In the United States, the fifties and sixties are decades fondly remembered by Baby Boomers who spent their childhood dazzled by the technological innovations happening around them, including the introduction and explosion of the drive-in theater. Current conditions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have led to a revival of that same drive-in theater experience.
Here’s why drive-in movies are seeing a resurgence in popularity, the coolest retro drive-ins you can visit across the country, and how to make the most of a drive-in experience.
Roots of the drive-in
Richard Hollingshead, the creator of the first drive-in theater in Camden, New Jersey, was a movie buff. The story goes that his mother disliked the traditional cinema experience because she couldn’t sit comfortably in theater seats, nor could she chat freely with her family and friends. Richard brainstormed the idea of screening a movie in their backyard. That night he mounted a 1928 Kodak projector on the hood of his car, pinned a white sheet across two trees, and he and his mother sat inside the car to monitor the projector and watch the film. Right then and there, the drive-in was born.
Nearly ten years later, over four thousand drive-in theaters across the country opened. The wild success of traditional drive-ins faded over the years, but its success is coming back in full swing.
Revival of the drive-in theater
Fast forward to 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic brought regulations that closed the doors on many indoor attractions to comply with social distancing policies. Strangely enough, the drive-in is no stranger to mitigating the spread of illness. The polio vaccine rollout included administering doses to families at the drive-in. And while COVID-19 vaccines aren’t being administered at drive-ins today, they are a perfect remedy for the cabin fever many are experiencing.
Socializing is an inherently human activity, whether it be with family or friends. The drive-in model has adapted quickly to meet the needs for social distancing. Last year, hundreds of pop-up drive-in movie theaters were created in the parking lots of shopping centers and restaurants, bringing in revenue when there seemed to be no hope of reopening their doors.
Retro locations to visit
There are over three hundred drive in theaters in the US today. Here are a few of the nostalgia-filled locations to consider visiting.
Admiral Twin Drive-In: Tulsa, Oklahoma
Open since: 1951
Fun fact: The Twin was a shooting location in the sixties movie “The Outsiders.” It’s a living film set!
Becky’s Drive-In: Walnutport, Pennsylvania
Open since: 1946
Fun fact: Becky’s has two screens, and it welcomes pets to join in your viewing experience.
Bengies Drive-In Theatre: Middle River, Maryland
Open since: 1956
Fun fact: Bengies has the largest drive-in screen in the entire United States.
Comanche Drive In: Buena Vista, Colorado
Open since: 1967
Fun fact: The Rocky Mountains are the backdrop of this gorgeously located drive-in.
Mission Tiki Drive-In Theatre: Montclair, California
Open since: 1956
Fun fact: This drive-in was remodeled to its beloved tiki theme shortly after Hawaii became a state in 1959.
Silver Lake Twin Drive In Theatre: Perry, New York
Open since: 1966
Fun fact: Silver Lake Twin not only shows great movies but also boasts an impressive mini golf course, an ice cream parlor, and a retro arcade on its property.
66 Drive-In Theatre: Carthage, Missouri
Open since: 1949
Fun fact: 66 Drive-In is one of the last standing along the iconic Route 66 highway.
99W Drive-In Theatre: Newberg, Oregon
Open since: 1953
Fun fact: 99W still screens vintage drive-in ads before movies, and frequently shows classic films.
Make the most of attending
The traditional park and radio tune-in model remains at most drive-ins, but there are plenty of ways to modernize your drive-in experience. Here are a few tips:
Use your smartphone
Most drive-ins now utilize mobile ticket ordering through a third-party app, such as Ticketmaster or Eventbrite, or allow tickets to be purchased directly through their website. If you can, add the ticket to your phone’s wallet, or simply print it, and have it ready to scan when you arrive. This contactless method is safe, quick, and guarantees your spot.
Pack your car accordingly
- Pack mess-free snacks and drinks, such as fruit and reusable water bottles, but be sure to check your theater’s food policy to make sure they allow outside food and drink. If you plan to purchase a meal at the drive-in, invest in car food trays to mitigate the potential mess.
- Bring a polaroid camera with a flash to capture the memories before and after the film in retro-style!
- Use a portable radio to preserve car battery—this is also a fun learning experience for those who haven’t used, or even seen, one before. If you don’t have one, you can find an inexpensive retro radio on Amazon for about $20.
- Pack plenty of blankets and pillows to keep warm and cozy, especially if you opt to turn your car off completely. If you’re bringing children, have them pack their favorite stuffed animal or toy to keep them occupied and comfortable.
Secure the best spot
- Arrive early, and, if you can, park near the middle of a row between the end and aisle spaces—this reduces the amount of foot traffic you’ll experience near your vehicle.
- Consider your car’s size—the size matters for how far forward or back you want to park. Taller cars, such as trucks and vans, should opt to park toward the back as a courtesy to other moviegoers. Shorter, compact cars can be closer to the front to reduce the chance of a blocked view.