A Tribute to the Scariest Film of My Lifetime, Epcot’s ‘Honey, I Shrunk the Audience’
The news that Rick Moranis was coming out of retirement to reprise his role as bumbling inventor Wayne Szalinski in a new sequel to Honey, I Shrunk the Kids was met with near-universal excitement. No wonder: Moranis was one of Hollywood’s biggest comedy stars all through the last couple of decades of the 20th century, appearing in popular hits like like Ghostbusters, Spaceballs, and The Flintstones before retreating from public life in the late ’90s. After nearly 20 years out of the spotlight, this beloved figure from a generation’s collective childhood is finally returning to make new stuff.
I am very much a member of that generation, but my feelings about the new Honey, I Shrunk the Kids are a little more complicated — and not just because as a kid everyone said I looked like Rick Moranis and in high school bullies started calling me Rick Moranis, and one time someone came up to me and said “Hey, did you figure out how to unshrink the kids yet?” Just the phrase Honey, I Shrunk the Kids raises my pulse, because it’s connected to what I consider the scariest film of my lifetime — and certainly the movie that personally terrified me the most: The Disney theme-park attraction Honey, I Shrunk the Audience.
Introduced at Walt Disney World’s Epcot in 1994, then added to Disneyland four years later, Honey, I Shrunk the Audience was one of the first “4D” films — a 3D movie paired with in-theater physical effects to enhance the onscreen illusion. An official Disney description of the movie invites tourists to become “a part of a scientific demonstration in this surprising and thrilling 3D theatrical misadventure, which includes encounters with ‘snakes,’ ‘mice,’ loud noises and ‘things’ that go bump in the dark.” My unofficial description would call it a vision of hell so pure and frightening it has never left me and never will.
The conceit of the 15 minutes of unadulterated terror film is that guests are attending a presentation of an Inventor of the Year Award to Moranis’ character at a place called the “Imagination Institute.” (The original Honey, I Shrunk the Audience film was housed in the Imagination Pavilion at Epcot.) All of Szalinski’s creations are finicky and prone to malfunctions, including the shrinking ray that prompts the disaster alluded to in the title. A sign posted at the entrance in Disneyland warned this attraction “may be frightening for children” which is an understatement of a magnitude too large to be described by conventional units of measure. A more accurate disclaimer would have announced that the film “may contain every single one of your childhood fears, leaping at you — and in some cases touching you — until you never sleep soundly ever again.”
Within a few seconds of finding your seats and donning your 3D “safety goggles,” a tiny Szalinski accidentally menaces you with the rotors of his flying “hoverpod.” A moment later, his hoverpod flies at you again, this time sending 3D debris into the air as he breaks through a neon sign. While Szalinski repairs his broken contraption, his sons Nick (Robert Oliveri) and Adam (Daniel and Joshua Shalikar) show off a duplicating machine, which immediately creates hundreds of cloned mice spewing out into the audience. With a carefully timed blackout, the audience would then feel the “mice” scurrying around their feet — an effect achieved by hundreds of ankle-level rubber tubes wriggling around as they’re blasted by compressed air.
The audience was typically still screaming when the next scare arrived. To get rid of the mice, Nick deploys his father’s “Holo Pet Generator.” It creates a huge cat that covers over the audience, then transforms into a giant lion that roars and lashes out with its claws. Only then does an embiggened Szalinski arrive to shrink the entire audience. “Just stay in your seats, ladies and gentlemen,” says Eric Idle’s head of the Imagination Institute, Dr. Nigel Channing. “And we’ll blow you up as soon as possible.” Given how things have gone so far, it seems like a legitimate threat.
After little Adam picks up and carries the shrunken theater around (while the auditorium floor shakes in response) the Szalinskis’ enormous pet snake arrives to hiss and try to eat you. When it opens its mouth to try to devour the audience, its gaping maw practically fills the entire theater screen. Just in the nick of time, the shrinking ray is repaired and restores the audience, After one final shower of dog boogers, the guests are sent on their way.
The effects may sound cheesy, but they were cutting edge in their day — and incredibly convincing. You can hear the genuine screams of horror echoing through the theater in this video of a performance of Honey, I Shrunk the Audience in Epcot. (The mouse gag comes around the seven-minute mark, producing the shrillest shrieks.) William Castle would have wept tears of joy at this footage.
I recently revisited the 1989 Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and discovered that despite its Disney branding, PG-rating, and cutesy title it’s actually more of a horror comedy than an all-ages adventure. In fact, the initial premise was conceived by horror filmmakers Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna, the creators of movies like Re-Animator and From Beyond. While the final film, directed by The Rocketeer’s Joe Johnston, is lighter than what they might have produced, it still bears some of their darker fingerprints. After four teenagers get shrunk by Wayne Szalinski’s ray, he inadvertently dumps them in the garbage by his curb, leaving the kids to navigate the family’s backyard — which at their height is like a three-mile-long jungle. They must then survive raging rivers of mud, giant bees, and deadly scorpions to get home.
The practical effects used to create the Szalinskis’ backyard are surprisingly good; not necessarily “realistic” but tactile and plausibly dangerous in a way that suits the nightmarish atmosphere. While Moranis’ amiable pratfalls leaven some of the scares, the film is shockingly intense for something ostensibly aimed at young children. This sequence, where the four shrunken kids are nearly murdered by a lawnmower, probably inspired the similar gags in Honey, I Shrunk the Audience with the hoverpod’s rotor.
Essentially, Honey, I Shrunk the Audience was created (by director Randal Kleiser and writers Bill Prady and Steve Spiegel) to faithfully reproduce the vibe of that movie. Except Honey, I Shrunk the Audience compressed all the scares into 15 minutes of concentrated terror, and added gags like the mice under the seats to make it feel more real. And despite that one minor warning sign, Honey, I Shrunk the Audience was a Disneyland attraction without a height requirement. Anyone could watch it — and anyone could be absolutely horrified by it. Where most horror movies play in theaters for a couple of weeks, Honey, I Shrunk the Audience remained a fixture at the Disney parks for more than 15 years, scarring untold thousands upon thousands of kids.
A traditional horror film can jolt us with loud noises or sudden bursts of violence, but it can’t touch us. Even with the added depth of 3D, a movie can only feel so real, because no matter what awful things happen to the characters, we remain safe on our side of the screen. This is almost certainly one of the factors that drive people to experience horror movies — the notion that you get to confront extremely dangerous situations in an extremely safe environment. Jason Voorhees might slaughter every last teenager at Camp Crystal Lake, but the audience emerges unscathed every single time.
Honey, I Shrunk the Audience demolished the perceived boundary between movie and viewer, and with it that sense of security. Given the immense impression it left on me, I assumed as I looked back on it for this piece that I must have seen it at a very young age. But Honey, I Shrunk the Audience didn’t premiere until 1994, which means I saw it when I was probably 14 or 15 — long past the age when I was got scared by horror movies. It didn’t matter. The scream I let out when those stupid “mice” touched my leg was easily the loudest and most intense I’ve ever unleashed in a movie theater.
As a result, I spent years trying my best to avoid other 4D attractions. If I couldn’t come up with an excuse to get out of one, I would sit with my legs carefully tucked under me so that nothing could jump out and touch them. To this day, I’m still not super happy going into a 4D movie if I don’t know exactly what it involves, even though I love roller coasters and rides of all other kinds. If I close my eyes, some of HISTA’s images — the giant snake, getting zapped with that shrinking ray — are fresher and clearer in my mind than most of the movies I’ve seen in theaters this month.
The return of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids comes at an interesting time. Disney appears to be in the midst of an internal struggle to define what is “family friendly.” Shows in development for its Disney+ streaming service like its Love, Simon television spinoff or the Lizzie McGuire revival have been shunted to Disney’s more adult streaming site, Hulu, or had their productions halted entirely because executives deemed their content too mature for the Disney brand. Will the new Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, simply called Shrunk and directed by the returning Johnston, be as genuinely scary as the original?
I would personally be a lot less worried about my children watching an episode of Lizzie McGuire than Honey, I Shrunk the Audience. (For the sake of this argument, I am going to assume that Lizzie doesn’t throw an army of cloned mice at viewers in her new series.) Television shows with mildly adult content about the realities of living in 2020 America have never kept me up at night. But this attraction certainly did.
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