What's the big idea?

Rick Rothschild scares people. That's his job. He's just turned `Honey, I Shrunk the Kids' into a ride that will turn your knuckles white. Michael Booth discovers the trade secrets of an `imagineer'
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Let's get this out in the open right from the start. During my visit to Disneyland Paris I did wave enthusiastically and unironically to both Mickey and Goofy while watching the mid-afternoon parade. Furthermore I did leave the park carrying a large, cuddly Minnie Mouse and wearing Mickey ears and pushed at least a dozen small Italian children out of my way in order to jump the queue to the Space Mountain ride. Disney, it seems, does strange things to a man.

One man who appreciates this more than most is Rick Rothschild, a well- kept 48-year-old Californian with one of the most impressive moustaches I've ever seen. Rick is an "imagineer", a job title unique to the Disney Corporation, concocted by Walt Disney himself to describe the multi-skilled creatives who designed the original Disney theme park in Anaheim, California, back in 1955. "Walt was asked once to describe the sort of people who were involved in creating Disneyland and he said, `Well, they're sort of imagineers because they combine a creative force with engineering know- how'," Rick explained during a moment off from last-minute preparations before Disneyland Paris's new "Honey, I Shrunk the Audience" show opened.

"Our responsibility is to conceptualise and then produce what we conceptualise." Simply put, imagineers are the people who know where our buttons are, and how to push them. "People like to be put in a slightly unstable situation where they know they are going to survive and that it's going to be a safe journey but its going to be a real, visceral and thrilling experience," says Rick. "People want to let go of their emotions and be taken on a journey. Our job is to find a balance between humour and threat." In other words, it's a thin line between sweaty palms and wet knickers.

Many of Disney's imagineers have a theatrical background (including Rick, who began as a theatre lighting director), but it also takes scientific knowledge to gauge just how scary a ride should be. "We need to have a good working knowledge of the dynamics of the inner ear, for instance, because if on a simulator ride we get the film and motion out of sync we could make you instantaneously sick," admits Rick. "So in the past we have brought in medical advisors. We also use a lot of stuff from the aerospace industry, as well as advanced acoustic science and psychology, though none of us are actually psychologists."

The artifice required to suspend reality in a ride or show is dauntingly complex yet must remain totally invisible. "We need to first convince guests to suspend belief and in the case of `Honey' take them beyond thinking that they are watching a film. In a movie theatre when the movie starts all the lights go out, so in our show they stay dimly on to remind you that you are in a room and that that room relates to the stage.

We then guide the audience's focus to the main elements of the show using all their senses. For instance we tell them that mice have escaped, then they are suddenly plunged into darkness. But you can hear the mice still coming and you hear someone at one stage saying `Where are all the mice going?', that pretty much sets you up. The next thing we do is deliver the special effect of the mice."

Disney may have spent a gargantuan pounds 10m on "Honey, I Shrunk the Audience" but according to Rick the oldest tricks can still be best. "One of the simplest techniques is just coloured Cellophane with light thrown on it to make a fire effect. It amazed me as a kid and it still works." Perhaps predictably for a Californian experience junkie, Rick lists his hobbies as sky diving and scuba diving. "Like the shows, scuba is also a very visceral experience, there are surprises, odd worlds, strange encounters. Mainly, though, my ideas just come from the notion of an unlimited opportunity to let your imagination go in any direction."

Rick was recruited to Disney in 1978 to work on designing the groundbreaking Epcot Center in Florida, but he had long had his eye on a job with the company. "Growing up in California in the Fifties I knew a lot of people who worked at Disney and I remember Disneyland opening. I was really captured by the mystique." When he joined, the design department was still known as Wed Enterprises (for Walter Elias Disney), the name change came in the Seventies but a continuity with the past remains in the shape of John Hench, a 91-year-old imagineer, one of Walt's original team, "He still works a good full day, five days a week," says Rick.

I was honoured to be allowed in the first test audience for "Honey I Shrunk the Audience", or "Cherie, J'ai Retreci le Public", as the French call it. And despite having contracted food poisoning from a visit to the Pirates of the Caribbean restaurant earlier in the day, I enjoyed it immensely.

Based on the hit films, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and Honey, I Blew Up the Baby (starring Rick Moranis as the inventor Wayne Szalinski), "Honey, I Shrunk the Audience" is essentially a fancy 3-D cinema show during which you remain seated at all times (contrary to the perhaps misleading billboard campaign which shows audience members running around with their arms flailing in excitement).

The film features the cast of the movie plus Eric Idle, as host of an Inventor of the Year ceremony which goes awry when Szalinski's shrinking machine is turned on the audience. If you don't want the surprises spoiled, skip the next paragraph.

For the rest of you I can exclusively reveal that you do indeed experience 999 mice scampering around your feet (as far as I could work out a neat trick involving compressed air and flexible plastic pipes) and feel the phlegm of a mongrel spray across your face (actually quite refreshing in my condition). The story is fairly slender and at times incoherent and poor old Eric Idle has seen better days, but there are some pleasantly alarming 3-D effects, including a lunging snake that made the entire audience shriek.

Doubtless Rick and Disney's 3,000 other imagineers are already working on a new, improved version of the show, while Rick's two children are showing signs of following in their father's footsteps. "My son is now the one saying, `Hey, I've got a great idea for a ride'." But wouldn't he prefer him to channel those ideas into more high-profile work, in the film industry perhaps? "I once worked out that one of my first shows, "American Adventure", has played to 120 million people. Even if it had been one of the most successful movies in the world it would only have played to 100 million or so"

`Honey, I Shrunk the Audience' is now open at Disneyland, Paris

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