It has been one hot summer and with cooler evenings on the horizon, I am looking forward to taking a nostalgic journey to a part of my youth: Watching a movie in the comfort of my car under the stars at a drive-in theater.
The first drive-in movie theater was opened in New Jersey in 1933 by Richard Hollingshead, who combined his two favorite interests: Cars and movies. Since then, drive-ins have become part of American culture. According to the United Drive-In Theater Owners Association (UDITOA), 1958 saw the peak of drive-ins with 4,063 in the United States.
Since then, the overwhelming majority of drive-ins have closed for a variety of reasons. Some went under because increasing land values made it lucrative to sell to developers. In recent decades, many found it difficult to compete against corporate-owned, indoor theaters; movie rentals that can be enjoyed in the comfort of home; and more recently, the digital age where viewers can download and watch a movie held in the palm of their hand.
As of August 2018, UDITOA listed 317 permanently constructed, commercially operated drive-in theaters in the U.S. In Florida, drive-ins should be added to the endangered species list — there are only seven. Luckily, there are several within road-tripping distance or in locations where it is worth an overnight trip.
A couple of the oldest drive-ins are the Ocala Drive-In in Ocala and Silver Moon Drive-In Theater in Lakeland. Both opened in 1948 but took different paths to lead them to today. The former was originally called the Dyer Drive-In, named after the original owners. In April 1948, a double-bill of “Red River Renegades” and “Queen of the Amazons” projected onto the big screen.
The Ocala Drive-In changed hands at least a couple of times before closing in 2002 then reopening a year later until it closed in 2007. The Watzke Family, fourth-generation theater industry veterans, purchased the theater in 2010 then revived and reopened it in 2011. Two screens play first-run double feature films seven nights a week, rain or shine. Outside food is not permitted, but a concession stand sells snacks perfect for movie watching including popcorn, pizza and burgers.
The Silver Moon Drive-In Theater opened April 14, 1948, with “Up Goes Maize.” Today, it is Polk County’s last drive-in theater. Two screens typically screen first-run, double-feature films nightly. Tune in on your FM car radio, or a few rows have in-car speakers available. The snack bar serves refreshments and a dash of nostalgia, with images of drive-in theaters of yesteryear.
Silver Moon and its sister theater, Joy-Lan in Dade City, were saved from permanent closure when in 1996 a gentleman named Mr. Harold Spears formed Sun South Theaters, Inc., to save some of Central Florida’s drive-ins. Both operate as swap shops during the day and drive-ins in the evening. Joy-Lan first opened on Oct. 31, 1950. Today, one screen plays a double-feature Wednesday through Sunday. Leave the food at home; a snack bar serves the essentials.
“Singing in the Rain,” was the first movie the Ruskin Family Drive-In Theater screened when it opened in 1952. This drive-in has been a community gathering place for more than 50 years and calls itself the “last family drive-in in the U.S.A.” The kiddos have a designated play area. A first-run, double-feature typically projects on the big screen nightly. A snack bar serves essentials but if you bring your own food and/or beverages in, a $5 food permit fee is charged. Listen to the flicks on in-car speakers.
For those of us who grew up going to the drive-in, whether with family, friends or budding romances, jumping in the car and heading to one today is the closest thing to hopping in a time machine and revisiting our youth. Except these days, I need a nap before showtime to make it through the night.
Plan Your Visit
16414 U.S. 301
Dade City, Fla. 33523
Closed Monday and Tuesday
Children 4 – 9 years old: $2
4850 S. Pine Ave.
Ocala, Fla. 34480
Children 6 – 12: $3
Children under 5 Free
Prices reflect 4 percent discount for cash transactions.
Ruskin Family Drive-In Theater
5011 U.S. Hwy. 41 North
Ruskin, Fla. 33572
Admission: $6 per person
Children 5 – 8: $1
Children 4 and younger: Free
Silver Moon Drive-In Theatre
4100 New Tampa Hwy.
Lakeland, Fla. 33815
Children 4 – 9: $2
Note: I encourage you to leave the food at home and budget to dine in at any of the drive-ins — it’s how most fund their operational expenses.