Over the years, Sarasota has been home to numerous drive-in theaters—but anyone born after the 1980s never got a chance to experience them. After debuting in the late ’20s, drive-in movies reached peak popularity during the 1950s before slowly dwindling to near-obscurity.
However, due to recent social distancing regulations, this classic form of entertainment is making a comeback. The Mall at University Town Center screened family classics in its parking lot this summer, and the Manatee Performing Arts Center gave an experimental performance of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown to a drive-in audience. It’s well worth a peek into the past and future of drive-in entertainment for Sarasotans.
After it was built in 1949, Sarasota’s expansive Trail Drive-in was hailed as one of the finest drive-in theaters in Florida. Built across from Sarasota Bradenton International Airport on Tamiami Trail, it could screen first-run films for up to nearly 800 cars and, for some time, boasted the largest screen in the south. Its operators later opened a smaller theater, Siesta Drive-In, further down the trail that only lasted a decade. Later, in 1969, the Bee Ridge Drive-in Theatre tried to beat the Florida heat by offering personalized air conditioning units for each vehicle. Sadly, with changing entertainment fads, none of them survived into the ’90s.
While Sarasota may no longer have a formal drive-in theater of its own, the Ruskin Family Drive-In is only 45 minutes away. Operating for more than 50 years, the theater still offers double features of classic family favorites throughout the week. There’s a snack bar for movie essentials, such as popcorn and soft drinks, and these days there’s no need to balance a speaker on your dashboard, as audio can be piped through the car’s radio. From Aug. 14 through Aug. 21, the theater will be screening Kung Fu Panda back to back with Despicable Me. As with many nostalgic establishments, Ruskin’s Family Drive-In is cash only.
Local mom Kari Bunker fondly remembers childhood trips to the drive-in and the excitement of staying up late through a double-feature. Now she enjoys taking her 11-year-old son up to the Ruskin drive-in. The pair have a tradition of putting on pajamas, loading a cooler with snacks and making a blanket fort in the back of the car for him to watch from.
“I love showing him another period of time he might not have got to experience if the Ruskin drive-in wasn’t around,” she says. She adds that children’s lives have also been turned upside down in the past months, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and fun cinema experience is a pleasant escape for kids.
Drive-in entertainment isn’t strictly limited to movies, either. This weekend, Sarasota County Fairgrounds and Robarts Arena are hosting the Danger Zone Drive-In Thrill Show, featuring dare-devil performers The Fearless Flores Family. From the comfort of their own vehicle, guests are treated to daring stunts including aerial lyra acts, trampoline acrobatics and, in case you missed it on America’s Got Talent, the thrilling motorcycle globe of death. The family-friendly event costs $35 for a carload of up to six people.