Drive-in theaters making a comeback

Moviegoers pull up to the gate to buy tickets as previews start at Ocala Drive-In. Theaters and other outdoor venues are gaining popularity as a way to enjoy entertainment in the age of the coronavirus.

A drive-in movie takes Village of St. Charles resident Larry Clark back to his younger days when he and his date would grab some popcorn, park in the back and forget about what movie was playing. Drive-in movie theaters have become entertainment hot spots once again as a place for people to get fresh air and safely enjoy the experience of watching a movie or a live performance amid the COVID-19 outbreak. Drive-in movie theaters like the Ocala Drive-In are seeing an increase in ticket sales while sports stadiums are turning into drive-in venues for the summer, and pop-up drive-in theaters and events are materializing to meet the demand.

John Watzke, owner of the Ocala Drive-In, was glad his theater could give people a sense of normalcy during massive shutdowns.

“My family has worked in theaters for over 100 years,” Watzke said. “The old cliché that the show must go on isn’t a cliché, it’s a way of life to us. No matter what the catastrophe is, people need a certain amount of normalcy in their life, and I was able to bring them a form of normalcy.”

Watzke said that the Ocala Drive-In typically sees attendance drop off in May. However, this year, despite not being able to operate at full capacity, Watzke said that there has been a 30% to 40% increase in ticket sales for this time of year.

Watzke also increased the typical number of staff members on duty per night from seven to 13, to meet the demand brought on by the concession delivery service, one of the drive-in’s efforts to keep a sanitary environment.

Drive-In theaters hit their peak in 1958, with more than 4,000 drive-in theaters in the country. Their numbers dropped in the 1980s, only to start rising again in the 1990s, according to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association.

Currently, the UDITOA reports there are 305 drive-in movie theaters in the country, with seven in Florida, including the nearby Ocala Drive-In.

On Fridays and Saturdays, cars wait in a long line outside the gate of the Ocala Drive-In before the theater opens, and Watzke sometimes has to turn people away as the venue fills up.

The drive-in can’t run at full capacity because guests are kept in parking spaces 12 to 14 feet away from other vehicles and social distancing is enforced in walkways. Employees wear masks and gloves.

The theater has been showing a mix of indie films like “Swallow” and classic movies like “The Wizard of Oz” and “The Goonies.”

For showtimes, upcoming movies and more information, visit ocaladrivein.info.

In the Village of Springdale, Morgan Jenkins brought the trend to her neighborhood with drive-in driveway movies every Sunday night for about six weeks.

Jenkins said that about a dozen neighbors gather each week to enjoy a movie projected onto a screen.

“We pick out a new movie every week and we try to keep it lighthearted and funny,” Jenkins said. “People bring their own refreshments and it’s a lot of fun. It brings us together as neighbors and we feel good at the end of the evening. It’s become sort of a neighborhood tradition.”

The pastime also is making a comeback all over the country.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s announcement earlier this month that drive-in theaters could start opening in the state starting May 15 was quickly followed by news that Yankee Stadium would turn into a drive-in movie theater and concert venue starting in July.

On Tuesday, the Miami Dolphins announced that an outdoor drive-in theater would be launched at Hard Rock Stadium, which will hold up to 230 cars for classic movie showings, commencement ceremonies and more.

Additionally, Epic Theatres has installed pop-up drive-ins in Deltona, Clermont, Mount Dora and St. Augustine, and is showing movies like “Grease,” “Footloose,” “Jaws” and “Dirty Dancing.”

In Orlando, the Central Florida Fairgrounds will host a Road Rave Drive-In Festival on June 6 featuring stars of electronic dance music.

The event sold out in about a day, according to Shawn Krauel, president and CEO of the Central Florida Fairgrounds and Expositions Park and Orlando Amphitheater.

The event is limited to 500 cars with a maximum of six attendees per vehicle. Masks will be heavily encouraged and social distancing will be enforced.

“I think this is the safest option right now to still bring the live music experience to the crowds in the safest environment that we can at this time,” Krauel said.

Krauel said that there are hopes for more events in the future, and people can stay up to date by checking centralfloridafair.com.

Krauel said that he simply wants people to be able to experience live entertainment again.

“You can watch a stream online, but it’s not the same as being there,” Krauel said. “This gives people an escape from the constant doom and gloom.”

Senior writer Kristen Fiore can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5270, or kristen.fiore@thevillagesmedia.com.