The Comeback Of Drive-In Movie Theaters: History And The Most Unique Ones Still Open Today

Spending an evening at the movie theater has been a popular pastime for decades. The first drive-in opened in the early 1930s and more started to pop up after World War II. They were a great alternative to traditional theaters because families could go without worrying if their kids were going to be disruptive. Also, the tickets were usually sold per car, so it was a cheaper solution for bigger groups. Today, many people are avoiding large gatherings in enclosed spaces, so drive-in movie theaters have started to make a comeback. Take a look into the history of these theaters and learn about some unique ones you can visit today.

The First Drive-In Movie Theater

old 30s cars sitting in a drive-in movie theater with a black and white movie on the screen
ullstein bild via Getty Images
ullstein bild via Getty Images

The very first drive-in movie theater opened on June 6, 1933, in Camden, New Jersey. Ticket prices were 25 cents and the marquee sign read, “Drive-In Theatre – World’s First Sit In Your Car – See and Hear Movies.” Pretty soon an abundance of drive-ins started to pop up across the United States.

Drive-ins were started by a movie fan and auto salesman named Richard Hollingshead who got the idea after seeing his mother struggling to sit comfortably in a theater. Most drive-ins showed B-movies, which were films not considered good enough to show in theaters.

Who You’d Expect To See At The Drive-In

a 50s couple sitting in a convertible
Earl Leaf/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Earl Leaf/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

There were two primary audiences who attended drive-in movie theaters from the beginning to the mid-’60s. Families would go for the convenience and cheaper prices. Teenagers would go there on dates to seek privacy. Guests could also order food and drinks to come right up to their car.

The youth drive-in scene has been shown in numerous movies and TV shows such as Grease, The Brady Bunch, The Outsiders, and American Graffiti. By the late ’60s, the popularity of drive-ins started to decrease due to the change from film to digital projections, new movie viewing technology, and the cost of land.

How Drive-Ins Have Shifted Over The Years

a drive-in movie theater showing Joker
David Ramos/Getty Images
David Ramos/Getty Images

In the ’70s, many families couldn’t afford to go to the drive-in movie theater anymore because of the oil crisis. This caused a dramatic shift as drive-ins started to become edgier and played a great deal of R-rated content, especially within the horror genre.

The majority of drive-ins have since closed, with only about 350 remaining across the United States. They make up about one and a half percent of the movie theaters in the country. In recent months, though, drive-in movie theaters have made a comeback and there are plenty of them that are worth the trip.

Fort Lauderdale’s Swap Shop & Drive-In Offers Some Unique Flair

the front of a swap shop with a large sign with prices and a ticket booth
Yardie Belly TV/YouTube
Yardie Belly TV/YouTube

One of the most unique American drive-ins is at Florida’s Fort Lauderdale Swap Shop. It opened in 1963 as the Thunderbird Drive-In Theater and mainly showed adult movies. Since it was in the South, the parking lot used to be divided into two sections for white and African American viewers.

A few years later, the owners decided to open a flea market during the day when the theater wasn’t in use. It is now the largest drive-in in the country with 14 screens, a food court, a circus stage, and more. About 12 million people visit every year.

Doc’s Drive-In Theatre Offers Some Luxury Amenities

doc's drive-in theatre sign with two screens on each side
Doc’s Drive-In Theatre/Facebook
Doc’s Drive-In Theatre/Facebook

It’s rare to see new drive-ins open across the country, but quite a few have been popping up in recent years. Doc’s Drive-In Theatre opened in 2018 in Buda, Texas, just outside of Austin’s city limits. In order to keep up with luxury movie theaters, the owners added plenty of amenities to keep guests coming back.

They have tiny houses available for those who want to stay overnight. There’s an on-site diner that will bring food to your car, and Doc’s even has a private beach with a swimming hole. Also, their calendar is filled with fun events for the whole family.

Raleigh Road Outdoor Theatre Has Been Bringing Families Together For Years

cars parked in front of an outdoor screen during the day
Raleigh Road Outdoor Theatre/Facebook
Raleigh Road Outdoor Theatre/Facebook

There aren’t too many drive-ins that can guarantee a family-friendly experience at all times. The Raleigh Road Outdoor Theatre in North Carolina pledges to do just that. They are one of the six last operating drive-ins in the state and are committed to showing quality family entertainment.

Since the theater is aimed at families, it hosts plenty of organized events that cater to all ages. They also have a large concession menu with mouth-watering items such as funnel cake fries, mac & cheese bites, and Oreo churros.

Why Harvest Moon Twin Drive-In Theatre Is A One-Of-A-Kind

a drive-in at sunset with a heart on screen
Harvest Moon Twin Drive-In Theatre
Harvest Moon Twin Drive-In Theatre

Something truly special about the Harvest Moon Twin Drive-In Theatre in Gibson City, Illinois, is that it is the first and only drive-in movie theater to be completely powered by wind. This makes it the greenest and most environmentally friendly drive-in on the planet.

Although Harvest Moon charges an extra five dollars for guests to bring in outside food, they donate 20 percent of their profits to St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. Some of their annual events include a kids’ carnival, car shows, ’80s flashback weekend, and Frightfest. They also have dog paths, so patrons can walk their pets as needed throughout the movie.

You’ll Never Be Bored At The Wellfleet Drive-In Theatre

a sign for the wellfleet drive-in that says Be Well Love and best wishes to our community
Wellfleet Drive-In and Cinemas/Facebook
Wellfleet Drive-In and Cinemas/Facebook

The Wellfleet Drive-In Theatre in the Cape Cod area of Massachusetts opened in 1957 and the very first movie they showed was Desk Set starring Katharine Hepburn. Four years later they added a miniature golf course because it was a popular spot for families, teens, and tourists.

In 1974, Wellfleet opened a flea market where people from all parts of the world would come to buy antiques, jewelry, handmade crafts, and more. Ice cream fanatics should also go to their dairy bar complete with soft serve and hard ice cream.

Find A Giant Potato At The Spud Drive-In Theater

the back of a drive-in with a red truck holding a giant potato
The Spud DriveIn/Facebook
The Spud DriveIn/Facebook

One of Idaho’s biggest symbols is the potato. The state is the potato capital of America, so it makes sense that The Spud Drive-In Theater in Driggs, Idaho, has such a fitting name. They love potatoes so much that they even have a red pick-up truck holding a giant potato parked next to the screen.

The Spud has been in operation for 67 years and even offers overnight accommodations. It’s hard not to notice the nighttime view. There is a panoramic view of the Big Hole mountain range and the bright stars that fill the sky.

Everyone Gets A Good View At Bengies Drive-In Theatre

bengies drive-in at sunset with lots of parked cars
The Bengies Drive-in Theatre/Facebook
The Bengies Drive-in Theatre/Facebook

Bengies Drive-In Theatre in Middle River, Maryland, takes pride in having the largest movie screen in the United States. It measures at 6,240 square feet and never crops the projection like some other movie screens. Since it’s near the Washington D.C. area, it always plays the National Anthem before every screening.

Kids might have fun at the playground that’s located right under the screen. Bengies also likes to talk with guests during intermission because they value the movie-going community. Ever since its opening on June 6, 1956, the theatre has played vintage cartoons during movie breaks to entice people to go to the concession stand.

Watch A Movie From Your Bed At The Fairlee Motel & Drive-In

an aerial view of a grass field
Fairlee Drive-In/Facebook
Fairlee Drive-In/Facebook

Vermont’s Fairlee Drive-In Theater is a bit different than the rest. This is also a motel that offers overnight stays, so guests can watch the movie from their rooms. They even put speakers in the rooms, so guests don’t need to borrow a radio.

They wouldn’t be a classic American drive-in without an old-fashioned concession stand. Fairlee has been serving the same food since its opening in 1950, which includes several varieties of ice cream, popcorn, hotdogs, mozzarella sticks, and more. Even though the town has fewer than a thousand residents, the theater manages to bring in people from all over.

Smell The Ocean Air At The South Bay Drive-In

a red car parked in front of a drive-in screen
Keith A./Yelp
Keith A./Yelp

Those who love the beach might want want to head to the South Bay Drive-In Theatre in San Diego, California. It’s so close to the beach that guests can often smell the ocean breeze as they watch the films. They’ve been in operation since 1958 and upgraded to three screens in 1974.

Guests who visit during the day can check out their tri-weekly swap meet, which is open every Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. Their snack bar is complete with some classic San Diego cuisine such as tacos and chips and guacamole.

Cinephiles Can Spend Hours At The Mahoning Drive-In Theater

a mahoning drive-in sign showing sold out movies
The Mahoning Drive-In Theater/Facebook
The Mahoning Drive-In Theater/Facebook

Those looking to see a newly-released movie won’t find it at The Mahoning Drive-In Theater in Lehighton, Pennsylvania. Instead, they prefer to do weekend-long festivals that can include anything from zombie movies, cult classics, or films they think didn’t deserve enough attention when they were initially released.

Each film is shown on the same 35-millimeter film that was used for movie projections during the mid-20th century. The very first movie they showed in the summer of 1949 was April Showers, starring Jack Carson and Ann Sothern.

Northfield Drive-In Was Used As A Movie Location

a grass field during sunset
Northfield Drive-In/Facebook
Northfield Drive-In/Facebook

The beautiful landscape of the Northfield Drive-In in Hinsdale, New Hampshire made it the perfect shooting location for some of the scenes in The Cider House Rules. It’s been in operation since August of 1948 and promises “laughter, smiles, and clean wholesome family fun.”

It’s now a family-run business where the owners have their son and daughter helping out at the ticket booth and snack bar almost every summer night. Their snack bar offers a wide array of tasty options such as juicy chicken tenders, hot and delicious spring rolls, and fantastic fried dough.

How The Community Contributes To The Greenville Drive-In

a neon sign that reads drive in theatre
Greenville Drive-In Outdoor Cinema/Facebook
Greenville Drive-In Outdoor Cinema/Facebook

The best way to describe the experience at the Greenville Drive-In in the Catskills of New York is “cinema with a twist.” It was founded in 1959 and has been a staple in the area for decades. The owners believe in their local community, so everything for purchase comes from them.

Most of the films shown at the drive-in are hits from the ’80s and ’90s, but the theater also likes to partner with up-and-coming filmmakers to provide a space for them to show and discuss their work. There’s also an outdoor stage for local musicians to perform before screenings.

The Malco Summer Drive-In Hasn’t Changed In Years

a malco summer drive in sign with a yellow car and colorful sculptures
Tyra Jackson/Twitter
Tyra Jackson/Twitter

Malco Summer Drive-In started as part of a movie theater chain from 1915 in Memphis, Tennessee. It’s been over a century and the drive-in has managed to keep the retro vibe for its modern customers. This theater comes complete with four screens and is a summer family tradition for members of the community.

The adult ticket prices are affordable and parents can take children under 10 for free. The snack bar is fully-stocked with fresh movie goodies such as popcorn, pizza, burgers, nachos, candy, ice cream, and soft drinks.

A Certain Celebrity Loves The Blue Fox Drive-In Theater

a sign for the blue fox drive-in next to a go-kart track
Blue Fox Drive-in Theater/Facebook
Blue Fox Drive-in Theater/Facebook

The Blue Fox Drive-In Theater in Oak Harbor, Washington, is a paradise for young people. Not only do they show brand-new releases, but they also have a Go-Kart track and plenty of arcade games. There are tons of options at the concession stand including Philly cheesesteaks, giant cups of soda, over 50 kinds of candy, and even gluten-free choices.

Actor Danny DeVito stopped by to enjoy their facilities during the filming of War of the Roses in 1989. He spent a couple of hours there and shook hands with many go-kart riders!

Shankweiler’s Drive-In Theatre Has A Lot Of History

the back side of a movie screen with a Shankweiler's neon sign
Tim C./Yelp
Tim C./Yelp

Shankweiler’s Drive-In Theatre is America’s oldest drive-in that’s still in operation. It was the second in history to open in the United States, on April 15, 1934 in Oreville, Pennsylvania. They were also the first drive-in to offer sound through FM radio stations.

The theater was finally converted to digital picture and sound in 2013 and it was recently put on the market because the owners were ready to retire. They show both current and classic movies and will do themed double features such as back-to-back Disney animated films.

Why You Might Recognize The Admiral Twin Drive-In

a boy walking past a drive-in screen
Zoetrope Studios
Zoetrope Studios

Tulsa, Oklahoma has been home to the Admiral Twin Drive-In since 1951. It can be found right off America’s Route 66 and it was also a shooting location for Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders. Fans of the movie make trips to the drive-in every year to see it in person.

Their original wood screens were burned in a 2010 fire, but they were able to replace them with steel screens a couple of years later. They do not allow outside food because the majority of drive-ins rely on food sales to keep the theaters running.

Mesa Drive-In Keeps Things Old School

a neon sign for mesa drive in
Chuck D./Yelp
Chuck D./Yelp

Mesa Drive-In Theater in Pueblo, Colorado was established in 1951 and has kept things “old school” ever since. They offer new blockbuster films at an affordable price for the whole family to enjoy. Guests can order their food from the concession stand before they get to the theater, so it’ll be hot and ready before the movie starts.

Families looking to save some cash will appreciate that every adult can bring up to four kids for free. It also sits on the backdrop of the Colorado mountains, so moviegoers can get an up-close view of the picturesque sunset.