Drive-in theaters are dwindling, but Tampa Bay area residents can still catch the latest flicks from their cars

12/30/13 Janelle Irwin
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Tags: Drive-In Theaters, Fun Lan, Silver Moon Theater, Joy Lan

Drive-In movie theaters are hard to come by these days. But not in Tampa. The Fun Lan Theater on Hillsborough Avenue near Seminole Heights is alive and well. Still, general manager Ruth McPhee calls the classic pastime a dying art.

“You can sit outside your vehicle in your lawn chairs. You can enjoy speaking, talking with your husband, your children, whatever. It’s more relaxed. You’re not so, all tensed up and having to – we even have people bring their dogs.”

Fun Lan is part of a corporate chain that includes two other theaters in Fort Lauderdale and Lake Worth. But nationwide, drive-in theaters are fighting to stay alive. A theater in Maine called the Saco Drive-in nearly went out of business this year as owners struggled to scrounge together enough money to convert their outdated equipment from 35mm reels to a digital system. That drive-in won a contest this year that helped pay for the $80,000 upgrade. Fun Lan has four movie screens and McPhee says two of them have already been converted to digital.

“You have to either convert or you’re going to be out of business because before long, you’re not going to be able to get any 35mm movies.”

Theaters up north have an even harder time staying afloat because business dwindles as temperatures drop. But Fun Lan’s McPhee says that slow season impacts Florida theaters as well.

“In the winter time, the drive-in movies, the theaters, especially up north, they would be closed during the winter. But, not like down here, we’re open, but the business is slow. Children are in school, you can get cold nights. So, they had to come up with something to offset the loss that they were getting.”

That solution is the Swap Shop – a flea market open four days a week during daylight hours while no movies are playing. The Silver Moon drive-in theater in Dade City also has one open on weekends. [Owner] Howard Spears says since converting to a digital system two years ago, his theater has been thriving.

“We have kept operating a quality theater with first run pictures. We cater to families and especially to those people who maybe can’t afford to go to the indoor theaters and pay the higher admission prices. So, I’ve kept my prices in line for those people who just can’t go to an indoor theater or who just particularly like drive-ins.”

And McPhee, general manager of the Tampa drive-in says preserving drive-in theaters will always be a challenge.

“Let’s face it, the younger children – I’m saying anywhere from teenage to mid-twenties – they don’t think about the drive-in theater because they’ve probably never been to one, so they go to the movies.”

But the trouble isn’t insurmountable. McPhee says Fun Lan will continue to focus on providing a fun night out for families that is a more affordable alternative to indoor movie theaters.

“That’s the thing about the drive-in. We can’t prevent people from bringing in their coolers, you know, sitting in the back of their pick-up truck enjoying their drinks, their food, whatever. We do have a full service concession stand, but – we have cheaper entrance prices also than the movie theaters.” lists theaters throughout the state. There are 13 drive-in listings in Tampa alone. Fun Lan is the only one still open.

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I live 3 blocks from here and I love the place. You can talk during the movie and bring your own food in!!