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We put Hillsborough County theaters to the screen test

(ran TP edition)

With movie theaters popping up like mushrooms after a rainstorm, only tiny nuances set them apart. Every movie house has popcorn, fountain drinks and, yes, movies, but what little things are important to you? We list here all the movie theaters in Hillsborough County, and their quirks and perks for you to choose from. Whether it's indie films you crave or a babysitter for the night, this list will help you find the theater that suits you best.

Britton 8, 3938 S Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa; (813) 831-7322. It has been around since 1956. Renovations in 1992 gave it an inviting quasi-art deco look, yet it is still overlooked. One of the few movie theaters that is just that, a movie theater, it seems doomed to always be overshadowed by the swarm of multiplexes that has opened all over the bay area. Understaffing can be a problem on weekends.

Citrus Park 20, 7999 Citrus Park Town Center Mall, Citrus Park; (813) 920-0835. Welcome to an age when concessions offer something other than Oscar Mayer wieners and butter-drenched popcorn _ espresso, cappuccino and gourmet muffins are available at Citrus Park 20. An escalator leads to an additional level of concessions and auditoriums with a unique vertical layout. This multiplex offers stadium seating with all the trimmings. The mall location makes shopping, watching a movie and eating in neighboring restaurants _ without changing parking spaces _ quite convenient.

Fun-Lan Drive-In, 2302 E Hillsborough Ave., Tampa; (813) 234-2311. A Tampa staple for 50 years, the Fun-Lan Drive-In east of Seminole Heights is a draw to moviegoers from all over the Tampa Bay area. Set among the backdrop of pure Americana _ a flea market _ an open, unpaved grassy lot is in the center of the drive-in's three screens. If you choose to listen to the movie through your car stereo instead of the pole-mounted speakers, don't worry about draining your battery. They will jump your car for you.

Hillsboro 8, 3306 W Hillsborough Ave., Tampa; (813) 872-7905. Opened in the 1970s as a drive-in theater, the Hillsboro 8 was recently renovated with stadium seating. The changes may not be enough for this struggling theater because of long-lasting construction in the area (near Hillsborough Avenue and Dale Mabry Highway) and competition from multiplexes. Digital sound and traditional Dolby stereo are available throughout the theaters. A different film from India is shown each week.

IMAX Dome Theater at MOSI, 4801 E Fowler Ave., Tampa; (813) 987-6100). To call this place a movie theater is almost an insult. With more than 350 seats, an 82-foot screen and 44 speakers, you run the chance of going into sensory overload. The audience is warned about possible motion sickness. The films feature educational escapades around the world that are easily followed by all ages. Watching an IMAX movie here is like thumbing through the pictures of National Geographic.

Muvico Majestic 20, 1600 E Eighth Ave., Tampa; (813) 242-0664). Ybor City has a movie theater again and its name is Majestic. Keeping with the theme of Ybor, Latin history mixed with nightclubs, the theater's lobby is designed like a Spanish courtyard. There's also the Premier Bistro Theater for the 21 and up crowd. A full bar and complimentary munchies are some of the perks, but the posh leather lounge chairs top it off.

Muvico Starlight 20, 18002 Highwood

Preserve, Tampa; (813) 558-9755. Set to the theme of a '50s-style soda shop, the decor is complete with antique-style cars. A family-oriented theater in the Tampa Palms neighborhood, Starlight 20 offers a kids' room where a certified teacher's aide will watch your children for $7 apiece and work with them on the computer. For the older kids, there's an arcade stocked with two dozen games.

Old Hyde Park 7, 1609 W Swann Ave., Tampa; (813) 251-5566. Set among the shops and restaurants of Old Hyde Park Village, the theater remains as understated as its surroundings. Several parking garages and small lots provide plenty of parking, so it's never too far to walk. If you're just looking for a movie on a good screen with solid sound but few of the latest frills, this is the place to go.

Regency 20, 2496 W Brandon Blvd., Brandon; (813) 243-4955. Once the top dog of local movie theaters, this place can still run with the big pups that have snuck into its territory. Originally an eight-plex, it underwent renovations in 1995 that turned the place into a 20-plex with 12 stadium-seating theaters and digital sound. Even the eight traditional auditoriums have rocking seats to help you get a good angle.

Ruskin Drive-In, 5011 U.S. 41 N, Ruskin; (813) 645-1455. This drive-in was one of the first built in the United States. Its screen has remained lit ever since its first show in 1952. Mostly locals flock to the lot early to reserve their spot at one of the pole-mounted speakers (though you can also listen to the movie through your car stereo). Newly released double-features are shown nightly.

Tampa Pitcher Show, 14416 N Dale Mabry Highway, Carrollwood; (813) 963-0578. This family-owned and operated movie theater-restaurant offers one movie twice a night, and $4 gets you in the door (just a little more than renting a Blockbuster movie). For this small fee, it's not hard to meet the one requirement: purchase at least one item at the table. Tampa Pitcher Show has outlived two decades of movie theater competition. Since the recent closing of Buccaneer Palace Cinema, the Pitcher Show is now the only remaining cinema pub in Tampa. Though there are no Clark Gable burgers or Katharine Hepburn french fries, a Bubba Gump's shrimp basket is on the menu. Along with an extensive food menu, beer and wine is served as you sit in vinyl swivel chairs next to simple round tables. Smokers are not discriminated against here _ at least in their own section.

Tampa Theatre, 711 Franklin Street Mall, Tampa; (813) 274-8981. One of the few reasons to come to downtown Tampa, this jewel is the place to find what all the other theaters in Tampa lack: personality. Its mishmash of architectural styles from the Golden Age of Hollywood is accessorized with elements of Italian Renaissance, Greek Revival and Florida Mediterranean styles. It's one of the original movie palaces, the kind Muvico is trying to build anew. The movie lineup specializes in new indie, art house and foreign films, plus classics and reissues.

University 16, 12332 University Mall Court, University Area; (813) 977-1410. Covered parking. A separate entrance. More than 170 shops. Those are just some of the conveniences of a mall movie theater. Some of the other things you'll find are a lot of teenagers, a handful of videogames and a photo machine. All the things to ease first-date jitters.

Veterans 24, Veterans Expressway at Anderson Road, Town 'N Country; (813) 243-4955. This theater includes 2,400 stadium seats with retractable armrests and cup holders. The multiplex also features AMC's wall-to-wall screens and digital sound. Well into its second year of operation, the Veterans remains the largest multiplex in the Tampa area. For the typical "dinner and a movie" date, a theater-operated tram service runs throughout the weekend to and from the five restaurants nearby. The four larger theaters have mezzanine seating whiledigital sound reverberates in all 24 theaters. A new "artsy" film is rotated every few weeks.

Westshore 14, 210 WestShore Plaza, Tampa; (813) 637-8366. The newest of multiplexes to open in Tampa, this has what you'd expect. Stadium seating. Digital sound in all theaters. A smattering of videogames. Located in WestShore Plaza's new addition, it has some of the usual amenities that come with the upscale mall, such as valet parking and several new shops and restaurants to sample before and after your movie.

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