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 states, and if there wasn’t one in your town, there surely was one in the next town over.
Today there are well less than 400 drive-ins. Some states don’t have any—and New Jersey has exactly the number it did the night Richard Hollingshead flipped the first outdoor projector switch in Camden in 1933.
The point is that, depending on where we live, watching a double feature under the stars is a rare treat for many of us. 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 go ahead and indulge yourself instead in this retro-cool pastime?
If you haven’t been to an outdoor theater in awhile, you might be surprised at how the industry has evolved. Instead of hanging a balky speaker on your window, you can now receive your movie’s audio streamed to your car’s sound system by tuning to a specified FM stereo frequency. And some drive-ins show multiple movies on multiple screens, just like indoor theaters.
Here are examples of some of the top drive-in movie theaters for vacationers—some of the best places to watch outdoor movies in popular vacation destinations.
Best Drive-In Movie Theaters
Cape Cod Drive-Ins
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 ambience 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 and snack bar. There’s a classic-style mini-golf course, featuring original obstacles preserved since 1961. And at the entrance, the air-conditioned Wellfleet Dairy Bar & Grill is open for lunch and dinner year round, serving pizzas, burgers, ice cream desserts and more—all of which you’re welcome to bring with you into 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 drive-in on Cape Cod.
Arizona Desert Drive-Ins
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 not far from downtown Phoenix has nine screens, all of which present double features nightly. 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 Reddenbacher popcorn. And there’s no doubt about which blockbusters are the biggest—they get special midnight show times.
In the daytime every weekend, the venue also is home to a large public market where bargain shoppers can find everything from fresh produce to clothing to small gifts and household goods.
South Florida Drive-Ins
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 multiplex in the world. It used to be considered the largest, but some screens were lost to Hurricane Wilma in 2005. Usually 13 are operational every night, presenting over 20 screenings of 10 first-run titles 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, during the day is home to a 2,000-vender flea market and farmer’s market—also the largest in the world. There’s also amusement rides, arcades, and other entertainment diversions. 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’s.
Wisconsin Dells Drive-Ins
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.
Las Vegas Drive-Ins
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 planning and preparation 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 as well.
• Bring jumper cables, just 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 theatre to ask whether it offers its customers complimentary use of car-jumping devices. Some do.
• If your model has headlights that remain on when the car is in battery mode, familiarize yourself before leaving for the theatre 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.
But once you’ve taken those steps, go enjoy an outdoor movie or two. Treat the kids to an exciting experience that may be entirely new to them. Maybe go necking with your special someone, like you used to in the old days. Or just go enjoy that blockbuster you’d otherwise have to miss.
Drive-in theaters aren’t everyday treats for everyone. They represent a swatch 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.