Special Report

Best Drive-In Theaters in America

Courtesy of WesMer Drive-In Theater via Facebook

Forget streaming — summers are all about drive-ins! There’s nothing quite like piling into the car with snacks and blankets for an old-fashioned outdoor viewing.

There were precedents as early as 1915, but the first real drive-in theater in the modern sense was opened on June 6, 1933, by chemical company executive Richard M. Hollingshead Jr., in Pennsauken Township, New Jersey. A few other drive-ins appeared in various places soon afterwards, but they really took off with the development of in-car speakers in the 1940s. 

By the 1950s, there were more than 4,000 drive-ins around the country – but changing tastes, soaring land values, and new home-viewing options eventually spelled doom for most of them. Today, according to Statista, there are only 321 operating drive-ins left nationwide. (Some estimates put the number as low as 177.)

That said, some nearly defunct classic drive-ins have been revived and modernized for 21st-century audiences in recent years, and there have even been a handful of new ones opening. And drive-ins enjoyed a modest boost in popularity during the pandemic, when the idea of sitting in a crowded indoor theater lost a lot of its appeal. (These are the most popular PG-13 movies people actually saw in theaters this year.)  

To compile a list of the best drive-in movie theaters in the U.S., 24/7 Tempo reviewed a ranking by Nationwide Vehicle Contracts, a British-based car and van leasing site. Using a list of all operating drive-in theaters around the U.S. from DriveInMovie.com, the site created an index to determine points out of 100 based on admission prices, average Google rating, availability of food, possibility of bringing your own food, and pet-friendliness. All of the theaters on the list here serve food and allow food and pets to be brought in.

Click here to see the best drive-in theaters in America

Amidst the surge of modern entertainment options, historic venues like Florida’s Joy Lan Drive-in, opened in 1950, and Maine’s Skowhegan Drive-in, which launched in 1954, offer an authentic retro experience. (If that period appeals to you, see these classic images of motels with a vintage vibe.)

Misquamicut Drive-In Theater in Westerly, Rhode Island, on the other hand is practically new – dating only from 2010, when its beginnings were extremely modest to say the least. And the West Wind chain, whose Solano 2 Drive-in Theater occupies the No. 1 slot on this list, took over that classic spot in 2007, giving it new life.

Source: Courtesy of Ashley Brewer via Silvermoon Drive In via Facebook

11. (tie) Silver Moon Drive-in, Lakeland, Florida
> Overall index score: 93.12
> Price: $8 (ages 10+); $3 (child; under 4 free)

One of only four drive-in theaters remaining in Florida, the Silver Moon, established just outside Tampa in 1948, is also one of the oldest drive-ins still in operation in the US. There are two screens, showing double features every night. The theater grounds also host a Swap Shop on Saturdays and Sundays, beginning at 5 a.m.

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Source: Courtesy of Skowhegan Drive-in via Facebook

10. (tie) Skowhegan Drive-in, Skowhegan, Maine
> Overall index score: 93.12
> Price: $9 (ages 11+); $5 (child; under 2 free)

Opened in 1954, the Skowhegan – like most drive-ins – saw an increase in business during the pandemic. In 2022, however, owner Don Brown indicated that its future was up in the air as business declined again. He made the decision to open for the 2023 season anyway, and posted a statement on the theater’s Facebook page noting that “The Skowhegan Drive-In Theatre is a community and cultural resource for all of Central Maine.” Nonetheless, it is currently for sale, with an asking price of $369,000.

Source: Courtesy of Misquamicut Drive-In Theater via Facebook

9. Misquamicut Drive-In Theater, Westerly, Rhode Island
> Overall index score: 93.18
> Price: $25 (carload)

A relative newcomer to the drive-in world, the Misquamicut was opened just across from Wuskenau Beach in 2010 by locals John Gonzales and Caswell Cooke. It was very much a DIY project at first: Supports for the screen were built from 40-foot-long cargo containers; the screen was plywood painted white; for the first few years, the projector sat in the back of Caswell’s Jeep. Today, it’s a more conventional operation, with room for more than 100 cars and a high-def screen. The theater specializes in classics such as “Grease,” “The Breakfast Club,” and “Jaws.” “I could show ‘Jaws’ every week and sell out,” Caswell told SeeWesterly.

Source: Courtesy of Stone Drive-in Theatre via Facebook

8. Stone Drive-in, Mountain View, Arkansas
> Overall index score: 94.05
> Price: $5 (ages 12+); $3 (child; under 4 free)

The Stone Drive-in Theatre has an easy-going approach to the outdoor movie-viewing experience. Among the notes on its website: “Plan to arrive early…. A Game of Catch, Freeze Tag, Frisbee, Dog walking and Kids playing are a common occurrence at the Drive-In….WAYS TO WATCH THE MOVIE: Classic Style – In your car; Country Style – Back of your Truck/SUV; Camping Style – Bring a Chair or Picnic Blanket; Your own style – Any way you want as long as you don’t hurt yourself 🙂 or as long as you don’t interrupt anyone else’s drive-in experience.”

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Source: Courtesy of Cassandra M. via Yelp

7. Showboat Drive-in, Hockley, Texas
> Overall index score: 94.18
> Price: $12 (first adult); $10 (additional adults); carload prices vary

Johnny and Chris Rumfolo – who used to go on dates to the old I-45 Drive-In in north Houston (long since demolished) and felt nostalgic for the experience – built and opened this drive-in of their own, northwest of Houston, in 2006. While some customers watch movies here the old-fashioned way, from the comfort of their cars, the Showboat website encourages other approaches too. “Bring folding chairs and enjoy watching the movie from outside of your vehicle,” it exhorts. “The vast majority of Showboaters bring out chairs, but some go so far as to bring COUCHES!” It should be noted, though, that the current owners – Andrew and Juanita Thomas – listed the theater for sale early this year, with an asking price of over $5.5 million.

Source: Courtesy of South Dodge Drive-In via Facebook

6. South Drive-in, Dodge City, Kansas
> Overall index score: 94.4
> Price: $20 (carload)

The state’s oldest operating drive-in, the South was established in 1947 by Glen Cooper, who’d seen outdoor theaters on trips to California delivering turkeys from his family’s hatchery. (He went on to own several other Kansas drive-ins.) After his death, his son and daughter-in-law ran it before selling it to United Wireless Communications in 2012. The company modernized it at the time, converting it to digital projection.

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Source: Courtesy of WesMer Drive-In Theater via Facebook

5. WesMer Drive-in, Mercedes, Texas
> Overall index score: 94.62
> Price: $10 (carload; $5 on Tuesdays)

The 1949 opera-themed comedy “Everybody Does It” was the opening-night feature when the WesMer – the only drive-in theater in Texas south of San Antonio – first fired up its projector in 1950. A single-screen theater with room for 400 cars, the WesMer is a favorite of families for its bargain $10 admission fee for a carload – $5 on Tuesdays..

Source: Courtesy of Joy Lan Drive-In Theatre and Swap Shop via Facebook

4. (tie) Joy Lan Drive-in, Dade City, Florida
> Overall index score: 95.67
> Price: $8 (ages 10+); $3 (child; under 4 free)

Another of the four remaining drive-ins in Florida, and under the same ownership as the Silver Moon in Lakeland (and also in the Tampa Bay area), the Joy Lan opened in 1950, with a screening of “Challenge to Lassie,” starring moviedom’s (and later TV’s) most famous collie. Admission was 35 cents. As at the Silver Moon, there is a Swap Shop on the grounds on weekends, from 5 a.m.

Source: Courtesy of Star Drive In Monte Vista via Facebook

3. (tie) Star Drive-in, Monte Vista, Colorado
> Overall index score: 95.67
> Price: $9 (ages 9+); $4 (child); under 4 free)

This 1955-vintage drive-in, opened by the locally prominent Kelloff family (it’s still owned by a younger generation of Kelloffs) offers something unique: In 1964, a motel, dubbed the Best Western Movie Manor, was built behind the theater’s parking area, with picture windows looking out on the screen – making the Star something of a sleep-in as well as drive-in venue.

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Source: Courtesy of Portville Drive-In via Facebook

2. (tie) Portville Drive-in Theater, Portville, New York
> Overall index score: 95.67
> Price: $8 (adults); $3 (child under 11)

The Portville, in southwestern New York State near the Pennsylvania border, was opened as a single-screen theater in 1972 (not 1970 as its website states) by Charles Bordanero and his son, Anthony, who also operated several other drive-ins. (Charles’s grandson, also Charles, is the current proprietor.) A second screen was added in 2005.

Source: Courtesy of West Wind Drive-In and Public Market (Concord, CA) via Facebook

1. Solano 2 Drive-in Theater, Concord, California
> Overall index score: 95.82
> Price: $9 (adults; $6 on Tuesdays); $2 (child under 11; children under 5 are free)

The Solano 2 Drive-in Theater – one of seven all-digital drive-ins in California, Arizona, and Nevada owned by a company called West Wind – opened in 1968 with a double bill of “The Odd Couple” and “The Green Berets.” Century Theatres, which originally owned the venue, closed it down at the end of the 2004 season – but West Wind took it over in 2007. Today it runs year-round.

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