On the Road Again

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StarlightCinemaIrvineSpectrumHomeAlone_by Jason Fenmore
Drive-in movies at Irvine Spectrum Center have included old favorites like “Home Alone” (pictured) as well as more recent films. | Photo by Jason Fenmore

The ongoing pandemic has spurred a resurgence of drive-in movies and other car-based experiences in the region.

By Sharon Stello


Over the years, drive-in movies went the way of rotary phones and full-service gas stations: Almost all disappeared, with only a few still standing as relics of the past. But, when the pandemic set in last spring, leading to canceled festivals and shuttered movie theaters, car-based experiences made a big comeback.

First, car parades replaced parties to honor a birthday boy or girl on their special day. Then, other drive-in events started popping up, allowing family and close friends to stay safe in their vehicles while still enjoying a shared experience as part of a larger group. From movies and concerts to holiday celebrations, comedy nights and more, venues around Orange County have hosted dozens of drive-in gatherings, embracing the love that Southern Californians have for their automobiles.

“It has been absolutely heartwarming to see the joy when guests finally get the chance to safely go out and enjoy themselves,” says Michele Richards, CEO of the OC Fair & Event Center, which has hosted a variety of drive-in and drive-through experiences on its grounds in Costa Mesa. “[Also,] being able to offer these great events has been a real boost for our staff—we are in the business of helping people have fun and it’s been wonderful to be able to do that again.”

drive-in comedy_courtesy of Irvine Improv
On some nights, a stand-up comedian is presented on stage and projected on the big screen instead of a movie at Irvine Spectrum Center. | Photo by Irvine Improv

Parking Lot Cinema and Comedy

For younger generations, this was likely their first time at any kind of drive-in. For others, these nostalgic events may have brought back memories of their teenage years, watching films on the big screen from the seat of a car with friends or on a date. These days, the movies are projected on huge, inflatable screens, often on top of a shopping mall parking structure. From classics like “Grease” and “The Princess Bride” to more recent releases like “Ford v Ferrari,” “Jojo Rabbit” and “The Secret Life of Pets 2,” there’s something for everyone.

Starlite Movies, operated by parent company Activated Events, has presented drive-in movies at five locations in OC, boasting Southern California’s largest inflatable outdoor screen and a professional-grade FM radio transmitter for the sound. The company has shown films at Fashion Island as well as Irvine Spectrum Center, the Outlets at San Clemente, Brea Mall and Westminster Mall, and will likely continue screening movies outdoors through spring or even summer at some of these sites, “depending on when things clear up and get back to normal,” says Steve Thacher, president of Activated Events. “It is really to be determined.”

Prior to the pandemic, Activated Events was mostly producing concerts and music festivals like Boots in the Park in Norco and Coastal Country Jam at Huntington State Beach, where the company also presented Beachfront Cinema, showing movies right on the sand. “And then 2020 hit and we had lots of concerts lined up and … everything came to a halt and we had to reexamine things and pivot and make the best out of it,” Thacher says. “So, we started doing drive-in movies. … Initially, we had two [inflatable] screens and now we have six screens. So, we heavily ramped up during the pandemic.”

After showing a few movies at venues the company has worked with around the region, it hosted the first series in late July at Irvine Spectrum Center, which proved to be extremely popular. “[After that,] we just started going seven days a week and we sold out almost every day through Labor Day,” Thacher says.

A late summer series at Fashion Island included a partnership with the Newport Beach Film Festival, screening the world premiere of “A Life of Endless Summers: The Bruce Brown Story,” which was supposed to be the festival’s opening night film. And, at other locations, when “Jurassic Park” was shown, jeeps inspired by those in the film were parked nearby for people to take pictures—along with other surprises. “We have a big animatronic dinosaur that I had built back when we were doing … [movies] on the beach. So our staff would get in the suit and go throughout the lanes and people would wave from their cars, and the kids sure loved it,” Thacher says. Later, holiday themed events included a month of Halloween movies and contactless trick-or-treating as well as a run of Christmas films, favorite romantic flicks for Valentine’s Day and even a showing of “Groundhog Day.”

“We’re just really grateful to have the opportunity to provide an alternative [entertainment option],” Thacher says. “… Everybody’s looking for some type of outlet, a little happiness and a little fun. And I think this goes a long way because it’s also old-fashioned fun.”

At Irvine Spectrum Center, the admission price for each vehicle on weekend nights typically includes a gift card to spend at restaurants or stores at the center, making it easy to enjoy dinner before the show. During the series at Fashion Island, the drive-in admission included a gift card to buy dinner or snacks at The Lot movie theater, which has a full-service restaurant that opened for takeout during these events.

Concessions such as popcorn, kettle corn, candy and fresh lemonade are also available for purchase at each site and masks are required when not in your car. The number of people allowed per vehicle is limited only by the number of seatbelts, making it a good deal for large families. Some screenings during the summer even featured a live band performing before the film.

“It’s really about the experience,” Thacher says. “[You don’t know] until you’ve gone to the drive-in and you’ve seen what the size of the screen is. … If you’re in the back parking space, it’s still a great view. And the clarity from the projector … is sometimes better than your home television picture. People don’t really understand until they get there. They’re thinking, ‘Oh, the drive-in of 30 years ago.’ … [The pictures] were very grainy and the[re was a] … speaker that you hooked up to the side of your window, where now we run everything through an FM transmitter so you just tune in to the frequency … and you can hear right through your car stereo [or handheld radio or boombox] and it’s usually crystal clear.”

Plus, those with a hatchback, SUV or truck can request to back into the parking space “and they’ll sit in the bed of the truck or they’ll pop up the hatch of the hatchback and put pillows and blankets and mattresses and all that good stuff back there. They’ll watch it from the back of their vehicle and it’s just a fun experience,” Thacher says.

While there are no current plans for upcoming drive-in movies in Newport Beach, they are continuing to screen them at Irvine Spectrum Center—as well as offering drive-in comedy nights on Saturdays in a partnership with the Irvine Improv. The comedians perform live on stage in front of the cars, but are also projected on the big screen. Recent shows have included comedy by entertainers like Steve Byrne, Jay Mohr and Felipe Esparza. Coming up, Fortune Feimster will give an encore performance on March 13.

OC Parks also presented some drive-in movies around the region, including “Hocus Pocus” and “Elf” at Mile Square Regional Park in Fountain Valley, “The Sandlot” at Ted Craig Regional Park in Fullerton and “The Lion King” at Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park in Trabuco Canyon. Some movies also included activities like a craft kit from OC Public Libraries or Halloween candy bags provided by the Girl Scouts of the USA. The Jurassic Park Jeeps and an inflatable dinosaur also made an appearance during the presentation of that movie.

“Although 2020 was far from what we expected, we took great pleasure in reimagining our events this past year and were thrilled to be able to continue offering a source of safe entertainment to the community,” says Heidi Darby, OC Parks’ special events coordinator. “Most events sold out within a couple of days—some even in the span of a few hours. We were humbled by the support and positive feedback we received from guests during and after each event, especially since this was our first time hosting drive-in events. We’re looking forward to more events in 2021.”

drive through_by Night of Lights OC
Night of Lights OC, presented at OC Fair & Event Center, allowed guests to drive through a mile-long course with more than a million lights and holiday scenery. | Photo by Night of Lights OC

Drive-Through Experiences

OC Fair & Event Center hosted a drive-in movie for a private group, but then invited the public to a few drive-in concerts—including Dead Man’s Party, an Oingo Boingo tribute band; Queen Nation, dedicated to Queen songs; The Fab Four, which pays homage to The Beatles; and Which One’s Pink?, a Pink Floyd tribute band—all presented by Autosonic Concerts, then got even more creative with the drive-through experiences.

In late summer, cars lined up for a taste of the fair, with vendors selling turkey legs, roasted corn, Dippin’ Dots, funnel cakes and more at the Fair Food Drive-Thru. While the traditional OC Fair was canceled, at least locals were able to savor some of the fair-time snacks they had waited all year to enjoy.

“We heard so many wonderful comments from guests who told us how much they missed the annual OC Fair due to this year’s cancellation,” says Terry Moore, communications director for the OC Fair & Event Center. “Just getting a taste of some of their fair favorites brought so many—masked—smiles. We also hear how happy people are to safely enjoy new and different types of entertainment, such as the drive-in concerts and holiday drive-through experiences.”

Both Halloween and Christmastime brought car-based events as well. In October, Urban Legends Haunt invited attendees to immerse themselves in several different interactive zones. Cars parked at each spooky scene, where a suspenseful story was presented by live actors with dancers, lights, sounds and special effects adding to the experience. Actors dressed as monsters or scary clowns with chainsaws walked through the aisles, approaching cars to give passengers a jump scare while still following social distancing rules.

Then, Winter Fest OC—which usually presents a festival on the fairgrounds in December and January—hosted Night of Lights OC, allowing guests to drive through a mile-long course with more than a million lights as well as holiday-themed scenery, snowfalls and bubbles. Attendees could tune their car radio or smartphone to music in some areas where animated light shows were synchronized to the tunes. Santa himself even made an appearance at this winter wonderland event, which also offered holiday cheer in the form of treats like hot cocoa, cookies and cinnamon sugar doughnuts.

“The public response has been terrific and the events have been very popular,” Moore says. “We know that people are looking for safe ways to find some enjoyment and we have been thrilled to safely bring some fun. … Our staff and board have been working hard to pivot to new ways of doing business and diligently planning to bring back more fun. We are glad that some of our partners were able to reinvent what they do so we could provide these innovative experiences for the community.”

According to Nicole Fait, spokeswoman for Urban Legends Haunt and Night of Lights OC, “the producers are planning to continue offering drive-through events in Orange County later this year, though we aren’t ready to publicize any specific event details at this time. More announcements will be coming around May. … The team is evaluating opportunities for Halloween and winter drive-through events in Orange County in 2021.”

Kicking off the new year, another company brought Jurassic Quest Drive Thru to the fairgrounds in February with more than 70 animatronic dinosaurs, offering lifelike Tyrannosaurus rex, triceratops and other species roaring and moving in realistic scenes as well as entertainers and dino wranglers along the route. Adorable baby dinosaurs also greeted guests, who drove past the displays—safari style—in their own cars while listening to an informative digital audio tour. The dinosaurs were created in collaboration with paleontologists to ensure accurate details down to the scaly skin, feathers or fur in each of these prehistoric representations, making the event both entertaining and educational. While the OC show has ended, after touring in a few other locations, Jurassic Quest will return to Southern California from March 26 to April 4 at the Del Mar Fairgrounds in San Diego County for those who missed its local stop.

In addition to fun experiences, the OC fairground has served as a site for emergency food distributions and COVID-19 testing. No additional drive-through offerings have been announced yet at the OC Fair & Event Center, but stay tuned and check the venue’s calendar at ocfair.com/events-calendar-view for updates. Moore says “staff is working on adding new events and we continue to work with state and local public health agencies to keep guests, employees and partners safe during this pandemic and into the future.”

Until a widespread rollout of COVID-19 vaccines and a drop in cases allow indoor venues to open, car-based events may continue to be the answer for some socially distanced entertainment for the next several months. So get ready to rev those engines as event planners work on creating the next drive-through extravaganzas.

Private Drive-Ins

For those seeking a drive-in experience for a private group, Newport Dunes Waterfront Resort & Marina and the OC Fair & Event Center are able to assist.

Drive In Bayside Pavillion at Newport Dunes_by Newport Dunes Waterfront Resort
Newport Dunes Waterfront Resort & Marina (left) utilizes its parking lot to host drive-in movies, celebrations of life and other events for private groups. | Photo by Newport Dunes Waterfront Resort

No drive-in events are planned for the public at Newport Dunes, but this service is still available for private gatherings. While Orange County remains in the purple tier status, under the state’s COVID-19 restrictions, only religious-affiliated drive-in events including church services, wedding ceremonies and celebrations of life may be held at the venue.

However, once the county moves into the red, orange and yellow tiers, then movies, concerts, fundraisers and other types of private or corporate drive-in events may resume at this site, which has space for up to 100 vehicles parked at least 6 feet apart.

The venue can provide audio-visual equipment, inflatable or LED screens and even movie licensing as well as catered snacks or box lunches. A stage and microphone may be used by speakers to broadcast their message while presentations or graphics may be shown on the screen. For more information, go to newportdunes.com.

The OC Fair & Event Center in Costa Mesa can accommodate both drive-in and drive-through experiences with more than 100 acres of outdoor space and an expansive parking lot available.

However, groups using the fairgrounds must provide their own screens and sound equipment if needed. All new events must be approved by the OC Health Care Agency before the fairgrounds can sign a contract. For more information, go to ocfair.com/venue-rentals.

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