conservation perspective, it is safer than the use of wet vapours from a machine.

For Easter in 2023, the theatrical historical attraction Sick to Death displayed an Aroma Cube (a plastic object for sniffing, with holes in the top) along with a large egg prop to act as a visual cue. The Aroma Cube emitted an odour to help tell the story of Ancient Roman eggs that were excavated from a Buckinghamshire archaeological site in 2016 (Dowling 2023) (AromaPrime Themed Scents 2023) (Current Archaeology 2023). The benefit of Aroma Cubes is that they are subtle enough to not disturb those who choose not to sniff, and they are safe to handle without the aroma oil making skin contact, which is why they are also used for reminiscence therapy in care homes (AromaPrime Themed Scents, July 2020) (Paddock Stile Manor Dementia Care Home 2023).

Feelings and Noses

The Camden News from August 11th, 1955, less than a month after Disneyland’s grand opening, describes the enticing aromas of Main Street U.S.A.’s Puffin Bakery. The article, titled “Old-Time Aromas In Puffin Bakery”, shares that: ‘Those tantalizing aromas that Grandparents remember from turn-of-the-century bakeries will be wafting out…’ (The Camden News 1955, 13)

During the decade after 1955, newspapers reported that a higher number of adults were attending Disneyland than children (Decatur Herald 1957, 14) (Pasadena Independent 1959, 2) (Bachman 1966, 9). A 1964 article entitled “Magic Kingdom – for All Ages” shares the idea that ‘youngsters over fifty’ can enjoy Disneyland as much as children, and its smells play a part in this:

The smells of Main Street, U.S.A. are equally reminiscent of a by-gone era, one which Disneyland’s guests may well recall fondly. The perfumed fragrance surrounding the flower market, the penetrating odors from gaily-painted popcorn stands, and the mouth-watering scents from the vicinity of the Candy Palace. (Vacationland 1964, 5)

As these quotes suggest, Main Street, U.S.A. provided opportunity for nostalgia in older visitors who had personal memories of the period on which the setting was based. Similarly, in the United Kingdom, Eden Camp Modern History Museum aims to trigger recollection through smell in its displays. Here, scented recreations of the Second World War include a farmhouse, a U-boat, a blitzed street and another street with various shops. Familiar to most people are the smells of the sweetshop, which include liquorice, pear drops and peppermint flavours. In 2019, Eden Camp archivist Jonny Pye explained:

We’re still near enough in history for people to have lived through the events we portray, and the smells really help to bring things to life and jog people’s memories. A visit is often used by care homes as reminiscence therapy for people with dementia, of which smells play a massive role. (Jonny Pye, interview with author, April 2019)

The Imperial War Museum’s 1990 Trench Experience replicated the Western Front as it was during the First World War, and its striking malodours might have inspired empathy for the soldiers. For visitors who had experienced the ordeal of trench warfare themselves, the smells could also bring back memories that they might rather forget. Tommy Keele, a veteran of the First World War, told the Los Angeles Times ‘I thought I was back’ after he visited. However, he noted that among the smells of smoke, cordite and frying bacon, ‘the smell of death’ was absent (Heathcote 1990). Due to possible negative reactions, when dealing with sensitive subjects, designers of historically themed attractions may choose to omit certain smells or provide warnings about them, just as one might with sensitive imagery. The veteran Keele provides an example of the kind of haunting memory a more rancid choice of smell might have triggered:

Two of my mates were buried under us by a shell. We dug them out, horribly mangled, and buried them along the trench. As I pulled one, he fell to pieces. The smell of death was all over me and I couldn’t eat or drink for three days. (Keele via Heathcote 1990)

When historically themed attractions closed during the coronavirus lockdowns of 2020, AromaPrime’s sales were generated through the customers of those attractions—the visitors who sought memories of happy days out while in quarantine. Purchases from these visitors included the reek of The Edinburgh Dungeon’s torture chamber, the smell of the stable in Warwick Castle’s Kingmaker, and the odours of the coal fire and old books in Alton Towers’ Victorian-themed scare maze The Attic. In response to this interest, AromaPrime released collections in collaboration with historically themed attractions, including the same smells used at those attractions (Mitchell 2020) (Park World 2020). Especially popular were the smells of woodsmoke and sage, used for Alton Towers’ Wicker Man roller-coaster to support the storytelling inspired by ‘local legend and Pagan rituals’ (Heath-Jones 2018); some fans diffused the smell at home along with music and special lighting to recreate the sensation of being on the ride (Kip Hakes 2020) (‘Auto Ride Count’ 2020). One woman’s sister, who was autistic and found the lockdowns particularly stressful, found comfort in the familiar Egyptian mummy smell from Chessington World of Adventures’ Tomb Blaster ride. The woman explained that ‘this scent has truly helped [my sister] through this!’ (AromaPrime Themed Scents, June 2020). What is intriguing about this phenomenon involving attractions’ visitors is how the smells purchased were originally intended to evoke history, but the lockdowns saw the smells evoking memories of those evocations. Through this, the smells became ‘palimpsestic’ as they conjured the idea of time overlapping; as Tullett suggests, ‘smell can enfold temporality and geography in on itself, re-arranging periods and places into intimate interpenetration’ (Tullet 2023, 93). In their palimpsestic nature, the historically inspired smells enjoyed during the pandemic held a new layer of personal significance in how they connected people to ideas of the past.

A similar instance of smell interconnecting histories has occurred across Weymouth in how locals associate the town’s real past with their personal memories of olfactory interpretation. Almost ten years after the closure of The Timewalk attraction, one local resident claimed ‘I've never forgotten it because the smells were so much part of it’ (The Art of Themed Attractions 2018). In 2020, an article about ‘memories of growing up in Weymouth’ by the local newspaper included the subheading ‘Bad smell of the Black Death exhibit … is among your vivid memories of town’ (Davis 2020). Locals’ associations between The Timewalk’s Black Death scene and memories of its smell might help them remember the Black Death’s involvement in their town’s history. Such a possibility is echoed by the fact that when, in 2023, a plaque about the Black Death was installed in Weymouth, it featured an engraved illustration of The Timewalk’s Black Death scene, as if to spark memories of that long-gone learning experience. When the plaque was revealed online by Weymouth Museum, one local commented ‘I can still hear this picture’, to which another replied ‘can you smell it too?’ (Weymouth Museum commenter 2023)

Smells have the potential to create strong, emotional memories associated with the historical scenes they are used to represent. With this, personal understandings of the relevant time periods can carry significance in visitors’ lives. It is in part thanks to the influence of Disney theme parks, through the immersive setting of Main Street, U.S.A., and innovative dark rides that have transported visitors through time, that many museums and other historically themed attractions take the forms that they do today, including the incorporation of smells. Concurrently, museums have influenced approaches to olfaction in theme parks, starting with the inspiration taken from living museums at Disneyland, and leading to the role museums played in the growth of AromaPrime and its supply of research-based for exhibitions and rides alike. Whether an attraction is as idealised as Disneyland’s Main Street, U.S.A., as faithful to realism as Jorvik Viking Centre, or as mindful of real-life horrors as the Trench Experience, when a smell is used with purpose, there is great value to be found in its power.

Liam R. Findlay
Liam R. Findlay, “Historically Themed Attractions,” Encyclopedia of Smell History and Heritage, accessed July 19, 2024,

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‘Auto Ride Count’ (@AutoRideCount). 2020. “I’ve recently bought these two awesome scents from @aroma_prime - great for reminding me of theme parks at home! ‘Woodsmoke’ smells like Wicker Man, and ‘Musty’ reminds me of Duel’s entrance or the Molly Lee scene of the @altontowers Dungeon!” Twitter, March 28, 2020.

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