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Visitor attraction smells: a guide to great whiffs

Liam Findlay visits a museum customer


Visitor attraction smells: a guide to great whiffs

AromaPrime releases Top 10 tips for creating magic with smells in visitor attractions…

With 50 years in business, as the world’s first-ever scenting company to specialise in themed entertainment, AromaPrime has a few tricks up its sleeve when it comes to storytelling with smells!

If you have ever noticed a whiff of bananas in a dark ride, the odour of pirate ships in an escape room, the stench of Vikings in a museum, the scent of fire in a roller coaster queue, the fetor of penguin vomit in a zoo or the vapours of aliens in immersive theatre, it may well have been the work of AromaPrime!

In this article, AromaPrime’s Themed Attraction and Historical Scenting Consultant Liam R. Findlay shares the Top 10 tips for using smells in visitor attractions.

Sample pouches laid out for sniffing at Merlin Entertainments HQ.

  1. Smell selection

The first stage in applying smells is usually trying samples so you can pick your favourites. These might be small liquid vials or paper sticks like you get in perfume shops. Samples can be very potent compared to when smells are diffused into the air, so be sure to sniff your samples a few centimetres from your nose to simulate a more realistic effect. Try not to sniff more than 3 without a break, or your nose will be overworked and won’t perceive them properly!

  1. Authenticity isn’t always vital

When sniffing samples, the instinct is normally to pick the ‘most realistic’. However, if your experience is theatrical, with exaggerated visuals, dramatic lighting and hyperbolic sound effects, why anchor the scent to reality? In experience design, what is normally more important than perceived authenticity is the guests’ reaction. Focus less on what seems the ‘proper’ scent to use. Focus more on which scent is going to evoke the feelings and memories you want to be evoked. Don’t be afraid to go a bit abstract if you need to! If guests feel the way you hope they will, the story will in turn feel authentic.

  1. Smell is like music

If you have more than one smell in your experience, perhaps in sequential rooms, think of the changes in smell like the emotional ups and downs of music. How do you want guests to feel at the start? Delighted by a whiff of popcorn? Anxious from the stench of smoke? Then, consider how you want guests’ emotions to change in the next scene and pick the scent based on that. You could even have a scene with no scent at all, so the next is extra impactful! One of the most important choices is the scent in the final scene. How do you want people to feel when they leave and possibly head for the gift shop?

Jorvik Viking Centre, a water ride at Chessington World of Adventures and Alton Towers’ Wicker Man roller coaster

4. International audiences

In 1998, a study showed that some German people could identify the scent of marzipan, while Japanese participants thought the scent came from sawdust. What is sweet and rich with memories for one audience may have a wholly different effect for others. If you have guests from around the world, consider using widely familiar scents like fruit, flowers, nature or even bodily odours like vomit if your attraction warrants discomfort!

  1. Diffusion details

In the early 1980s, Disney’s EPCOT premiered the Smellitzer scent cannon. This was a machine invented by imagineer Bob McCarthy for dark rides like Horizons, Spaceship Earth and Universe of Energy. At the same time, AromaPrime founder Fred Dale was developing an evaporation system for dark rides, which would eventually be nicknamed the ‘smell pod’. Today, scent technology has made big advancements, and there are choices for big and small projects. AromaPrime has a Multiscent DMX machine that can push out three scents at once, petit units for small exhibits, and everything in-between.

When searching for the best diffusion tech for your project, it may be handy to share the following details with your supplier to help them make a recommendation: the size of your space, if there is any significant airflow, opening times and audience positioning.

  1. Positioning

A scent machine could be hidden behind a wall, with a tube directing the scent so it emerges from the mouth of a demon. Efteling has pongs emitting from outdoor cakes, because guests are compelled to gather near them! Meanwhile, National Trust sites put Aroma Blocks inside vases and behind furniture, so they’re well hidden. Alton Towers Resort is known for a smoky smell in its Wicker Man roller coaster queue, creating a sense of anticipation for those boarding. It is also no secret that Disneyland’s Main Street USA has delightful aromas of popcorn and candy floss drawing guests to its shop entrances. Smells can even assist in crowd control, with a stinky display providing entertainment but also preventing overcrowding! The location of a scent can make a big difference.

When you step outdoors, don’t hesitate to make use of your venue’s natural and incidental scents too. Perhaps you’ve smelt the horticulture of Walt Disney World, the oceanic airs of Yas Island, the warm wood of Frontierland… Smells that come from the environment can contribute to storytelling as much as artificial additions.

  1. Financially fragrant

Some expect scenting to be very expensive. This is partly down to the subscription deals out there, where customers pay thousands to receive top-up cartridges that don’t last very long at a time. Scenting can be surprisingly affordable if done right! At AromaPrime, customers need only make a one-time purchase, and they are welcome to get top-ups when it suits them, even if it’s years later. The company’s bestselling scent machine is just over £100, and this can fill an average-sized room, while a year’s worth of scent oil is sometimes around £200 or so. Prices vary of course, but they are far off the thousands that might be charged elsewhere. If pricing doesn’t suit your budget, there are often cheaper compromises for a subtler effect too.

Liam tries a museum smell station

  1. Marketing value

Guests grow personal connections with scents at attractions. There are candles sold that mimic the bromine scent of Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride, as well as the fog smell at Halloween Horror Nights. During the covid lockdowns, fans would order AromaPrime scents to transport themselves back to attractions like The London Dungeon and Thorpe Park.These connections offer opportunity for various means of engagement: YouTube smell reviews, novelty smell maps, smell competitions, merchandise and press releases about unusual new custom fragrances. As long as you are able to smell, you never lose your smell memory, and this is a powerful marketing tool.

  1. Conservation

Heritage sites like country houses and castles might be wary of damage. Liquid vapours can be a particular concern for some sites and museums, in case the particles embed in the walls or  artefacts. A popular way around this is ‘dry diffusion’, which is when a dry, scented object is used instead of liquid diffusion. An example of this is AromaPrime’s Aroma Block, which is a scented block within a lidded case. A scented object can be comparable to a guest wearing perfume in terms of potential damage, which gives historic sites peace of mind without having to ditch scent effects.

  1. Historical research

Museums and theme parks alike reference the past frequently. For Disneyland, Walt Disney took inspiration from living museums, which are careful recreations of locations from the past for guests to explore. When recreating a place from history, scents can be a valuable tool. If the gunpowder smell in your diorama or ride is based on research – for example, those on the battlefield might stuff animal poo into their guns to make up for a lack of gunpowder, changing the odour – the experience becomes well-informed and layered with educational value. Not only does this improve the experience quality, but it also allows for promotional boasting!

AromaPrime has recreated historical scents since its inception, using archaeological and fossil evidence, as well as written research. Recently, I (Liam Findlay) contributed to the academic Odeuropa research project, writing entries for the Olfactory Storytelling Toolkit and The Encyclopaedia of Smell History and Heritage on behalf of AromaPrime. These resources may be especially useful to museums wanting to use smells.

For those looking for historical sources that mention smell, The Odeuropa Smell Explorer is a valuable tool. This is much like a smell search engine, where you can find text and pictures from hundreds of years ago that describe smells as they were back then. Anything you find out can be relayed to your scent-maker to help them create something true to history. For these kinds of projects, AromaPrime offers a custom blend service for no extra cost.

Using smells for storytelling doesn’t just have to be about atmosphere. There are plenty of tricks you can use!

Liam Findlay at an historic site

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