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Car Culture: Watching Movies Is Cooler at Winter Drive-Ins

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CARS.COM — John Travolta would’ve been singing a very different tune if instead of Los Angeles, Olivia Newton-John stranded him at the drive-in in Detroit … in January. But as stone-cold crazy as the story might sound, you can watch a good old-fashioned outdoor movie from your car in the dead of Upper Midwestern winter.

Related: Drive-ins Dwindle But Nostalgia Is Still Strong

The 66-year-old Ford Drive-In, located in Dearborn, Mich., just outside the capital of American car culture known as the Motor City, is not only billed as the largest remaining drive-in theater in the U.S., it’s also one of a precious few that stays open throughout winter. And not just any winter, mind you, but the blistering, bullying winter that blows across the Detroit River from Canada.

Formerly known as the Ford-Wyoming drive-in theater — before dropping the Wyoming along with four of its then nine screens in 2010 — the quintuple screener can still accommodate some 1,500 cars at a time. Not that the Ford typically needs all that space during the winter months, when operating days drop from seven to just Friday through Sunday and attendance dwindles by around 75 percent — down to just the diehards who really love the drive-in experience.

“It’s chilly, but people still turn out,” said theater manager Virgil Berean, noting that Valentine’s Day weekend was one of the busiest of the season.

Driving past the Ford as the big screen glows in the frigid winter’s night is quite a sight if you’re not expecting to see it. But the Ford isn’t the only drive-in among the estimated 335 in operation nationwide that stays open year-round. Kipp Sherer, who runs Nevada-based, said there are currently about 43 drive-ins open through winter time, though only three are in cold-weather states. They can be found in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Washington, while the others are in more temperate Alabama, Arizona, California, Florida and Texas.

Sherer said he could imagine how ambient light from ice and snowfall could pose a problem and diminish projection quality of a film in your car. Plus, he noted, he’d moved away from Ohio to Las Vegas in the first place because he didn’t exactly love the cold. Still, he conceded, with some blankets and some of those pocket hand-warmer things, a winter drive-in could prove to be a novel experience as the drive-in during the summer is in its own way.

“If you’re lucky enough to have one nearby that does stay open, don’t forget about it in the wintertime, because it could be a good experience as well,” Sherer said.

Besides, he added, you don’t need bug repellant in the winter to keep your family from being eaten alive by mosquitos: “That’s one advantage.”

Berean recommends that people bring a blanket with them to the show, but Ford does offer complimentary in-car electric heaters that users should set on their vehicle’s floorboards. The heaters, which blow warm air into the car, are powered via a cord running from a pole outside that can be rolled up in the window or closed into the door. He also noted that, although the Ford prefers people purchase food and drinks from its concessions stand, the theater doesn’t prohibit outside snacks like some other drive-ins.

Another tip he offered is making sure you know how to put your car in accessory mode via the key position or push-button starter so that you can get film sound through your radio without accidentally turning your headlights on and lighting up the screen — or worse, running your battery down so that you require a jump in the freezing cold, a story no family wants to tell about their car.

So why go to all that trouble when you could just head to your local indoor multiplex and watch a movie in warmth and comfort? Well for one, Berean noted, you get to see two films for the price of one ($9.25 for adults and $3.75 for children 12 and younger) as all shows at the Ford are double features of new and recent movies — that adds up to significant savings for a family. And for another, it’s not just cold — it’s also cool.

“It’s just an experience all on its own,” Berean said.’s Editorial department is your source for automotive news and reviews. In line with’s long-standing ethics policy, editors and reviewers don’t accept gifts or free trips from automakers. The Editorial department is independent of’s advertising, sales and sponsored content departments.

Photo of Matt Schmitz
Former Assistant Managing Editor-News Matt Schmitz is a veteran Chicago journalist indulging his curiosity for all things auto while helping to inform car shoppers. Email Matt Schmitz

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