Feel like doing something wild during your Florida travels? How about spending an evening with one of the Sunshine State’s endangered species, the drive-in movie theatre? 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 theatre. According to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association (UDITOA), 1958 saw the peak of drive-ins with 4,063 in the United States.
Since then, many drive-ins have closed for a variety of reasons. Some because increasing land values made it lucrative to sell to developers. In recent decades, many found it difficult to compete against corporate-owned, indoor theatres; movie rentals that can be enjoyed in the comfort of home; and relatively 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 theatres in the U.S. In Florida, drive-ins should be added to the endangered species list. There are only seven. Luckily, there are several theatres within road tripping distance or in locations where it is worth an overnight trip.
Some of Florida’s Drive-In Movie Theatres
A couple of the oldest drive-ins are the Ocala Drive-In in Ocala and Silver Moon Drive-In Theatre 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 theatre 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 and a concession stand sells snacks perfect for movie watching including popcorn, pizza and burgers.
The Silver Moon Drive-In Theatre opened April 14, 1948 with Up Goes Maisie, and today, it is Polk County’s last drive-in theatre. 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 theatres of yesteryear.
Silver Moon and its sister theatre, Joy-Lan in Dade City, were saved from permanent closure when in 1996 a gentleman named Mr. Harold Spears with Floyd Theatres, formed Sun South Theatres, 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, and 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 Theatre 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.” Kiddos have a designated play area and 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.
Worshipping at the Drive-In
Many drive-ins are multi-use, in that they may serve as a swap meet or flea market during the day and drive-in movie theatre at night. Some have been converted into something else, like the Daytona Beach Drive-In Christian Church.
Church-goers can participate either by worshipping inside, outdoors in a shaded area on the lawn, or in the comfort of their car. Services are typically 55 minutes and upon arrival, each worshipper is given a bulletin and pre-packaged communion set (grape juice and communion bread) to participate. Although the service wasn’t projected on a movie screen, the minister, choir, organist, and pianist are visible on the second-story balcony. Sunday worship is 8:30 a.m. & 10 a.m.
The first drive-in movie theatre 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. 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.
Nuts & Bolts About Visiting Some of Florida’s Drive-In Movie Theatres
16414 U.S. 301
Dade City, Fla. 33523
Tel: (352) 567-5085
Closed Monday and Tuesday
Children 4 – 9 years old: $2
4850 S. Pine Ave.
Ocala, Fla. 34480
Tel: (352) 629-1325
13 years old and older: $6
Children 6 – 12: $3
Children under 5 Free
Prices reflect 4% discount for cash transactions.
Ruskin Family Drive-In Theatre
5011 U.S. Hwy. 41 North
Ruskin, Fla. 33572
Tel: (813) 645-1455
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
Tel: (863) 682-0849
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 is how most fund their operational expenses.
Daytona Beach Drive-In Christian Church
3140 South Atlantic Ave.
Daytona Beach Shores, Fla. 32118
Tel: (386) 767-8761