Last Screens Standing: A Night at the Drive-In
Going to the drive-in feels like quite a relic when you can get better sound and visuals on the phone in your back pocket. But let's be real. The movie was never the main attraction. That's not a crack about teen hormones—though certainly, a veil of flickery darkness was part of the allure. Nope, watching a film under the stars is simply summer encapsulated: The salt-smoke aroma of hot dogs and bubbly slurp of icy sodas. Frisbees flying before the show. Fireflies blinking after it starts. A long, lazy fade into night. And—a hangover from childhood—the blissful illusion that between June and September, bedtimes don't matter.
Everyone knows the number of drive-in theaters has dwindled, but the 320 or so that remain are holding fast, prolonging the sunset on an iconic American pastime (and many experienced a resurgence of interest during the pandemic). Most are humble family-run affairs and, admittedly, an eyesore during the day. But for a few months each year, they're our magic-makers.
1. Harvest Moon Twin Drive-In, Gibson City, Illinois
This 1950s hot spot in central Illinois survived a 1966 tornado, plus a brief closure in the 1980s and a flood in summer 2021. It opens earlier in spring than many, and its two screens boast ultra-high definition imaging. Most showings are single-feature, but look for occasional Double Feature nights.
Don't Miss Themed movie weekends and special events like an Easter Egg Hunt (kids get a free movie ticket).
2. Valle Drive-In, Newton, Iowa
You can admire stars on-screen anywhere. But low light pollution reveals a twinkling sky above the rustling cornfields around Iowa's oldest drive-in (celebrating 75 years this summer). Tickets cost less than a seat at the multiplex, even with a trip to the concession stand.
Don't Miss Vintage ads before the film and liberal rules that allow for toting booze (within reason).
3. Cherry Bowl Drive-In Theatre, Honor, Michigan
Look for a classic Corvette replica in the diner at the center of this family-oriented theater reaching its 70th birthday this year. Come early to play a round of 1950s-style minigolf with your crew.
Don't Miss Delicious pepperoni pizza, plus a 1953 popcorn popper and condiment dispensers.
4. 66 Drive-In Theatre, Carthage, Missouri
One of just a few drive-ins left on Route 66, the site was once reduced to an auto-salvage yard. Now the 66 Drive-In Theatre revels again in Americana: original neon sign and frame for the screen, and at intermission, the cartoon is the same one seen in Grease.
Don't Miss Throwback nights, with film standards like Jaws, The Sandlot and Back to the Future.
5. Ford-Wyoming Drive In, Dearborn, Michigan
The Ford-Wyoming Drive In was once the world's largest outdoor theater, with nine screens and room for 3,000 cars. The Fort Lauderdale Swap Shop and Thunderbird Drive In holds the title now, but the Ford is still a monster, with five screens and 1,500 parking spots—and it's open year-round (weekends only in winter).
Related: 3 Fun Michigan Family Getaways
Drive-In Etiquette Tips
Haven't done this for a few decades—or ever? Read on.
Don't Be Late
Arrive early to snag a good spot and picnic. (Note: Some places charge a small fee for outside food.) Go to the snack stand or restroom before intermission to avoid crazy lines.
Bring Lawn Chairs
Watching from a sedan backseat is no fun. But even folks with pickup beds often set up seats for comfier viewing and tailgating. (Park as far back in your slot as possible to leave room.)
Blankets. Bug spray. A hidden six-pack (shh, you didn't hear it from us). And maybe a battery-operated radio to tune in the sound, if you don't want to drain your car's juice.
Mind the Lights
Check your manual for how to turn off auto headlights while using the radio. And if you dash early, keep them off and drive slowly until your car is away from the screen.