Old-School or Pandemic-Perfect? 6 Tips for Giving Drive-Ins a Try

happy young family in the back of their car at a drive in theater at sunset

As a big movie fan, one of the hardest parts of lockdown for me has been the closure of movie theaters and delay of opening dates for new movies. Well okay, quite a lot of things have been harder, but I am pretty bummed out about the movies. I’ve been spending a LOT of time watching trailers, reading film journalism and watching for the next delay of Christopher Nolan’s new movie (which he insists will be the first one back in theaters), so you could definitely say that it’s on my mind.

Meanwhile, I’m also bummed about the cancellation of local events in my area. I moved to a new city in November, and ever since I got here everyone has told me how much fun the annual Independence Day parade, concert series in the park, and other local events all are--that is, until they were all cancelled, and folks started telling me how fun they would have been. 

I miss coming together with my community, picnicking at a show and just plain having places to go in the evening...which makes it seem very silly that it took until last week to find my perfect solution: drive-in movie theaters.

drive in movie theater at dusk

While in college I went to a local drive-in theater once per year, and always loved it. We backed in our SUV, lifted the hatch, and snuggled into a blanket nest in the trunk of the vehicle. I think at the time it felt like it was the last drive-in in the world, straight out of a period teen romance film.

However, there are approximately 300 permanent drive-in movie theaters operating in the United States, and in this time of COVID--with theaters closed and nowhere to go in the evening--this pandemic-ready pastime is making a comeback. Pop-up drive-ins are showing up in Los Angeles, Phoenix, New Jersey, and hundreds of big parking lots nationwide. Walmart alone will be running pop-ups at 160 locations.

Each theater typically shows a double feature of either classic movies (Jurassic Park!) or new releases, and the first movie begins just after dusk. Usually, patrons have the options of watching from the seats in their car, from the trunk, or from a picnic set-up in front of their car, though some theaters may limit those options to keep folks safe.

A quick Google search confirmed that I had quite a few drive-in options to pick from in the Seattle area, and before long I was sitting in the back of my SUV, watching Inside Out on the big screen (I left before the second film). It felt incredible to be out of the house, around people, and safe in my own space.

Thinking about giving drive-ins a try? I have a few tips to help you make the most of your evening!

  1. Do separate Google searches for permanent drive-ins and pop-ups in your area. One search probably won’t turn up all the options you have, and being thorough might mean that you halve your drive time or wind up at a movie you like better.
  2. Call ahead to ask about COVID-related restrictions and prepare accordingly. Some theaters have fewer tickets because they’re operating at half capacity, some are requiring pre-purchase of tickets or concessions to reduce contact and some are not allowing pets or picnicking. Every theater is unique, so it’s good to check in.
  3. While on the phone, ask how early they recommend arriving to get a good spot. Every parking space could be awesome, but some are less likely to have a truck parked right in front of them!
  4. If you do plan on arriving early, bring cards, board games or other activities to keep the kids (and yourself) entertained while you wait. Many drive-ins have playgrounds for this purpose, but those are likely closed right now.
  5. Bring anything else you need to be comfortable! Pillows, blankets and chairs will help you to cozy up on a cold night, or a cooler with water bottles and light clothing will keep you comfortable on a hot one.
  6. Plan for a long night. As I mentioned earlier, the movie begins at dusk, and during the summer that can mean a late bedtime for your little tyke. Bring blankets to help sleepy kids relax, or choose a parking space near the exit so you can leave early if needed.

I absolutely love drive-ins: I’m grateful to be able to see movies on the big screen, it’s fun being in a crowd where I’m sure I’m safe, and it’s actually really exciting to have a whole night out in my car. The kids think it’s a big adventure and we get to customize our space to our perfect comfort level.

I hope you give this nostalgic, yet very current, form of entertainment a try!

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