Amid the pandemic, Florida drive-in theaters take the spotlight

The moon rises over the neon sign of the Silver Moon Drive-In near Lakeland on Jan. 12, 2019.
PATRICK CONNOLLY/ORLANDO SENTINEL/TNS

BY PATRICK CONNOLLY
ORLANDO SENTINEL/TNS

ORLANDOAs many movie theater screens around the country go dark amid the coronavirus pandemic, John Watzke says his theater is doing just fine. In fact, business is booming for this time of year.

The Ocala Drive-In, one of just a small handful of drive-in theaters still open (even during normal times) in Florida, is providing a bright spot for film lovers during this unprecedented time.

“For this time of the year, I’ve seen a very big increase in attendance,” said Watzke, who owns the drive-in. “I just feel like people need some form of normalcy in their life.”

Even though visitors are coming in droves and his theater is keeping the projectors on for Floridians, Watzke knows this isn’t business as usual.

“I’ve taken my parking spaces down to approximately half. I’ve taken every other space and roped it off,” he said. “When you park now, instead of being two feet away, we have a 10- to 12-foot buffer zone between every vehicle.”

CONCESSIONS DELIVERED

Among other safety precautions, concessions are being delivered to cars with modified packaging, an expense that Watzke is incurring and not passing onto his customers.

“This is taking a lot of extra effort and a lot of additional expense to me, as a business owner, that I have not passed onto the customer,” he said. “I’ve maintained the same prices here for nine years on concessions and tickets and I have no intention of changing that.”

Other Florida drive-in theaters are finding ways to hang on. Chip Sawyer’s Silver Moon Drive-In and Joy-Lan Drive-In are both keeping their lots open for now.

He was recently forced to close the swap meet portion of each location and wasn’t sure

how much longer the theaters could remain open. But, for now, the drive-ins are showing classics including “Back to the Future,” “Jaws” and “The Breakfast Club” amid delays in new releases.

GRADUATION SITE?

Local chain Epic Theatres, which has several central Florida locations, is adapting to keep customers coming during coronavirus closures. At their Deltona theater, movies are being shown on an outdoor screen nightly with a makeshift drive-in setup.

All it required was a bit of creativity, the same kind of spark that led Ocala Drive-In owner Watzke to another idea.

“I just recently got off the phone with the school board of Marion County. In the event they have to cancel normal graduation ceremonies, I’m offering the use of the drive-in as a safe haven where they can still have graduation,” he said. “All of the speeches could be prerecorded and put on the screen.”

He’s extending the offer to any other area schools or districts in the event graduation ceremonies are forced to cancel.

But, in the meantime, he’ll keep bringing in customers for movies as long as county, state and federal guidelines will let him.

“I, myself, was a victim of Hurricane Katrina on the Mississippi coast,” Watzke said. “It was the little things that we were able to do, to bring some form of normalcy to our life, that kept us from going crazy.”

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