With America locked in a self-inflicted stalemate against COVID-19, many people are searching for any small return to normalcy during the pandemic. What better way to embrace the new socially distanced normal than by heading to the local drive-in movie theater? Despite a steady decline in their numbers over the past few decades — most estimates put the total number of drive-in theaters in the United States at just north of 300 — drive-ins have become a welcome and safe hideout for those who miss movie theaters and movie theater food in equal measure. Thankfully, Austin has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to drive-in theater experiences, offering films, foods, and an excuse to get out of the house.
What to Know
There are a lot of factors at a drive-in theater that can impact the viewing experience. One is the darkness of the screen. Combine outdoor digital projectors with ambient light, and you are bound to lose some of the color contrast found at your favorite indoor movie theater. If this is your first time headed to a drive-in, do yourself a favor and choose a movie with a lot of bright colors. Films set entirely at night — this includes most horror films — may take some time getting used to.
Drive-ins also use local transmitters to share movie audio via a short-range FM frequency. Since these are localized broadcasts, each theater relies on the FM radio in your vehicle to broadcast the audio. If you plan to sit inside your car for the entire film, you won’t need any additional equipment. Those looking to tailgate, however, may find that the radio apps on their phone pick up nothing but static. It’s not a bad idea to invest in a cheap pocket radio with a headphone jack, or even an external speaker system, to give yourself the best experience possible.
Unless otherwise noted, all of the drive-ins on this list operate on a first-come, first-served when it comes to parking. Given the variety of vehicles out there, it’s impossible to know ahead of time if you’ll be parked behind some giant truck that obstructs the view. If you choose to sit outside or in the back of your hatchback, it is also recommended — and in some cases, required — that you bring string or wire to tie down the rear door to roof level. Be sure to keep an eye on your battery; theater staff may be standing by to jump your car, but that doesn’t mean it’ll feel any less embarrassing.
Finally, each drive-in on this guide offers, at bare minimum, a basic assortment of candy and food. While this might impact your dining plans during a movie, it’s important to remember that your concessions purchases play an important role in keeping each drive-in in business. Feel free to plan ahead, especially if your drive-in of choice has an accepting policy toward outside food and drink, but consider spending a few bucks on Mike & Ikes if you enjoy the service. And if you’re out with your household group and you plan on drinking, always agree on a designated driver ahead of time.
So grab your mask — it’s a requirement across the board if you step outside your car — and get ready to try your hand at the classic drive-in experience. Here a few of the best options for your next after-dark movie night in the Central Texas area.
Austin-Area Drive-In Theaters
Stars & Stripes
Address: 1178 Kroesche Lane, New Braunfels
Programming: New releases, such as Tenet, and classic films, such as Stand By Me
Best Food Option: On-site restaurant the 50’s Cafe, plus snacks from Buc-ee’s
For those looking to recreate the traditional drive-in experience, the Stars & Stripes is definitely the best option. From the throwback ticket booths to the on-site retro-themed restaurant (appropriately named the 50’s Cafe), the theater is designed to evoke a sense of nostalgia, even for those too young to remember drive-ins. But don’t let the ambience fool you: This is also the only drive-in theater showing current wide releases, allowing you to watch films like Tenet or The New Mutants on the biggest screen possible in safe, outdoor spaces.
Families will get a kick out of the ballpark staples offered at the 50’s Cafe, as well as the cardboard vintage cars that double as kiddie meal containers. If you’re not feeling traditional concessions food, you can always stop by nearby Buc-ee’s, located just one exit south on I-35. And while this spot is a fun all-around dining experience, there is one catch: Star & Stripes explicitly does not allow alcohol on its premises. That makes this drive-in perfect for a family outing or a new release, but perhaps slightly less appealing for those looking to elevate their living room movie night.
Address: 1540 Satterwhite Road, Buda
Programming: Classic Hollywood titles and local film events, such as Pitch Perfect and Grease
Best Food Option: The drive-in’s full kitchen
Spend some time at other drive-in theaters around Austin and you’ll quickly come to appreciate the assigned parking at Doc’s Drive-In. Knowing that you’ve already locked in the best seat in the house, and that each ticket is double-checked by an usher, makes planning a night at the movies a lot less stressful. Doc’s is also the only drive-in on this guide with a kitchen and bar on site, making it a win-win situation for those looking to enjoy an adult beverage (beer, wine, margaritas) with their movies. Place orders online, and the staff will call you when your food is ready to be picked up from the window at the concession stand, limiting the time you spend outside your car. Remember to wear your mask when picking up your food and drinks.
Depending on your movie preferences, the only real knock on Doc’s is the programming. While the theater has shown a willingness to include more titles from local film festivals and programs — it’s hosting six hours of selections from the international genre short film festival Austin After Dark later this month — it tends to cycle through a familiar list of family favorites. Still, if you find a title that interests you, the food and parking situation make Doc’s Drive-In the best all-around experience on the list.
Blue Starlite Mueller
Address: 2015 E.M. Franklin Avenue, Mueller
Programming: New independent releases, such as Sputnik, and drive-in favorites, such as Dazed and Confused
Best Food Option: To-go orders from nearby restaurants
Wedged inside a residential neighborhood in the East Austin area, the original Blue Starlite theater might seem more like a short-term installation than a year-round theater option. However, don’t let the unconventional screening space fool you: This theater is celebrating its 10th anniversary and continues to have the market cornered on independent science-fiction and horror. Unlike the other places on this guide, those comfortable with social distancing also have the option of buying tickets for a sit-in outdoor space, adding a little variety to your drive-in life.
Because of COVID-19, Blue Starlite has streamlined its concessions, offering only prepackaged items like bagged popcorn and king-sized candy. That means snagging a to-go order from an East Austin favorite is probably your best bet for dining. Potential neighboring options offering takeout orders include Contigo, Oddwood Ales, and Nixta Taqueria.
And more than any other theater on this guide, your arrival time can dictate whether you have a perfect view of the screen or whether you’ll be craning your neck to look around cars. Show up when the gates open for your screening (listed next to the showtimes on the website), and be prepared to wait a few extra minutes at the end of the film as the rows of cars behind you untangle themselves.
Blue Starlite Downtown
Address: 300 San Antonio Street, Downtown
Programming: Classic and cult Hollywood titles, such as A Fistful of Dollars and Labyrinth
Best Food Option: Delivery orders from participating downtown restaurants
Located atop a parking garage in the heart of downtown Austin, Blue Starlite’s newest location is a unique alternative for those who want the drive-in experience without a lengthy commute. While the flat surface of the parking garage does lead to some potential sightline issues (once again, show up early and make sure you’re in the front row), what makes this location special is its connection to the downtown food scene. Blue Starlite has delivery arrangements with nearby restaurants — including Salt & Time Cafe and Wu Chow — that affords patrons the perfect blend of both dinner and movie.
Place orders for your chosen restaurant through each place’s respective ordering platform from your car, include a set of specific instructions to the drive-in in your notes, and the Blue Starlite staff will work with the delivery person to make sure your food is delivered without disrupting your movie experience (or the experience of those around you). Those more interested in a late-night snack can order candy and soda from the theater staff.
Just don’t be spooked by the lack of signage in the parking garage proper. While Blue Starlite has put a sign next to the parking garage entrance, you won’t see another sign until you reach the very top.
The Globe Drive-In
Address: 8017 Cele Road, Pflugerville
Programming: Hollywood classics and recents hits, such as the Blues Brothers to Midsommar
Best Food Option: Bring some snacks from home
Taking its name from the famous Shakespearean venue (when you’re a pop-up movie theater, “all the world’s a stage,” as the website notes), the Globe is a well-rounded solution for those Austin suburbanites who want to dabble with an occasional outdoor screening. The farmland setting means that moviegoers won’t have to battle the ambient light found in more urban settings, and the Globe’s DIY aesthetic may be more appealing to those who prefer the mom-and-pop approach.
Given that most of the theaters on this list are located in Central or South Austin, the Globe is a welcome addition for those who live north of downtown. This drive-in combines solid presentation — the inflatable screen ensures more vibrant colors than some of its counterparts — with a solid lineup of recent Hollywood hits (Knives Out or Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, anyone?).
With limited concessions available to order on the website and the fact that most of the local restaurants are fast-food chains located off SH-130, you might be best served by the picnic approach. Pack your car full of foods and snacks at home, but as always, order an item or two from the Globe staff if you want to ensure they survive long after the pandemic is over.