On June 6, 1933 the first patented drive-in movie theater opened in Camden, New Jersey, and the phenomenon only grew from there. At the peak of their popularity, America was home to approximately 4000 active drive-ins, but that number now hovers around the 355 mark.
The expensive move to digital projection and the rising costs of land hurt a lot of drive-in theater owners, forcing many of them to pack up their snack bars and close up shop. However, much like record stores and independent bookstores, drive-in theaters are in the midst of a comeback—and have upgraded their amenities to appeal to a wider demographic. Stale popcorn and overpriced sodas have been replaced with gourmet meals and alcoholic beverages at some theaters, while others have invested in digital technology. Dogs are welcome at many drive-ins around the country, and some theaters even offer camping facilities, so that your night out doesn't have to end with the credits roll. In many cases, it’s cheaper for a family to spend an evening at the drive-in than it is their local cineplex.
With the summer season upon us, and National Drive-In Movie Day happening on June 6, we've rounded up a list of some of America's coolest drive-ins. What exactly makes them cool, you might be wondering? It’s more than just an attention-grabbing Art Deco sign (though that helps). It’s theaters that offer mini golf, beer gardens, locally sourced foods, a lineup of classic films (not just first-run features), and even a giant potato sitting in the back of a pick-up truck as a landmark. Here are some of our favorite drive-ins across America.
1. Four Brothers Drive-In // Amenia, New York
In 2015, Four Brothers opened in upstate New York, less than two hours from New York City. By mixing modern amenities with retro touches, it redefines what a drive-in can be. From spring to fall they show movies every night. Known as a “boutique theatre,” the drive-in films tend to be family-friendly, but they also sometimes screen “cultural indie films.” On Throwback Thursdays, for example, they screen three films, including one ’80s classic. The drive-in includes an EV charger, food trucks, mini golf, and Hotel Caravana, an airstream moviegoers can rent overnight. The theater's concessions break the mold, too, in serving locally sourced foods and housemade items like rice pudding, salmon burgers, shakes made with Nutella or wine, affogatos, and a full craft cocktail menu.
2. The Mahoning Drive-In Theater // Lehighton, Pennsylvania
Located about 80 miles northwest of Philadelphia, Mahoning’s tagline is “where film never dies”—and they mean it. Instead of showing first-run flicks, they opt to do weekend-long themed festivals. Zombie Fest takes place over three nights and screens cult horror films. (You can camp overnight.) Second Chance Weekend, meanwhile, features critically panned films that deserve a closer look, like pairing Howard the Duck with Masters of the Universe. Bite Night brings 35mm prints of Jaws and Jurassic Park, and July brings Christmas films.
3. Blue Starlite Mini Boutique Drive-In // Austin, Texas and Minturn, Colorado
When the Blue Starlite opened in 2009, it became “the world’s one and only mini urban boutique drive-in movie theater.” They operate two locations: a year-round version in Austin, and a seasonal theater in Colorado. The appeal of the boutique experience is that it creates a sort of intimacy instead of piling hundreds of cars into an abandoned parking lot. Their three areas hold up to 50 cars, or hundreds of pedestrians. They screen “childhood favorites” like the original Star Wars trilogy, and the once held a Burt Reynolds festival. October is usually dedicated to horror films, and December features holiday films.
In 2016, the Starlite expanded to Minturn, a small Colorado town in the Rockies, not far from Vail. At 7898 feet, the Starlite might be the highest drive-in theater in the country. Like its sister theater, it alsos screen classic films, like The Goonies, Back to the Future, and a Grease sing-along while moviegoers eat s’mores and local donuts.
4. Greenville Drive-In Outdoor Cinema // Greenville, New York
The Greenville Drive-in, which is located about two-and-a-half hours from New York City, opened in 1959 but has since evolved with the times. Their snack shack sells locally sourced foods, and the Projectionists’ Beer Garden serves local brews. The double features focus on ‘80s and ‘90s films like Footloose, Dirty Dancing, Office Space, and Dazed and Confused, and they sometimes schedule live music. They say they like to “partner with emerging filmmakers to provide them with a space to screen and discuss their work.”
5. Doc’s Drive-In Theatre // Buda, Texas
In 2018, Doc’s opened in Buda, Texas, which is located about 15 miles southwest of Austin. Doc’s offers gourmet concessions: pretzels with beer cheese, nachos with shredded brisket, chips and salsa, pulled pork sandwiched, fancy hot dogs, waffles, and and on-site bar Mama Merlot’s. The two screens pair first-run films with classics like The Birds, The Breakfast Club, and The Dark Crystal, and some head-scratching combos like Risky Business and The Meg (though we're not complaining).
6. North Bay Mobile Drive-In // Novato, California
In the past decade, a group of people have created what’s known as Mov Mob or guerilla drive-ins in which a “drive-in theater” pop ups at different locations in a city. The North Bay Mobile Drive-In (located about 25 miles north of San Francisco) uses a car to project the movies onto a wall of the shuttered Old Hamilton Theater. They screen free movies every other week, year-round. Most of the films are classics—movies like A Fish Called Wanda, Spaceballs, The Day the Earth Stood Still—and come with a 20-minute pre-show of trailers and cartoons. They also offer concessions and a raffle.
7. Wellfleet Drive-In Theatre // Wellfleet, Massachusetts
The Wellfleet Drive-In opened in 1957 and remains Cape Cod’s only drive-in—one where you can at oysters while watching double-feature first-run films. The theater’s located within a complex of a flea market, a mini golf course, and restaurants. In the flea area, you can drink beer, eat breakfast sandwiches, and order soft serve, root beer floats, and hard ice cream from the Dairy Bar. When the summer season is not in full swing, the theater screens lots of retro classics like Beetlejuice and Jaws (which was shot not too far away on Martha's Vineyard).
8. Bengies // Middle River, Maryland
At 52 feet high and 120 feet wide, Bengies boasts the largest outdoor movie theater screen in America. Bengies opened in 1956 near Baltimore and shows triple features on weekends for one price. On Memorial Day weekend, they screen movies from dusk until dawn. The concession menu includes craft sodas, egg rolls, hot dogs, burgers, donuts, cotton candy, and a pickle on a stick. In between movies, they screen classic cartoons and vintage trailers. And while it can get cold in Maryland, they offer in-car heaters so that they can stay open during colder months.
9. Blue Fox Drive-In Theater // Oak Harbor, Washington
Opened in 1959, Blue Fox screens first-run movies but also has a GoKart track that operates on weekends, as well as arcade games. And in 1989, Danny DeVito stopped by. As far as concessions, they offer Philly cheesesteaks, gluten-free items, 50 kinds of candy, and Big Gulp-like mugs of soda aptly named Really Big Mugs. Choose between a 64-ounce or 100-ounce mug; refills are only $3.75.
The backdrop for the Coyote, a four-screen drive-in, is downtown Fort Worth—so you have quite the view. The Coyote Canteen features a large menu of pizza, hot dogs, Frito pie, kobe sliders, churros, and an even longer list of wines, ciders, and beers, including local ones. For the kids, they can play at a playground, and adults can have fun in their own playground, which is called a beer patio.
11. Spud Drive-In // Driggs, Idaho
Idaho likes to celebrate its potato-farming heritage, even at the drive-in. The Spud closed in 2011 but is back up up and running again, much to the delight of locals. Located in the rugged Teton Valley, they show first-run movies next to a pick-up truck carrying a giant potato. They sometimes have concerts, and motorcamping.
12. The Swap Shop // Fort Lauderdale, Florida
With 14 screens, The Swap Shop in Fort Lauderdale has the most screens of any drive-in theater in the country, and they have late shows that start at midnight. It’s not only the largest drive-in but it’s also the largest daily flea market in the world. Come to shop but stay to see first-run movies. The drive-in opens every night and screens one movie per ticket—so no double features here.
13. Shankweiler's Drive-In Theater // Orefield, Pennsylvania
What’s cool about Shankweiler’s is that they opened in 1934, making them the state’s first drive-in and the second drive-in theater in the U.S. And unlike the first drive-in, Shankweiler’s is still open—making it the longest operating drive-in in America. They screen first-run movies and vend standard concessions like funnel cakes, ice cream novelties, and BBQ.
14. Falconwood Park Drive-In // Omaha, Nebraska
Falconwood is the Omaha metro area’s last drive-in, which makes it all the more special. Located in a sprawling 26-acre park, the drive-in (or walk-in, as pedestrians are allowed) screens new and old films, including classics like Die Hard and the original The Lion King. During screenings, moviegoers can order from a food truck and a bar. The park offers sand volleyball, badminton, a vintage Ferris wheel, and a rustic lodge. Every summer, the park hosts the Hullabaloo Music Fest. Unfortunately, because of severe flooding, the drive-in season has been delayed. But they should be back on schedule later this summer.