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What is a Drive-In Theater?

A drive-in theater is a nostalgic cinema experience where you watch movies from the comfort of your car, under the stars. It combines the magic of the big screen with a communal, yet intimate atmosphere. Imagine the silver screen illuminating the night as families and friends gather in a shared moment of entertainment. What memories might a night at the drive-in create for you?
S. Gonzales
S. Gonzales

A drive-in theater is a type of a movie theater that is located outdoors. Moviegoers are meant to drive into the theater and park their cars in front of a large screen that displays the movie. A drive-in theater typically contains a large screen, a designated parking area, a projection booth and a concession stand.

Though many drive-in theaters include the above attributes, variations can exist between theaters. For example, the outdoor screen can be either a large wall painted white or a structure specially built to display the movie. Similarly, the sound from a movie can be produced by loud communal speakers, produced by small individual speakers placed inside the car or transmitted into the car over the radio. The latter is the cheaper and most popular means for moviegoers to receive the movie's sound.

Some drive-in theaters also feature playgrounds for children.
Some drive-in theaters also feature playgrounds for children.

A drive-in theater also can boast special attractions. Playgrounds for children might be offered so that kids are allowed to enjoy themselves while parents watch films. Merry-go-rounds, miniature railroads and mini golf courses also can be included within a drive-in theater for added decor or as another type of attraction. It wasn't unusual for some drive-in theaters to include an attraction such as a petting zoo with exotic animals.

Some drive-in theaters have merry-go-rounds.
Some drive-in theaters have merry-go-rounds.

Drive-in theaters operate with the idea that moviegoers will remain seated in their cars for the majority of the film's run time, but many theaters give patrons an alternative. Some offer lawn chairs and patios. Others might treat their concession stand like a restaurant, providing indoor seating for those who prefer to sit down at a table and eat.

The benefits of visiting a drive-in theater are many. Moviegoers are able to watch a movie comfortably within their own vehicles and are afforded privacy while doing so. This will reduce intrusion, so it can result in a more pleasurable viewing experience. One potential drawback of attending a drive-in theater is that the movies are best visited at night, because the screen is exposed to light from the sun, which can make viewing difficult during the day.

Drive-in theaters saw their heyday in the 1950s and early 1960s. The rise of land values, increased business costs and the advent of the television and videocassette recorder (VCR) made drive-in theaters difficult for many owners to continue operating. Many of those that remain open in the 21st century are marketed as novelties.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a drive-in theater and how does it work?

A drive-in theater is an outdoor movie venue where patrons can watch films from the comfort of their own vehicles. It typically consists of a large outdoor screen, a projection booth, a concession stand, and a parking area for cars. Moviegoers tune their car's radio to a specific frequency to hear the film's audio, or they use portable radio receivers provided by the venue. This unique experience combines the privacy of one's car with the communal feel of a traditional movie theater.

When did drive-in theaters become popular, and are they still in operation today?

Drive-in theaters reached peak popularity in the 1950s and 1960s in the United States, with over 4,000 locations at their height. According to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association, as of 2021, there were about 305 drive-in theaters remaining in the United States. While they have experienced a decline, drive-ins have seen a resurgence in interest due to their ability to offer entertainment while adhering to social distancing guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic.

What are the benefits of going to a drive-in theater compared to a traditional cinema?

Drive-in theaters offer several benefits over traditional cinemas, including the privacy and comfort of watching a movie in your own vehicle, the convenience of bringing your own snacks and meals, and the nostalgic charm of a bygone era. They are also family-friendly and pet-friendly, allowing for a more relaxed atmosphere. Additionally, drive-ins often provide a double feature for the price of one, making it a cost-effective entertainment option.

Can you watch new movie releases at drive-in theaters?

Yes, many drive-in theaters screen new movie releases alongside classic films. The availability of new releases at drive-in theaters depends on the agreements between theater operators and film distributors. With the changing landscape of movie distribution, some drive-ins have been able to secure first-run films, offering an alternative to indoor cinemas for watching the latest blockbusters.

What should I bring to a drive-in theater for the best experience?

For the best drive-in theater experience, consider bringing comfortable seating like lawn chairs or blankets if you prefer to sit outside your car. Pack snacks and drinks, although supporting the venue's concession stand is encouraged. A portable radio with fresh batteries ensures you won't drain your car's battery. Also, bring bug repellent for evening showings and dress appropriately for the weather. Lastly, arrive early to secure a good viewing spot and enjoy the pre-show atmosphere.

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Discussion Comments


We still have one drive-in theater in our area, but there used to be four or five back in the 1950s and 1960s. I remember attendance dropping way off during the 1970s, so the drive-in theater managers started showing triple features of either low budget horror movies or hardcore pornography. Some of us would find locations around the perimeter of the theater and watch the movies for free. This is probaby another reason why most drive-ins closed down by the 1980s.

I think with the advent of good 3D technology and surround sound, there's really no advantage with drive-in theater other than privacy. Movies today are mostly designed with indoor theaters in mind, with speakers placed strategically around the auditorium and the screen focused precisely. A drive-in theater can only use a car's stereo radio system for sound and the projection system isn't always the best. I like the idea of a drive-in theater for nostalgia's sake, but I don't think it's the best way to watch a modern movie.

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    • Some drive-in theaters also feature playgrounds for children.
      By: Ivonne Wierink
      Some drive-in theaters also feature playgrounds for children.
    • Some drive-in theaters have merry-go-rounds.
      By: EvanTravels
      Some drive-in theaters have merry-go-rounds.