In summer 1955, drive-in theaters were close their peak in popularity in the United States. There were almost 4,000, they were in all 48 continental states, and if there wasn’t one in your town, there surely was one in the next town over. Today, however, there are less than 400 drive-ins across the country.
Depending on where you live, watching a double feature under the stars may be a rare treat. So if there happens to be a drive-in reasonably close to where you’re vacationing, and you’ve built into your plans a slow night of TV, video games or reading at your hotel or resort, then why not indulge yourself and enjoy this retro-cool pastime?
Here are some of the top drive-in movie theaters for vacationers—and some of the best places to watch outdoor movies near popular Bluegreen destinations.
Wellfleet Drive-In Theatre
51 U.S. 6, Wellfleet, MA 02663 | 508.349.7176
This is no multiplex. The sound is Dolby Digital and the projection system was updated in 2013 but the overall ambiance is as nostalgic as intended harkening to 1957, the year it opened. This single-screen theater offers nightly double features during the traditional “summer” season. There’s a playground, snack bar and a classic-style mini-golf course featuring original obstacles from 1961. And at the entrance, the air-conditioned Wellfleet Dairy Bar & Grill serves lunch and dinner year round, offering pizzas, burgers, ice cream and more—which you’re welcome to enjoy in the drive-in.
The property also is home to a four-screen indoor theater and a popular flea market. It’s one of the best New England drive-ins and the only one on Cape Cod.
West Wind Glendale Drive-In and Public Market
5650 N. 55th Ave. at Bethany Home Road, Phoenix, AZ 85301 | 623.939.9715
This suburban drive-in multiplex near downtown Phoenix has nine screens, all of which present nightly double features. It’s popular among locals and gets good grades for cleanliness. Children can enjoy themselves before or between the movies at the arcade or playground. The snack bar is first rate, too, serving Nathan’s all-beef hot dogs and Orville Redenbacher popcorn. And there’s no doubt about which blockbusters are the biggest—they get special midnight showings.
In the daytime every weekend, the venue also is home to a large public market where bargain hunters can find everything from fresh produce, to clothing, to small gifts and household goods.
Swap Shop Drive-In
3295 W. Sunrise Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, FL 33311 | 954.583.7733
The Swap Shop Drive-In, alternately known as the Thunderbird Drive-In, is a 14-screen multiplex, one of the largest outdoor movie multiplexes in the world. It had been the largest, but some screens were lost to Hurricane Wilma in 2005. Usually 13 are operational every night, presenting over 20 showings of ten first-run films that change weekly. Cars are free to roam from screen to screen on a single admission and aren’t locked into any specific paired double feature.
Just west of Interstate 95, west of downtown Fort Lauderdale and northwest of Miami, it’s part of an 88-acre venue which is also the daytime site of a 2,000-vender flea market and farmer’s market—also the largest in the world. There are amusement rides, arcades and other entertainment diversions, too. It’s perfect for a warm summer night but if you’re vacationing at any other time, no worries: this South Florida outdoor theater is open daily, including Christmas and New Year.
Big Sky Drive-In
N9174 Winnebago Road, Wisconsin Dells, WI 53965 | 608.254.8025
Big Sky Drive-In is the perfect way to wind down after a busy day of family sightseeing in Wisconsin Dells. The theater, open early May through late September, has two screens, each presenting a double feature of first-run films. There’s an inexpensive snack bar, but you’re also invited to be your own food and snacks as long as you don’t cook with heat on the premises. Big Sky, the only outdoor theater in Wisconsin Dells, is committed to films suitable for family viewing and is conveniently located on the outskirts of town.
West Wind Las Vegas 6 Drive-In
4158 Smoke Ranch Road, Las Vegas, NV 89030 | 702.358.6920
Owned by the same company as the suburban Phoenix drive-in (which also owns another Nevada location in Reno and California locations in Concord, Sacramento, San Jose and Santa Barbara), the Las Vegas outdoor theater has six screens and shows nightly double features on each. There’s no public market like at Glendale, but the theater amenities are identical—including excellent snack bar, amusements for children, and special show times for the biggest movies.
Before You Go to Drive-In Movie Theaters
Here are a few tips for making your movie-going experience as pleasant as possible from start to finish:
- Pack blankets in case the weather turns chilly, which is possible in some locales even during the summer.
- Pack folding chairs and bug spray. If the weather’s nice, you might want to watch the movies outside your car. If you’re in an arid destination like Phoenix or Las Vegas, bring a small battery fan and a mister, too.
- Bring jumper cables, in case switching your car to accessory mode to access your radio weakens its battery. If no cables are available to you on vacation, call the theater to ask whether it offers its customers complimentary use of car-jumping devices. Some do.
- If your car has headlights that remain on when in battery mode, familiarize yourself before leaving for the theater with how to turn them off.
- Bring a small flashlight or a phone with a flashlight app to help you find your way to the snack bar or restroom without interfering with others’ enjoyment.
- Make sure you’re equipped with a reliable GPS. Also, don’t venture too far—no more than 25 miles, and less if your route includes mountain curves or otherwise poorly lit roads. Be mindful you’ll be making the return drive late, maybe fatigued, and on roads that may be unfamiliar to you.
Drive-in theaters aren’t everyday treats for everyone. They represent a piece of Americana. For those reasons—plus the fact that they’re just flat-out fun—try working a visit into your next vacation if you can. Huddle up with your family, cuddle up with your sweetie, or both.
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