Palmerston North office workers ducked under desks, music equipment rocked on shelves, and moviegoers got some additional special effects during the massive shake.
People were in various theatres at Downtown Cinemas when the 6.2-magnitude quake hit yesterday.
Malcolm Hopwood was enjoying the second Hobbit film, The Desolation of Smaug, when the floor began to move.
"The dragon was creating its own earthquake as it chased Bilbo.
"Suddenly a stereophonic roar sounded through the cinema followed by an ongoing massive shake.
"I thought to myself, ‘Sir Peter, you've surpassed yourself this time'."
People soon ran for the exits, he said.
"Sadly, I missed the final half hour of the movie so I'll have to return to find out whether Bilbo survived and found the stone."
Michael van Echten was looking after some children while they watched Frozen.
He said people acted like they had no idea what to do in an earthquake.
"All the kids just started crying, people were panicking and people were charging right out."
He was immediately on the phone to his family, and was not thinking about heading back for a refund or the rest of the film.
"I'm just gonna go home."
Customer security guard at Downtown Shopping Mall Russell Jones was one of the first to evacuate.
"I was in the kiosk on the second floor watching all the TVs and I thought, ‘bugger the screens, I'm outta here'. All the people in the mall, in the theatre, they left pretty quick and I think a lot of them headed to The Empire [hotel]."
Palmerston North Rockshop employee Michael Tilley said none of the instruments on the walls - including guitars worth thousands of dollars - were damaged.
However, he did have to dodge some flying guitar strings.
The products were also flying at supermarkets across Manawatu.
Feilding and Pioneer New Worlds closed temporarily to clean up broken goods.
Feilding checkout supervisor Renee Carter said people screamed and panicked.
"One lady just dropped her milk and ran."
Store owner Todd Carter said he was pleased with how staff handled the situation and rallied around to make sure customers were OK and were helped out of the store.
At Pioneer New World, Palmerston North, a staff member said there had been products broken on almost every aisle apart from the alcohol section.
There was also reports of a few spills at Melody's New World and Pak'n Save in Palmerston North.
Most office workers in the city not lucky enough to have Wellington Anniversary Day off immediately evacuated buildings and went to The Square.
Melanie Iosefa, who was in the NZI building on The Square during the shake, said plaster fell from the ceiling onto a desk. The 15 to 20 workers in the building had to duck for cover on the floor, she said.
Tourists Tammy Kuo and Toby Newman were waiting by the i-Site building and said the electric sign was "seriously swaying".
It was Mr Newman's first ever earthquake and he said it was quite exciting.
The earthquake also caused changes to the natural environment as far away as Himatangi Beach.
Palmerston North man Neil Hansen was with his family at the beach when he saw the unusual effect the quake had on the sand dunes.
"All the sand was just pouring down the dunes because it was getting shaken so much."
Donna Olsen was standing in the Manawatu River at the end of Karere Rd, where her husband was fishing, when the quake struck.
"The river turned brown and there were these little eruptions along the shore."
The river was clear enough to see fish before the quake but was a murky brown after it, she said.
"It was like an underwater mushroom cloud. It was really weird."
The quake also had an effect on nearby shingle piles, Mrs Olsen said.
"I could hear the rumble, and then I could see the dust coming up from the shingle."
- Manawatu Standard
Will the bus shelter walkway planned for The Square be ready by the end of June?Related story: Covered walkway for Palmerston North bus users by winter