By Patricia Hall, Fairfax Family Fun
What’s old is new again, it often happens, and this is true with drive-in theaters now. Once hugely popular, particularly from the 1950s to the 1970s, these outdoor movie theaters gradually declined until they became practically non-existent. Wherever a drive-in theatre remained in recent times, it was a rarity, a fun, nostalgic find.
With “social distancing” restrictions because of the current pandemic, though, people are taking another look at the drive-in theatre. Recently the Today show featured how drive-in theaters may be making a comeback, at least for now. While modern theaters with plush, reclining seats and bar service remain vacant due to stay-at-home orders, quaint, simple drive-in theaters offer an opportunity to still see a movie on the big screen while safely isolating in your own vehicle. CNN reports more drive-ins are welcoming back moviegoers.
Northern Virginia is one of the few areas with a drive-in theatre that operates regularly, and despite some initial doubts, it’s re-opening 2020 season: Family Drive-In Theatre in Stephens City, Virginia, will open as of May 1, 2020, for select shows. The first movies, May 1-3 and May 6-7, will be Trolls World Tour and Onward. Trolls will continue May 8-14, with Invisible Man taking over the other screen during those same dates.
The theatre can operate as an approved outdoor activity and has been in communication with the appropriate state agencies including the health department.
What to expect
As usual, guests will watch the movie on the big screen, with the sound transmitted to their cars. They also will be able to buy food from the concession stand.
However, to promote safe social distancing measures, the theatre has had to make some adjustments. Family Drive-in Theatre was supposed to open in March 2020 for its regular season. By early April, it looked like this would be impossible. But the company had obtained approvals from the governor’s office and state health department, and found a way to implement new safety procedures. By mid-month had announced its opening. Here are the ways the drive-in will operate:
- Instead of a double-feature for one ticket, people will have to choose which movie to see, with one screen dedicated for each.
- The theatre will operate only at 50% capacity to limit the number of cars and provide at least 10 feet of empty space in between each car. Instead of having up to 484 cars as usual, there will be a maximum of 114 cars on Screen 1 and 74 cars on Screen 2. There is to be no socializing between vehicles; people are to stay within their own cars.
- The car-side microphones will be disabled to discourage people from touching them. To get the movie audio, use your car’s radio (94.9 FM for Screen 1; 92.9 FM for Screen 2).
- All tickets are sold online and in advance, no exceptions. This helps monitor capacity and provide a contactless transaction. Anyone who tries to buy admission on the spot will be turned away.
- The concessions stand will operate on an order-ahead only policy for food and drink. No one is allowed to just walk up to the concession stand. To buy food from the theatre’s menu, download the FanFood app. When your food is ready, the app will notify you, and only one person may go to the concession stand to pick up the food. Although concessions account for a great part of its earning, the theatre does allow patrons to bring in their own food and pay a flat $10 per-car fee. Alcohol is strictly prohibited in all circumstances.
- People will not be allowed to congregate. The playground and other public areas are closed and strictly off-limits. The theatre asks guests to wear masks when picking up their food orders or going to the restroom.
- Restroom access is restricted to one person at a time (one parent may accompany a young child or children). Any lines will require six feet between people. Once a line reaches 10 people, any other persons will be directed to wait in their car. A staff member will sanitize the restroom areas after each use.
- Guests who are sick should stay home. Anyone who appears to be sick will be turned away.
- In a Facebook post, the theatre provides more details about all its new policies and the reasons behind them.
Good things to know
- Stephens City is a bit south of Winchester, about an hour and 15 minutes from most spots in Fairfax County. Keep in mind the commute (two-and-a-half hours round-trip), movie run time, confinement to the car, and restroom restrictions when deciding whether to go, especially if you have young children.
- Pets are still allowed! You may bring your dog to the movies but it also must stay in the car.
- Despite operating at lower capacity, Family Drive-In Theatre has lowered its ticket prices to just $7 per adult (age 12 and up) or $3 per child (age 3-11) since it’s not able to show first-run movies now and guests don’t get the double-feature. Small processing fees apply.
- Even with all the restrictions and reduced capacity, the theatre is still honoring previously purchased passes, gift certificates, and vouchers from discounters such as Certifikid and Groupon.
- The theatre also offers a discounted rate of $5 for senior citizens on and for first responders and medical personnel on Thursdays.
- By attending a movie and buying concessions from Family Drive-in Theatre, you are supporting a small family business that has been operating for 64 years. The theatre is the only drive-in in the Northern Virginia/metro DC area, one of only seven in the state, and among the 300 or so still in operation nationally.