The Best Old-School Drive-in Theaters Around the U.S.
The world is your movie theater.
When the first American drive-in theater opened in New Jersey in 1933, it completely transformed the moviegoing experience. Drive-ins started popping up in every state, with around 4,000 in operation during the halcyon days of the '50s and '60s. For generations, they were ground zero for late-night double features, hickeys, and kids hiding in trunks to avoid paying admission.
Then, gas prices climbed. Real-estate moguls snatched the land. Indoor multiplexes became audience magnets. And studios switched to digital, forcing drive-ins to make a costly upgrade or relegate themselves to being a relic of the past.
Today, only around 300 still operate. This piece of the American experience seemed destined to be lost -- until COVID happened.
This summer, the movie-loving public turned back to the drive-in. Pop-up screens went up in parking lots, offering up an alternative to VOD and a chance to get the hell outside. The Empire Strikes Back, Jurassic Park, and The Goonies were suddenly at the top of the (admittedly small) box office. And old-school drive-ins -- the ones that remain, anyway -- once again became legit destinations.
Even with indoor theaters open in many states, drive-ins persist. For those of us who would prefer to witness the triumphant return of Bill & Ted on a big screen without risking transmission, they’re essential. And while pop-ups are fun, there’s nothing quite like hitting a time-tested drive-in.
These are our favorites from around the US. Hit them while the weather permits. And then, when this blows over, keep hitting them. Now, more than ever, is the time to support them and keep them alive.
The theater -- also called The Big Mo -- itself dates back to 1951, but the signature giant peach containing its projector only arrived in 2014, serving as a nod to the state's famous fruit and giving the venue a little extra cred as a roadside attraction. And while the Mo has been extra-safe in the wake of COVID, they're very slowly starting to dip their toes into exhibitions, including a one-night-only double feature/live music extravaganza scheduled for September 21. Alcohol is allowed, and you’re welcome to bring in outside food, but management does politely remind you that their concessions, which are very tasty, are are what quite literally keep the lights on inside the pit of that big-ass peach.
In the late ’90s, when it looked like Hull’s would be forced to close, local moviegoers formed a non-profit group -- the Hull’s Angels -- and raised $75,000 to purchase the business. It became the world’s first movie theater designated as a non-profit, and continues to be run by a mix of paid staff and Hull’s Angels volunteers. It takes about a dozen people to operate the drive-in on any given night -- some running the projector, some at concessions, some selling merch at the “Angel Booth.” The theater successfully digitized about a decade ago, and has reopened for business... unless there’s a tornado or other particularly angry weather.
Claim to fame: Classic cars and classic movies
A fixture of the tiny Oregon town of Newberg since 1953, the 99W Drive-In has survived massive storms and the conversion from film to digital intact (well, they had to replace the screen three times, but still…). This places is truly a place seemingly unstuck in time and made all the more nostalgic by the omnipresent classic cars, whose owners seem pulled straight out of a community theater production of American Graffiti, a film that’s been known to show up on the screen from time to time. t the time of publication, the theater was closed due to smoke from Oregon's wildfires. When it reopens, though, we have a feeling it will continue to thrive in its timelessness.
Harvest Moon Twin was the first movie theater of any kind to be powered by wind turbines. “It helped out with the expense of the power supply portion,” manager Ben Harroun said. “But then -- because we were the first theater to do it -- the press release from that took us from a stagnant point to having a lot of people come from all over.”
Today Harvest Moon Twin is open rain or shine. They’ll rent you a portable FM radio if you don’t have a lot of faith in the one in your car. In normal times, you could pay an extra $5 to grill before the show, though that's currently on hold until Illinois hits phase 5. But they're also doing outdoor concerts now, helping to bring a little music back to folks' lives along with movies.
Standing 52 feet high by 120 feet wide, the screen at Bengies will live in your memory a very long time: It's the biggest in the US. Tune in to 105.3 FM or AM 830 to hear the show, and they’ll also rent you a radio if you need one, no problem. Open rain or shine, Bengies' season usually runs March through October; maybe longer, if it’s warm enough. (The snack bar will conveniently also sell you several forms of bug repellant in addition to popcorn, egg rolls, burgers, pizza, and donuts.
COVID has wiped out a tragic number of indie theaters, but for the Mission, things went a little differently. The 70-year-old theater was sold in 2019 and set to close. But with theaters closed in one of America’s most movie-crazed areas, COVID gave it a reason to stay open. The kitschy theater -- with its thatch-roof ticket booths and Polynesian statue garden -- is now showing both current, classic, and cult flicks on two screens seven nights a week at the cost of $10. Bonus: the snack bar serves up carne asada nachos. It’s a welcome old-school respite to the popups currently hitting LA, and the kind of phoenix story we can frankly use right around now.
Shankweiler’s in Orefield, Pennsylvania, is the oldest continually operating drive-in theater in the country. It opened in 1934, becoming America’s second drive-in in America. This is a theater with a history of survival: It made it through the Great Depression, 1955's Hurricane Diana, and the entire Star Wars prequel trilogy. And now it's surviving a pandemic. All while keeping things current -- the sound system got a boost in 2002 and the projector went digital in 2013, allowing it to show current movies even today.
West Wind has been carrying the flag as the entertainment-obsessed Vegas’ sole traditional drive-in for a while. But the theater, around since the ‘60s, flies that flag well. West Wind makes a point to keep a retro image, felt immediately with the tall arches that welcome cars near the front entrance. More importantly, it was a huge crutch for Vegas when the lights dimmed. After shutting down in March, the theater resumed operations in May with a heavy emphasis on classic movies to supplement the limited new stuff. In recent months, the venue hosted concerts (on screen, not in person) from big names like Metallica, Blake Shelton, and Garth Brooks, helping to fill a void as shows and other forms of live entertainment remain on hold. As a bonus, they’ve got a theater just outside Reno, too, in case you want to go to the big screen in the biggest little city, too.
MORE: Here’s a full rundown of Nevada’s best drive-ins
Dating back to 1953, the Spud has the unique distinction of having a big-ass potato parked on a flatbed out front, which immediately elevates it to legendary status. The location makes Spud the perfect nightcap on trip to Yellowstone, especially given they also have a row of cabins, cabins, and airstreams you can rent, just in case you're absolutely exhausted after your movie.
Rumor has it that admission to Coyote Drive-In is free if you arrive on horseback, though Thrillist had not received confirmation about this as of press time. Horse or not, this place is a treasure, a four-screen destination complete with a fully covered canteen area where you can score beer from Deep Ellum (and cans from Bud) to go along with Frito pie and pizza. Sound comes through an FM channel, though they do have standalone speakers you can use in case you want to test that horse thing out for us.
A local staple long before the pandemic, the Delsea Drive-In is the only true drive-in theater the Garden State has. And for a while, it was a ghost: Opened in 1949, the theater shut down in 1987 before reemerging in 2004, adopting modern technologies and a food menu that encompassed a number of food styles, from healthy (wraps, fruit, edamame) to New Jersey (eggplant parmigiana, cheesesteaks). The food’s an important thing to note, too: Concessions keep the lights on and the movies affordable, So while you can definitely buy a BYO food permit, consider supporting the stand to keep the run of throwback hits, hits, family-friendly movies, horror classics, and more running.
Claim to fame: Hotel rooms with blockbuster views
This Vermont institution on scenic Route 5 has survived everything from the construction to an interstate expressway to digital conversion in tact. That's thanks in large part to the fact that it pulls double duty as a motel, where you can actually watch the blockbusters playing on the big screen from the comfort of your room, forever rendering the omnipresent "free HBO" outside old off-highway hotels a disappointment in the future. As an added bonus, because you're in Vermont there are two guarantees: the surrounding area is gorgeous, and Ben & Jerry's is available at the concession stand.
Just a short 25 minutes inland from San Diego, the Santee Drive-in has been a beloved institution. Upgraded with digital picture and sound, the theater plays two movies per screen, rain or shine (the former is very unlikely, given you’re in San Diego County) every night, including holidays. This place has been holding it down forever, and it knows the drill: If your car battery runs out because you ran your AC the whole time, they’ll even hook you up with a jump. In an age of stylish pop ups and fancy theme theaters, this is a welcome return to a much simpler time.
Having opened in 2013, this drive-in operating in a tiny town in New York’s Dutchess County could have tried to reinvent the outdoor-theater wheel. Instead, they embraced the retro, amped up the extras, and created the Mall of America of drive-in theaters. The newest permanent drive-in in the US is the kind of place where you can charge your electric car while hanging at a giant fire pit; where dogs can run and an app means mid-movie food delivery to your window; and where you can rent a deluxe glamping caravan should you wish to make a night of it. Many of these amenities have been put on hold to comply with social distancing, but you can still enjoy two movies each night at this state-of-the-art theater for a scant $11 per adult.
The ATL’s OG drive-in has been welcoming moviegoers to Moreland Avenue since 1949 to see the latest and greatest movies, and it’ been going strong all along. Throughout the pandemic, Starlight has been one of the only places to go to see new box office releases, but like its newfound competition, it’s been showing plenty of previously released films as well, so you can have your Tenet and get your Black Panther too. It’s also home to one of the area’s best flea markets every Saturday and Sunday, meaning that there’s hardly ever a time that this place isn’t humming.
One of the best parts of drive-ins is the chance to watch a movie on the big screen while surrounded by nature. Mendon Twin takes it a step further, having spent the past six decades screening classics against the backdrop of 16 acres of dense forest, complete with a fully operational beer garden. They also do the occasional laser light show (hey, cannabis is legal in Massachusetts), and definitely lean into the forest setting: they’re known to show a lot of horror films, especially this time of year. Friday the 13th hasn’t been this scary in decades.