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Many moviegoers throughout American history have enjoyed staying in their cars to watch films at drive-in theaters instead of risking crowded indoor spaces. This has had a resurgence since the COVID times descended upon us. If you’re one of these people, you might wonder if it’s OK to keep cars running at drive-ins. Here’s what you need to know before you go.

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Cars at a drive-in movie theater during the COVID-19 pandemic
Cars at a drive-in movie theater during the COVID-19 pandemic | Mahmoud Hjaj/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

There were many more drive-in movie theaters decades ago than there are now, but several hundred still operate nationwide. When the weather is nice, you can even set up a few lawn chairs and watch movies alfresco. But you probably shouldn’t leave your car running. Doing so wastes gas and is inconsiderate to anyone sitting outside, Roadway Ready reports.

Most modern drive-in theaters provide sound via FM radio. If you’re worried your car battery might die, bring a portable radio to tune in to listen to the movie. Here are a few additional tips from the Battery Man Guide that will help preserve your battery at the drive-in:

  1. Run your car for a few minutes as soon as you park, then turn it off. This will allow the alternator to add some juice to the battery.
  2. Turn off all accessories and lights, including taillights, headlights, and dome lights. If your vehicle has video screens, be sure they’re off too.
  3. If you plan to listen to the movie through your car stereo, turn off any sub-woofers or amplifiers.

How to prepare your car for a drive-in movie?

There’s more to drive-in movie night than piling the kids into the backseat and heading to your nearest outdoor theater. At least, there should be. Take some time to prepare, and everyone will have a better time.

First, choose a comfortable car with enough seating for everyone. If you own an SUV, toss some pillows and blankets into the cargo area, and park backward with the rear hatch open and the dome light off.

Also, ensure the battery has a full charge, and keep jumper cables on hand, just in case.

In addition, wash the windshield inside and out, and bring a bottle of window cleaner and a roll of paper towels. Hand wipes are also a good idea.

Pack enough bottled water and snacks to last through a double feature. Better yet, roll through a takeout spot and grab a picnic dinner on the go.

A brief history of American drive-ins


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People have been projecting films on makeshift outdoor screens for almost as long as movies have been around. The first patented drive-in theater opened in Camden, New Jersey, in 1933.

Hollingshead marketed the first drive-in to families with kids, “no matter how noisy the children are,” DriveInMovie reports. The idea caught on quickly, and by the 1940s, 20 car-friendly movie theaters existed.

By the ’60s, more than 4,000 drive-in theaters dotted every state in the nation. Today, fewer than 400 drive-ins remain, and most are located in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York.

In the ’70s, drive-in theaters began to fall out of fashion because of skyrocketing gas prices and smaller cars that were not nearly as comfortable as the dreamboats of previous decades. Another reason Americans stopped going to drive-ins was the invention of the VCR.

Drive-ins did their best to combat public disinterest by showing exploitation films and adult movies, neither of which appealed to families with children, the New York Film Academy explains.

Then 2020 brought the coronavirus pandemic, and indoor movie houses limited seating capacity or shut down. A year or so later, drive-in theaters offer a relatively safe way to get out of the house and watch a movie, especially if you bring your own refreshments and the kids use the restroom before you head out.