Since 1933, long before social distancing became a household term, drive-in cinemas turned the automobile into a private theater box, allowing moviegoers to chat, slurp out the last few drops of soda or even check their phones without disturbing anyone else. Now, as Americans try to carve out a new way of life, the drive-in theater, which had been nearly wiped away have become popular once again.
In the heyday of the drive-in, there were more than 4000 across the USA. In 2019, there were fewer than 400, but their value, nostalgia factor and family-friendly vibe (it’s OK if your toddler can’t sit still for three hours, and you can usually bring your pet) continue to draw crowds. Here are some of the best drive-ins in the States, all guaranteed to offer a night to remember under the stars.
1. Big Sky Drive-in
Wisconsin Dells is best known for its water parks, but Big Sky Drive-in on Route 16 is a worthy addition to the lineup of local attractions – it’s open daily from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Their homemade sloppy joes are a unique and delicious concession offering. This drive-in is cash only, so be sure to bring enough to cover admission ($8 adults, $5 kids aged two and up) and food with you.
2. Stardust Drive-in
Middle Tennessee residents love this theater in sleepy Watertown, which is an easy drive from Nashville. Dual double features show nightly during the summer on the two screens, and the concession stand can’t be beat. Come early and spend the afternoon browsing the shops in Watertown’s small but lovely square, or visit on Labor Day weekend for a themed triple feature.
3. Hull’s Drive-in
Many drive-ins are family-owned, but Hull’s is the only community-owned drive-in in the USA. Run by volunteers called “Hull’s Angels,” the theater is open from March to October and is an entertainment highlight of the quirky Shenandoah Valley. Old-fashioned speakers on poles still mark each spot, although you can also listen to the films via your own FM radio.
4. Finger Lakes Drive-in
The oldest drive-in in New York state, located near Auburn, has been entertaining Finger Lakes-area residents since 1947. A charming retro marquee sign welcomes visitors to the single screen, which plays double features nightly during the summer. Concession stand prices start at $2.
5. 66 Drive-in
One of the few drive-ins remaining on the US’s storied Route 66, the 66 Drive-In in Carthage, Missouri, is open from April to September. This theater is even more child-friendly than most drive-ins: children under six are free, and they only book family-friendly double features.
6. Coyote Drive-in
It’s rare for a drive-in to be within the city limits – that’s just one of the standout features of Coyote Drive-in in Fort Worth, Texas. In addition to showing double features on four separate screens, the venue also hosts special events and has a full canteen-style menu that includes wine and beer. It also has one of the lowest admission prices: just $6 for adults and $5 for children aged five and up.
7. 99W Drive-in
Just outside of Portland in Newberg, this family-run drive-in has drawn crowds for 65 years – watch for the vintage concession reel that plays between the double feature. Even though 300 cars can fit in front of the single screen, shows at 99W frequently sell out during the season, especially at the height of summer. Pro tip: go on Sunday night for a smaller crowd.
8. Silver Moon Drive-in
This double-screen drive-in has been operating for more than 70 years, and it’s conveniently located about halfway between Tampa and Orlando in Lakeland, Florida. The snack bar here features homemade pizza and Budweiser beer, and if you’re going on a Saturday or Sunday night, don’t miss the flea market that fills the theater venue during the day.
9. Highway 21 Drive-in
The balmy, humid summer nights in the Lowcountry might be the perfect drive-in theater weather. Highway 21 Drive-in in Beaufort, South Carolina, is open weekends year-round, showing double features on its two screens. The concession stand serves up root beer floats, funnel cakes and sno-cones in addition to the usual pizza/hot dog fare, and the theater shows the occasional repertory film as well as new releases.
If you’re looking for drive-in bragging rights, go to Bengie’s in Maryland, which boasts the biggest drive-in screen in the USA. About 30 minutes from Baltimore, this theater is tucked in a quiet spot near the shore, not far from Dundee Creek (tie in your movie night with a visit to Marshy Point Nature Center). Currently, Bengie's has not been permitted to re-open due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Drive-in theater tips & etiquette
First time going to a drive-in? While individual rules vary, these tips will help you make the most out of your experience.
- Visit the website beforehand. There are lots of new rules and regulations that impact parking, concessions stands, etc.
- Obey all social distancing rules. Keep close to your car. Avoid going to the restroom in large groups.
- Know how to turn off your lights. It may seem obvious, but with today’s cars and their automatic headlights, it isn’t always.
- Check the opening and start times. Most drive-in theaters start the show at sunset, a time that varies throughout the year. Gates usually open earlier for those who care about getting the very best spot.
- Don’t bring outside food or drink. Like regular movie theaters, drive-ins make most of their money from concessions. Unlike regular movie theaters, concessions at drive-ins are usually reasonably priced, so there’s no reason not to indulge in buttery popcorn or classic candies like Mike N Ikes or Junior Mints. Many theaters allow you to buy a permit if you’re bringing your own food in; be honest.
- Movies are shown rain or shine. Unless lightning makes it dangerous to be outdoors, you won’t get a refund if it starts raining.
- Bring a battery-powered radio (or jumper cables). Leaving your car in accessory mode for hours to run the heat or the radio can have consequences. Most drive-ins have jump boxes but it’ll be faster if you don’t have to wait for it to come around – and if you bring a battery-powered radio, you won’t need it at all.
- Don’t forget cash. Many drive-ins are family-run operations and some don’t take credit cards or have minimums or surcharges for using credit. Best to be safe and bring dollars.
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This article was originally published in May 2019 and updated in May 2020.