Remember watching movies from your car? Or seeing your favorite Hollywood stars on a huge outdoor screen? Or listening to the movie’s audio via a speaker that fastened onto your car window? You can relive those cherished moments this summer—or perhaps introduce your kids or grandkids to this unique experience. There are many Midwest drive-in theaters for you to visit this summer, so be sure to plan a night or two for a drive-in theater experience.
A bit of history
The very first drive-in movie theater opened in Camden, New Jersey, in 1933. It didn’t take long for the concept to catch on and over the next several years, the idea of watching a movie in the great outdoors really caught on. Even my tiny little Iowa town had one!
Drive-in movie businesses peaked in popularity at the end of World War II and continued to enjoy a robust business through the ’50s and ’60s. Did you know that at one time there were more than 4,600 drive-in theaters throughout America? It’s true!
As more and more multiplex movie houses were built, outdoor drive-ins began to decline in popularity. Indoor air conditioning trumped watching a movie in the heat of summer, and then in the 1980s, the home video rental business further pushed the drive-in businesses into oblivion. (Remember Blockbuster, Hollywood Video, or The Movie Store?) The idea of watching a movie outdoors continued its steady decline until only about 330 drive-ins are currently in operation today.
The good news is that you can still find many drive-in movie businesses in the Midwest today. In fact, no matter where you travel, you can search for an outdoor movie experience using this website.
Remember that most drive-in theaters are owned by local folks, so when you attend a drive-in movie, you are helping to support the local mom-and-pop enterprise in that location. Along with reliving fond memories, helping the local economy can only add to your enjoyment.
Today’s outdoor movie theaters feature many amenities that didn’t exist when I attended our local drive-in theater during my teen years. Gone (from most drive-ins) is the audio speaker that hangs on the car window. In its place, you’ll tune into a dedicated FM radio frequency.
Today’s drive-ins often offer activities like sports courts, playgrounds, and other outdoor games for you to enjoy while waiting for the movie to start.
Some theaters today allow pets as long as they’re well-behaved and leashed. Pet owners will need to clean up after their furry friends, of course.
Select outdoor cinemas sell alcohol, while others allow patrons to bring in their own food. Call ahead to know for sure!
Pricing varies from Midwest drive-in theater to theater. Some venues charge by the carload, while others charge per-person rates. Most outdoor theaters are still a bargain compared to indoor movie costs.
With all that in mind, here are just a few Midwest drive-in movie theaters you might want to visit this summer. If you have a recommendation for a theater that didn’t make the list, please tell us about it in the comments section at the end of the article.
Midwest drive-in theaters state-by-state
- Skyview Drive-in. 5700 North Belt West, Belleville, IL 62226. Check out their website.
- Route 66 Drive-in. 1700 Recreation Drive, Springfield, IL 62711. You can get more information here.
- Midway Drive-in. 91 Palmyra Road, Sterling, IL 61081. This drive-in theater has been in operation since it opened in 1950! Check it out.
- Canary Creek Outdoor Cinema. 870 Malloy Parkway, Franklin, IN 46130. This relatively new outdoor theater was opened in 2004. It is owned and operated by Canary Creek Outdoor Cinemas theater chain. Learn more here.
- Huntington Drive-in. 1291 Condit Street, Huntington, IN 46750. The Huntington is one of the oldest drive-in theaters in Indiana. Read what folks are saying about it on their Facebook page.
- Tibbs Drive-in. 480 South Tibbs Avenue, Indianapolis, IN 46241. This is the last drive-in theater located in the Indianapolis area. Check it out.
- Starlite Drive-in. 2255 Ohio Pike, Amelia, OH 45102. Originally known as The Starlite Auto Theater, this Midwest drive-in theater was one of the first 10 outdoor movie venues in the United States. Learn more.
- South Drive-in. 3050 South High Street, Columbus, OH 43207. This drive-in is huge—offering space for 1,100 vehicles! On Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday, the venue features a gigantic garage sale from 5 a.m. to 1 p.m. Movies are featured on Fridays through Sundays. Get additional information here.
- Hi-Road Drive-in. 8059 State Highway 68 North, Kenton, OH 43326. In continuous operation since it opened in 1949, a larger screen and other refurbishments were completed in 1999. Find out more here.
- 61 Drive-in. 1228 U.S. Highway 61, Delmar, Iowa 52037. The 61 Drive-in is the smallest outdoor theater in Iowa and one of the smallest in the entire country, for that matter. This theater has been in continuous operation (except in 1988) since its opening in 1950. With space to park only 180 cars, you might want to get there a little early! Learn more about this little theater here.
- Valle Drive-in Theater. 4074 Highway F48, Newton, Iowa 50208. If you happen to camp near Des Moines this summer, take the short 30-minute drive to the Valle Drive-in Theater! Visit their website.
- Superior 71 Drive-in. 1482 300th Avenue, Spirit Lake, Iowa 51360. This is a “newer” outdoor theater, constructed on a farm field in 2008. Double features on weekends. Bug spray available at concession stand. Click here.
- Rock ‘N Roll Drive-in. 272 Drive-In Lane, Chafee, Missouri 63740. Built during COVID, this theater brought back the Old Montgomery Drive-in which was originally built in 1955. With no new movies coming out, the new owners saw an opportunity to provide safe viewing in their outdoor venue. Here’s where to find out more.
- Barco Drive-in. 57 South East 25th Lane, Lamar, Missouri 64759. The Barco Drive-in has been in continuous operation since it opened in 1950. Well-behaved, leashed pets are welcome, provided owners pick up after them. See more here.
- Sunset Drive-in. 1601 East Church Street, Aurora, Missouri 65605. An adult admission for $8 will get you a double feature, but they only accept cash. Here’s their website.
- South Drive-in. 1019 East McArtor Road, Dodge City, Kansas 67801. With a 300-car capacity, this is the oldest drive-in movie theater in the state of Kansas. They charge by the carload! (Sounds like a challenge to me.) See what other South Drive-in moviegoers have to say on the theater’s Facebook page.
- Starlite Twin Drive-in. 3900 South Hydraulic Street, Wichita, Kansas 67216. This is the last operational twin-screen outdoor theater in Kansas. It’s also the largest with space for 1,300 vehicles. The Starlite shows double features most nights with triple features on weekends. The community and local government helped keep this iconic theater going. Read more about it here.
- Boulevard Drive-in Theater. 1051 Merriam Lane, Kansas City, Kansas 66103. Under the same management since 1984, owners make the most of this location. On weekend mornings they host a Swap and Shop. Evenings bring movies, of course, with this theater being one of the very few that sells alcohol on-site. Here’s their website.
- Sandhills Drive-in. 2617 County Road, Alliance, Nebraska 69301. This is a great place to revisit some of your old movie favorites. Sandhills Drive-in is one of the few outdoor theaters that still have old-time in-car speakers for movie audio. Don’t fret, they also have FM sound transmission, too. Here’s where you can find more information.
- SkyView Drive-in. 100381 Airport Road, Scottsbluff, Nebraska 69361. This outdoor theater opened in 2020 in response to COVID. The owners operated an indoor theater, but when the pandemic hit and the indoor venue was closed, the owners decided to open an outdoor theater. Check out their website here.
- Quasar Drive-In Theater. 300th & Highway 36, Valley, Nebraska 68064. One of the newest outdoor theaters in the country, the Quasar opened in 2021. Learn more about it here.
- Hilltop Drive-in. 33575 Highway 18, Gregory, South Dakota 57533. The oldest remaining outdoor theater in the state, the Hilltop was opened in 1946. Military personnel can get in for free! Check it out.
- Pheasant City Drive-in. Redfield, South Dakota 57469. This small, 200-car capacity theater has a lot of small-town charm. Be sure to bring cash as the Pheasant City Drive-in does not accept credit or debit cards. Learn more on their website.
- Sky-Vu Drive-in. 34914 Highway 1 West, Warren, Minnesota 56762. Billed as one of the smallest remaining outdoor theaters in the United States, the Sky-Vu has the capacity for 180 vehicles. Located minutes outside Grand Forks, North Dakota, folks from both Minnesota and ND enjoy the shows. Find out more about the Sky-Vu here.
- Elko Drive-in. 26350 France Avenue, Elko New Market, Minnesota 55020. If you’ll be near the Twin Cities or plan to attend a race at the Elko Speedway, you should add this drive-in theater to your “must-do” list of activities. Here’s the website.
- Verne Drive-in. 327 West Warren Street, Luverne, Minnesota 56156. Purchased by new owners in 2000, you can see double features on weeknights during the summer season. Check it out here.
- The Milky Way Drive-in. 7035 South Ballpark Drive, Franklin, Wisconsin 53132. Order food from the Milky Way concession stand and a car hop will deliver it right to your vehicle! Nostalgia at its best. Find out more here.
- Skyway Drive-in. 3475 State Highway 42, Fish Creek, Wisconsin 54212. The Skyway boasts that it’s named by TripAdvisor as the best drive-in theater! Learn more here.
- Field of Scenes Drive-in. N3712 Highway 55, Freedom, Wisconsin 54130. Built in 2003, this drive-in offers a playground along with basketball and volleyball courts, so the kids have something to keep them busy until the movie begins! Here’s their website.
What to bring to the Midwest drive-in theater
Once you’ve decided on a drive-in movie theater location, it’s time to pack your car. Here are some things you may want to bring. (Remember: Individual theaters may have special rules that you must follow, so not all of these suggestions may be permitted.)
- Comfy seats. Unless you plan to watch from the interior of your car, you’ll want to pack your camping chairs.
- Headrest. Leaning back and looking upward for two-plus hours can take a toll on your neck. Bring along a neck pillow. (You can thank me later.)
- Radio. Save your car battery by bringing along an FM radio (and maybe some extra batteries, too.)
- Games. If the theater doesn’t have a playground or other ways to keep children occupied, you may want to bring along a few age-appropriate games or a deck of cards.
- Insect repellent. Spray repellent will keep mosquitoes away and let you enjoy the show.
- Blanket. Temperatures may drop by the time the movie comes to an end. Make sure you can keep comfortable and bring along a lightweight blanket.
- Cooler and snacks. (Only if the theater allows.) Some drive-in theaters will let you bring in your own food, provided you purchase a “food permit” ticket. Prices for the tickets vary.
Have you attended a drive-in movie theater recently? Tell us about it in the comments.
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