Looking for a throwback night of affordable family entertainment under the stars? A handful of Florida's drive-in movie theaters still light up their big screens – and a desire to step back in time isn't the only draw.
"Some people might initially come for the nostalgia of it," says Harold Spears, 82, who started working at Florida drive-in theaters in the late 1950s and today owns two drive-ins and a portion of a third. "But the prices and the atmosphere cause them to become regular customers, too."
Times have changed since the first drive-in movie theater was installed in 1933 in Camden, N.J., and since the industry's heyday in the 1950s.
According to the book Drive-In Theaters by Kerry Segrave, the man who patented the theater concept and installed the first one got his inspiration from the Depression, when he "analyzed the market from the standpoint of what people gave up last. It came out this way: Food. Clothing. Autos. Movies. In order."
Changing tastes and evolving technology have, of course, eroded the market for drive-ins. In Florida, most of the surviving ones are clustered around Tampa Bay, with a few holdouts elsewhere in the state.
But those who have managed to survive the industry's ebbs and flows say the drive-in appeals to patrons today for the same reasons it did at its inception. At most drive-ins, admission prices hover near $5 for adults and even less for children.
"The drive-in theaters charge a lot less admission than the indoor theaters charge, and there's a lot of people who just cannot afford to go to indoor theaters," says Spears, who today owns Florida's Silver Moon in Lakeland and Joy-Lan in Dade City. "Consequently, that's helpful to the drive-in. We get a lot of just regular family people who enjoy coming."
Take the Ruskin Family Drive-in Theatre, for instance. It promotes its family-friendly atmosphere and clean restrooms – and isn't afraid to remind patrons that it doesn't allow alcohol or rowdy behavior.
The drive-in, which opened in 1952 with Singin' in the Rain, sticks to tradition even at the snack bar – affordable burgers, hot dogs, popcorn and other movie treats. The theater brags that it has used the same Wisconsin cheese supplier for its pizzas for 50 years.
The Silver Moon Drive-in Theatre, meanwhile, has kept up with the times by converting to digital technology, a step toward ensuring that this drive-in just might survive the movie industry's departure from 35-millimeter film, expected to occur by 2014.
The Silver Moon offers films on its two screens seven days a week, 365 days a year – even on Christmas – and usually shows first-run movies on their opening dates. It is located about an hour west of Orlando, making it the closest drive-in to the family amusement attractions of Central Florida.
The Ocala Drive-in Theatre is the Lazarus of Florida drive-ins. Twice in its 64-year history, its screens have gone dark, its window speakers silenced.
But each time – once in 2003, and then again in 2011 – it has been resurrected by caring owners who have spruced it up, improved the technology and found a market for the beloved drive-in tradition. Ocala patrons tune in to a local FM radio station for clear movie sound.
And a newcomer to Florida's drive-in scene offers a new take on an old experience – and hope that the tradition might stay alive for future generations. The Dezer Collection Museum, newly opened in spring 2012, features an indoor drive-in theater that comes equipped with vintage model cars parked in front of the screen, and drive-in speakers installed outside the cars.
Founded by prominent South Florida developer Michael Dezer, the museum itself features more than 1,000 cars and motorcycles. The drive-in portion of the museum is available for private parties, or open to the public whenever the museum schedules a movie screening.
This story was first published on VISITFLORIDA.com.