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Drive-in shows could be the star of live entertainment in the coronavirus era

With more than just movies, drive-ins are taking off as a way to bring socially distanced concerts and live shows to audiences starved for entertainment.
 
Fans attend the Road Rave, a drive-in electronic dance music festival in Chandler, Ariz., on May 29. The drive-in EDM festival arrives in Orlando's Central Florida Fairgrounds on June 20.
Fans attend the Road Rave, a drive-in electronic dance music festival in Chandler, Ariz., on May 29. The drive-in EDM festival arrives in Orlando's Central Florida Fairgrounds on June 20. [ Jacob Tyler Dunn ]
Published June 4, 2020|Updated June 4, 2020

With concert halls expected to be among the last businesses to be reopened during the coronavirus pandemic because of the risks of letting large crowds gather indoors, the retro solution of drive-in entertainment is on the rise.

There were more than 4,100 drive-in theaters during the industry’s heyday in the late 1950s, according to driveinmovie.com. That number has declined in recent years to around 330 today. There are just seven left in Florida, including Dade City’s Joy-Lan Drive-In, the Ruskin Family Drive-In Theatre and Lakeland’s Silver Moon Drive-In.

Related: Florida's drive-in movies are a social distance gift

But the darling of the car culture era is getting a new moment in the spotlight. Musicians have staged livestream concerts during quarantine, but many fans and performers crave the in-person experience, and drive-in concerts could be the next-best thing for the time being, organizers have said.

Since guidelines these days would likely call for reduced capacity and significant social distancing measures at entertainment venues, producers are staking their claim to big empty parking lots to find an audience for live entertainment.

An EDM music festival originally planned for Orlando’s Central Florida Fairgrounds on June 6 sold out quickly. (It has now been postponed due to ongoing Black Lives Matter protests around America.) High-wire star Nik Wallenda is putting on a drive-in show of stunt performers in a Sarasota park over the next two weekends. After it wraps up, Wallenda said he will take his Dare Devil Rally on a national tour of cities like Atlanta, Detroit and Chicago.

Related: Nik Wallenda bringing a drive-in thrill show to Sarasota
Carnage performs at the Road Rave, a drive-in electronic dance music festival in Chandler, Ariz., on May 30. The EDM music festival, which is coming to Orlando's Central Florida Fairgrounds, quickly sold out.
Carnage performs at the Road Rave, a drive-in electronic dance music festival in Chandler, Ariz., on May 30. The EDM music festival, which is coming to Orlando's Central Florida Fairgrounds, quickly sold out. [ Jacob Tyler Dunn ]

And coming in July, Raymond James Stadium in Tampa will invite an audience of automobiles to roll into the stadium’s massive parking lot for five nights of movies, a comedy show, live music and family trivia competitions.

Drive-in concerts and parties have popped up across the globe in recent months. A German dance club staged a “drive-in rave” in its parking lot last month, with the crowd honking horns and flashing headlights in place of dancing and applause.

Country singer Alan Jackson was one of the first major stars to stage what he called Small Town Drive-In concerts in Alabama in May, and country star Keith Urban followed soon after with a series of drive-in shows and says he plans more.

“It was like such a no-brainer,” Urban told Billboard, “particularly with some of these drive-ins where you can tap into the FM system as well and just be fed straight into their car stereos.”

Urban said he didn’t expect the scene to feel so familiar.

“Having not been to a drive-in a long, long time, I didn’t realize most everyone brings pickup trucks ... so it actually resembled a tailgate party more than a drive-in,” Urban said. “Our fans have been doing tailgate parties forever before the concert. The only thing that’s changed is the tailgate party will now be the concert.”

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Billboard has started rounding up a list of drive-in concerts planned around the country that it said it will continue to update.

Calling itself the “next evolution in drive-in entertainment,” the Parking Lot Social will take over Raymond James Stadium July 15-19 with a stage set for “Car-A-Oke,” a silent disco, live bands, trivia contests and movie nights.
Calling itself the “next evolution in drive-in entertainment,” the Parking Lot Social will take over Raymond James Stadium July 15-19 with a stage set for “Car-A-Oke,” a silent disco, live bands, trivia contests and movie nights. [ XL Event Labs ]

Danielle Hodge, one of the event managers for the Parking Lot Social series of parties that is coming to Raymond James Stadium, said the idea emerged when her company, XL Events Labs, had to shutter its popular tour of the “world’s largest bounce house.”

Social distancing shut down the giant bounce house, which was a big hit in Tampa last year. But it’s a similar footprint, she said, to set up in a large open space and provide entertainment. With so many empty football stadiums around the country, it didn’t take long to build up a 16-city tour, kicking off in Houston’s Aveva Stadium on June 24.

They will charge $29 to $59 per car at theparkinglotsocial.com for a variety of themed events July 15-19. Entertainment will range from a comedy show to movie nights and live music, using two 40-foot movie screens and a radio signal to let the audience take in a show from their cars.

Related: Drive-in parties to take over Raymond James Stadium in July

The parking lot north of the stadium can accommodate up to 250 cars per event, with guests ordering from food trucks via a mobile app. Advance ticket sales have been “very strong,” Hodge said.

“I can see this going on for a while,” Hodge said. “We’ve found a way for people to gradually get back out there and still be comfortable. And I think people really miss music and live bands.”