Shelter-in-Place on Wheels: Will Drive-Ins Make a Comeback?

Above photo: The West Wind Drive-in, snapped after getting comfy in the trunk of my car!

I’d give anything to be able to stroll into my local AMC or Cinemark to watch a movie.

Coronavirus will undoubtedly change the future of movie watching and the uncertainty of what will happen to theaters makes me nervous.

Movie studios like Universal are making big changes to the way they’re releasing films. Universal’s once lucrative partnership with AMC may be permanently tainted, as the studio giant may have learned they don’t need AMC anymore, thanks to the power of streaming. (Alamo Drafthouse even has their own platform to stream movies on demand!)

For many, not being able to go to the theater means nothing. But for me, the theater is my two-hour escape from reality. Oh how I relish the dark, cool theater with reclining, heated seats.

So when I found out that a drive-in movie theater in Concord opened up again, I immediately jumped on it. The notion of getting out of my apartment and driving to a destination that wasn’t a grocery store made me giddy.

Will drive-ins make a comeback?

Because of coronavirus entire industries are forced to change the way they operate. Airlines may implement temperature checks and allow for staggered boarding (i.e., passengers can board when their number is called). Restaurants may do away with an in-dining experience for take out-only options paired with virtual engagement in the form of cooking classes.

In the not-so-future post-pandemic future, the IMAXes and AMCs of the world may end up shutting down for good, but maybe it’ll revive drive-ins?

Drive-ins are pandemic-approved and shame-free, yo

If you think about it, a drive-in to see a movie is the most perfect, shame-free activity in a pandemic.

It’s shelter-in-place on wheels. You’re in your car, 10 feet away from others, windows rolled up, and minding your own business. Also, with millions out of work, it’s easy on your wallet. It’s cheaper than buying or renting new movies on your streaming service (i.e., $20).

The Solano Drive-in only costs $8.25 per person for two movies. When’s the last time you watched two movies back to back in the theater!

Drive-ins give me hope

Venturing outside of my apartment to do something other than walking or biking was so refreshing. The drive-in was exactly what I needed to hold on to the hope that we’re going to get through this.

Going to the drive-in was a way to get back to life’s little pleasures that bring me joy, even if I’m not doing it in the same way as before.

What to expect if you go to your local drive-in

The day after my drive-in adventure, I posted something on Instagram with the question: Is this the future of watching movies during a pandemic?

As soon as I posted, people immediately commented, asking where this drive-in was located. Then I remembered… duh, everyone else is bored too.

So I’m adding in some tips if you want to check out your local drive-in (if you’re lucky enough to have one).

The West Wind Solano Drive-in

The chain of West Wind Drive-in theaters are located in the following places:

  • California: Sacramento, San Jose, Concord
  • Nevada: Reno, Las Vegas
  • Glendale: Arizona

The Concord Drive-in, which usually doubles as a weekend flea market, has capacity for 800 cars. I think that number is lower now, since they ask movie-goers to space themselves at least 10 feet from other vehicles. Like supermarkets and restaurants, they’ve marked green lines in the parking lot that indicate where to confidently park 10 feet away from others.

There are two screens on the lot and the first showing usually starts around 8:30 pm.

After packing the car with blankets, pillows, and snacks, we rolled in at around 8 pm and left at around midnight.

Quick tips

There wasn’t a lot of detailed information posted on Solano’s website other than the movies they were featuring. I hadn’t been to a drive-in in 20 years, but at least I sort of knew what to expect. But if you’ve never been, you may not know what to do or bring.

How to listen to the sound through your car

This is probably the biggest thing people ask about drive-ins, and the Solano website isn’t very clear on it. Back in the day, drive-ins used to have antenna poles with speakers you could hang on your car window.

These days, you simply tune your car’s radio to a certain station to hear the sound. The problem is, every car is different when in “accessory mode.” (This is when you can turn on your car to listen to the radio but the engine isn’t fully on.)

Newer cars with the button ignition may experience a timing out. When this happens, drivers need to push the ignition again, inevitably causing their headlights to turn on. (Not cool when you’re trying to watch the movie.)

After the first movie, I noticed one car that needed a jumpstart. I guess it happens a lot–there was a sign that said “Lost battery power? We can help! See a manager.”

Bring a portable radio

To avoid this hassle, my advice is to bring a portable radio. I brought a little one (the kind with an antenna) and it worked great. I didn’t have to worry about my car being on accessory mode and running out of juice.

You might be wondering about downloading a radio app and then connecting to a portable Bluetooth. I did some research into this, but it’s unclear.

I think radio apps for phones just give you playlists or allow you to tap into the radio station but don’t give you the radio frequency, which is what you need to access the proper station. (I could be wrong, as I didn’t bother researching further.)

4 More helpful drive-in tips

  1. Get there at least 30 minutes before the movie starts. There will be a huge line of cars at the entrance but don’t let that scare you. I kept thinking the lot would fill up and we’d get rejected, but of course we didn’t and there was plenty of space in the lot.
  1. Bring a mask, you won’t be able to enter without one. Each time you exit your car (to go to the bathroom), you’ll need to wear it.
  1. There’s no alcohol allowed and the concession stand was closed. Bathrooms were kind of far and I saw long lines.
  1. For those with a hatchback car, you can park backwards and fold down the seats. Bring blankets and pillows.

There’s a reason why drive-ins are so cheap

Don’t go to the drive-in expecting the same experience as a regular theater. The most annoying part of the drive-in are all the late people who cruise up and down the aisles looking for a spot. Their bright headlights made it impossible to see the screen and cars passing in front of your view was distracting.

Also, if the movie you’re watching is, say, a horror movie with a lot of night time scenes, you won’t be able to see it well.

Despite these small annoyances, I still had a delightful time and definitely plan to go back!

The day I posted this, I received an email from one of my favorite live bands, promoting an upcoming concert. Concert-goers will be able to watch from their cars!

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