Engaging Your “Disney” Senses

by Lynne P. Feiz
AllEars® Guest Columnist

Feature Article

This article appeared in the June 10, 2014 Issue #768 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)

Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.

Lynne FeizAs even the most seasoned Disney World traveler has to concede, all good things must come to an end — and that includes your Disney vacation. Yes, like it or not, the harsh and unwelcome reality is that the trips we long anticipate and plan for eventually come to a close, and we have no choice but to return home and throw ourselves back into our daily routines. There are lawns to be watered, bills to be paid, and bathrooms to be scrubbed, after all. Sure, we probably start planning our next trip almost immediately (it's the best antidote for Disneyitis), but you've got to admit that at least for now, this vacation's over. Finished. Kaput.

Then it happens. You're minding your own business, when something vaguely familiar but powerful hits you. Maybe you spot a hidden Mickey on the neighbor's Dalmatian and find yourself uncontrollably looking for more. Perhaps you catch a whiff of melted chocolate and your mouth waters for the sweet treats of the Main Street Ice Cream Parlor. Or in the course of conversation, someone off-handedly remarks how "it's a small world," and poof, you're joyfully humming that song for the rest of the day.

How is it possible that these subtle, everyday reminders can cause something in our brains to "click" and then transport us subconsciously back to our "happy place?" Many of us don't question it; we just smile to ourselves and admit sheepishly, "Geez, they must put something in the water!"

I believe the answer lies in the fact that vacationing at Disney provides the ultimate sensory experience. For as long as our trip lasts, we leave the real world behind and are fully immersed in a symphony of sights, smells, sounds, tastes, and textures that only Disney delivers. Ultimately, all those stimuli work together to bring forth a range of emotions: from anticipation and excitement to wonderment and pure, unadulterated joy. And those same feelings can get stirred up again by something as simple as a scent or a song.

Coming to my senses

Even though I'm sure I'd always appreciated this phenomenon on some level, my "Eureka!" moment came just last April when I stepped into the Magic Kingdom at rope drop. The countdown to opening had finished atop the Main Street Railroad Station, and the throngs of guests including my family were emerging from the tunnel under the platform. We were instantly met with a familiar but no less impactful jolt to all five senses at once; in other words, the place hit us like a ton of bricks.

From our vantage point in Town Square, the sight of Walt's historic, albeit idealized, recreation of small-town America welcomed us to walk right down the middle of Main Street, U.S.A., beckoning us toward Cinderella Castle and into the magic of the lands beyond. At the same time, the sounds of lively, spirited music provided the rhythm and tempo for our collective march up Main Street, just as the bell from the horse-drawn trolley and the click-clack of the horses' hooves completed our virtual passage back to a simpler time.

As we made our way up Main Street, the warm, sweet smells of fruit, chocolate, and cinnamon wafted from the Main Street Bakery, Ice Cream, and Candy Shoppes. Of course, we had to stop and sample some of them, letting their rich, smooth flavors add yet another facet to our experience. It was at that moment that my daughter reached out for me, and we walked together hand-in-hand, the fusion of senses complete.

Close your eyes and picture yourself in one of your favorite places in the parks. Think about how each one of your senses is awakened. What do you hear, smell, and see? Can you taste or touch anything?

Sight: The living art of Disney

When Walt first envisioned Disneyland, he likened it to being immersed in a three-dimensional, live-action version of his films, where guests would step on stage and be fully surrounded by sets and scenes from the new frontier, make-believe, or the America of tomorrow. Fast-forward to Walt Disney World, and its larger stage can take you to even farther into the depths of space or sea, back to the glamorous heyday of movie-picture making, or off to far-away countries or continents. Each aspect of the architecture, attractions, and landscaping works together seamlessly to create a life-size form of visual art.

With every addition, Imagineers are careful to preserve the visual integrity of what each guest sees from nearly every possible perspective, while ensuring that what shouldn't be seen isn't. Each park's signature structure — Cinderella Castle, Spaceship Earth, Sorcerer Mickey's hat, or the Tree of Life — is used to not only represent the theme, but to visually set the expectations of what each guest will experience. The theming of each land — and the transition from one to the next — is seamless down to the last detail. In fact, the very notion of using utilidors under the Magic Kingdom ensures, for example, that a cast member wearing futuristic costuming from Tomorrowland isn't seen wandering through the Wild West that is Frontierland. The selection and placement of each landscaping element, from the largest tree to the smallest flower, is painstakingly based on its representation of the area it's meant to enhance. Even the trash cans visually fit the land they're found in! All of that visual theming to absorb, and we haven't even talked about the inside of an attraction yet.

Back at home, it's no wonder, then, that seeing pictures of the castle, an unintentional hidden Mickey, or even a perfectly manicured flower garden or unusual plant can transport you back there. What visually reminds you of your favorite place? A palm tree swaying in the breeze? The colorful burst of fireworks? The empty stick from an ice cream treat?

Sound: The symphonies of Disney

From the earliest animated shorts and full-length feature films, music has always played a large part in Disney entertainment. From Mickey's first few whistled notes in Steamboat Willie, to the Sherman Brothers' "Feed the Birds" in Mary Poppins, to the classical music compositions in Fantasia, music has always been a central element to help set the proper mood and tell the story.

In and around the parks, music and sound continue to play a significant role. Sometimes it blends almost unnoticeably into the background to create the perfect ambiance, like the tiki drums in Adventureland, the futuristic music piped into Tomorrowland and Future World, or the refrains of Hapa Duniani played on your vehicle's radio on Kilimanjaro Safaris. At other times, music takes center stage, like the live performances found in the Beauty and the Beast stage show or even Yanni's "Standing in Motion" to which the dancing Fountain of Nations in Epcot is choreographed. Who can resist the feelings of expectation and anticipation conjured up by the first electro-symphonic notes of the Main Street Electrical Parade or the breathy sound of the fiery torches blown out like candles moments before IllumiNations begins? In fact, each of the nighttime spectaculars uses music to mesmerize and stir emotion — from the inspirational child's voice singing "Star light, star bright… " in Wishes to the moods of each segment of IllumiNations.

What reminds you of the World? Perhaps it's a song, such as "We need a little Christmas…" featured in Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Parade, or a hoedown that takes you back to the foot-stomping good time of The Country Bear Jamboree. Maybe it's a simple sound like water in a park fountain that reminds you of the Jungle Cruise's waterfall (yes, even the back side of water makes noise) or Catastrophe Canyon's manmade deluge. Or perhaps it's as commonplace as the squeal of city bus brakes reminiscent of Disney transportation, or a bell clang that reminds you of Liberty Square.

Smell: Disney's own aroma therapy

It will come as no surprise to you that some of the smells in Disney are far from accidental, such as the smell of orange groves, ocean waters and pine that add to the realism of Soarin', or the pungent, burning smell that punctuates the fall of the Roman Empire in Spaceship Earth. And who among us doesn't cringe with anticipation of the skunk smell Figment unleashes in Journey Into Imagination with Figment?

But ask 10 people what smells remind them of Disney, and nine out of 10 are bound to mention food. The fresh, hot buttered popcorn on every corner. The cinnamon-roasted nuts from Epcot. Or how about the smoky, savory smell of a turkey leg from Frontierland? Yes, some of those smells are enhanced on purpose by Disney as well, like the sweet, fruity smell of the candy shoppe on Main Street, U.S.A., but they all work effectively together to make your surroundings more warm and inviting — and make you hungry!

What smell reminds you of Disney? Beyond food, ambient smells as simple as the smell of chlorine might put you right back in your resort pool's lounge chair. Or a musty smell takes you back to the dinosaurs in Ellen's Energy Adventure. Laugh if you will, but for me one of the most Disney memory-evoking smells is that of a lawn mower; I swear it smells like the Tomorrowland Speedway.

Touch: The textures of a Disney vacation.

While it's true that not everything in Disney can be touched, the textures of the things you can certainly lend an air of realism. Feel the rough-hewn rock of structures like Splash Mountain or Big Thunder Mountain, or the smooth, shiny metals used in the facades of Tomorrowland, and they each add to their respective experiences. My daughter and niece still associate the warmth of fur from a character's hug or the smooth feel of a character's face or nose (especially Goofy's whiskers) with some of the most memorable times of their childhoods. Who doesn't associate the discomfort of sitting on stone curbing with staking out your spot on Main Street for the parade? Stepping outside on a humid morning makes it feel like a "Disney morning" to my husband. Even the slight breeze from an air conditioner gives me "hot and cold running chills" like those found in the Haunted Mansion.

What feelings remind you of Disney? The unevenness of walking on a cobblestone walkway? The cold sensation of biting into an ice cream? The icy splash of water on your face? They're limited only by our own experiences.

Taste: The unique flavors of Disney

For many, food is a central part of the Disney experience, and we no doubt all have our favorites. Some of the finest chefs in Disney restaurants work diligently to prepare dishes that enhance the theme or highlight the region of origin. Of course, many are drawn to the simplest fare, too, such as the aforementioned turkey leg or the tart goodness of a Dole Whip. Like smells, the flavors of Disney can be as unique — and hunger-producing! — as they are plentiful. Fortunately, many of our favorites' recipes (or close facsimiles) can be found online, allowing you to bring a taste of Disney into your home.

What treat makes you crave the taste of Disney? The tang of chicken wings like those at 'Ohana, the sweet stickiness of a cinnamon bun like the Main Street Bakery's, or the spicy snap of a hot dog like Casey's? Or how about a cold ice cream shake like Sci-Fi's or The Plaza's? The sweet cinnamon of a hot churro? I could go on and on.

Yes, vacationing at Walt Disney World certainly does provide the ultimate feast for the senses. It's no wonder, then, that so many of us can receive the unexpected gift of a virtual vacation, albeit briefly, when something as simple as the smell of chocolate or the clang of a bell takes us back there. Enjoy!

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Other Features for AllEars® by Lynne P. Feiz:

A Disney Survival Guide for Parents (September 7, 2010, Issue #572)

When Should I Take My Child to Disney? February 2, 2010, Issue #541)



Lynne P. Feiz has been a marketing communications professional for more than 20 years, and an annual visitor to Walt Disney World since her first trip in 1974. Despite the frequency, she admits she still gets goosebumps when she hears those first few notes of the nighttime parade. Lynne and her husband Tony joined Disney Vacation Club in 1999 and call BoardWalk Villas their second home. Their first home is in central Massachusetts, with their daughter, Princess Julia.


Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.