If you’re tired of the endless hallways and stale popcorn at the mall theaters, strike out for the genuine quirk of drive-ins. With almost 400 remaining, you’ll likely face a shorter drive than you think.
These drive-ins are across the country. Although many remaining are in small towns, there are a significant number of suburban and even urban theaters – one in Dearborn, Michigan, 8 miles from downtown Detroit, and another just 13 miles from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Numbered among those in smaller towns are those in Globe, Arizona, and Gas, Kansas.
Not to mention screens near Copenhagen (Denmark) and in Ahmedabad (India). The appeal of the drive-in transcends national borders.
Family-focused programming predominates, but there’s plenty of variety; innovative programming and pulpy midnight movies are screened frequently. Regardless of the programming, you’ll often find vintage concessions ads or even more memorable vintage cautions against “public displays of affection.”
Some drive-ins have dispensed with cars altogether, or at least cars that are mobile.
What started as an adventure with the family automobile has become an outdoor movie experience – with or without a vehicle.
The Blue Starlite Drive-in in Austin, Texas, advertises as the “world’s first Mini Urban Drive-in.” Both it and the Electric Dusk Drive-In in Los Angeles, California, offer a limited number of car slots; they mainly sell walk-in tickets where family and friends take a blanket or lawn chair, along with an FM radio, to watch under the stars.
Today you still can enjoy your favorite flicks outdoors. The drive-ins haven’t completely disappeared, so check out one that’s alive and well. Or you might be able to stroll down to a local recreational park for a scheduled family movie on temporary, portable screens – often air-inflated pop-ups.
Find these organized community-based movie showings in parking lots, in stadiums, on beaches, alongside buildings – anywhere a group can gather. Take what you need – a picnic dinner, snacks, lawn chairs, and couches, even a portable picnic table.
Whether you go to a community gathering using a temporary screen or to one of the almost 400 remaining drive-in theaters, you can take a step back in time to savor the best of American traditions with your family and friends.
Top 10 Drive-Ins Today
Bengies Drive-In Theatre, Baltimore, Maryland
Find some genuine city charm at Bengies, which claims the largest screen on the east coast (and footnotes that claim!), not to mention a vintage 1956 snack bar.
Shankweiler’s Drive-In Theatre, Orefield, Pennsylvania
The oldest continually operated drive-in (since 1934), it has weathered not only the switch to digital but also a 1955 hurricane that leveled its projection booth. Shankweiler's is made of sterner stuff.
Coyote Drive-In, Fort Worth, Texas
This recent opening in Fort Worth offers double features every night and even hitching posts for patrons arriving on horseback from a nearby trail. It does seem to be unacceptable to remain on your horse through a screening.
Delsea Drive-In Theatre, Vineland, New Jersey
New Jersey’s only historic drive-in boasts modern, healthy fare; it indulges the past but preserves your health with veggie burgers.
Wellfleet Drive-In Theatre, Wellfleet, Massachusetts
If on Cape Cod, enjoy movies, ice cream, and mini-golf.
Blue Fox Drive-In Theater, Oak Harbor, Washington
This Pacific Northwest theater offers $1 admission for children up to age 10, cheap pricing for all others, and go-karts for all.
Swap Shop Drive-In, Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Come in the afternoon for the bounteous flea market and arcade, then settle in for a movie. Just make sure your purchases don’t block the screen.
Electric Dusk Drive-In, Los Angeles, California
See The Big Lebowski, Clueless, and Harold and Maude at this hip downtown L.A. pop-up theater.
Cherry Bowl Drive-In Theatre, Honor, Michigan
“Our Popcorn is Even Topped with Real Creamery Butter and Made in the Original 1953 Popper.” Also, the Cherry Bowl offers vintage cartoons and fresh caramel corn.
The Amusement Park Drive-In, Billings, Montana
Have you ever ridden a roller coaster around a drive-in? We didn’t think so.
Find a Drive-In Theater near you.
Ten Things We Remember About Drive-ins
One Asbury Park, New Jersey, drive-in offered space for 25 airplanes. That didn’t last long.
Sound and Heat
In an effort to extend the profitable season for drive-ins, some devised contraptions to deliver heat through window vents. They didn’t last long either.
A Swim to Freedom
One Plattsburgh, New York, drive-in was rumored to draw viewers from Quebec, who would swim to catch the theater’s racier fare.
A Supreme Disappointment
Richard Hollingshead took his court case to enforce his patent for the arrangement of the drive-in as far as the Supreme Court. It declined to hear the case, so a lower court decision against Hollingshead stood, and his patent was unenforceable.
Retro Ads Galore
Drive-ins birthed countless goofy concessions ads. YouTube® has a trove of them.
Admission by the Trunk
When movie distributors shifted from collecting a set fee for every print to collecting a portion of the gross, drive-ins largely shifted to per-car fees to maximize attendance. Sneaking someone in the trunk was a venerable practice.
The Sacred and the Profane
One California drive-in hosted notable California evangelical Robert Schuller’s services. Others screened pornography, although communities generally didn’t let that last long.
Some Stand Out
Pennsylvania holds the most drive-ins – 33. Ohio is a close second with 30.
Just about any account of drive-ins is full of tales about trips when patrons – especially younger ones – wore pajamas. Don’t just read about it; repeat the feat!
The New Meets the Old
Many theaters are holding Kickstarter campaigns to fund new projector acquisitions.
Anthony Paletta writes the “Spaces” column for The Wall Street Journal® and is a contributor to Metropolis, The Awl, The Daily Beast, and a variety of other publications.