All Over The Map: Plan a summer road trip to Washington’s historic drive-ins

Aug 19, 2022, 9:53 AM | Updated: Oct 25, 2022, 4:19 pm

The Rodeo Drive-In near Bremerton dates to a single screen in 1949; the "Elvis" trailer played on a recent August night at what's now a three-screen complex. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio) View of the marquee and back of the main screen from State Highway 3. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio) Cars line up alongside the back of the main screen at the Rodeo Drive-In near Bremerton. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio) Tickets may be purchased in advance online, but all cars enter via the same line. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio) The concession stand on a recent night at the Rodeo Drive-In. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio)

With the Seahawks midway through the preseason and the Mariners continuing to tantalize visions of a wildcard berth, there’s still time for a summer road trip to one of the five historic drive-in movie theatres still operating in the Evergreen State.

According to exhaustive non-scientific research and persistent speculative theorizing, people of all ages have a lot of nostalgia and other warm feelings for long-gone drive-in movie theatres.

Whether it’s the Duwamish in Tukwila, the Midway on Highway 99, the Bel-Kirk in Kirkland, the Valley Six in Auburn, the Puget Park in Everett, or the Circus near Anacortes, a form of recreation that combines the constitutional-protected privacy of a personal vehicle, the mind-numbing glitz of Hollywood entertainment, and the pleasure-inducing quality of junk food conjures a sense of longing, deep in the fan-shaped, dead-grass covered, brown field of the mind.

The good “All Over the Map” news is that there are still four vintage drive-ins operating within driving distance – more or less – of Seattle, and one more a bit farther away. One important bonus, along with the nostalgia factor, is the guilt-free, built-in social distancing of drive-ins that makes them so practical during a pandemic.

The Rodeo Drive-In near Bremerton was the easiest and fastest to reach on a recent Saturday night. From Seattle, by way of the historic Tacoma Narrows Bridge, it took only about an hour and ten minutes to drive the 65-mile route – no ferry required. To guarantee a spot for one of the three double-features offered, tickets can be purchased in advance online. However, arriving just before dusk, all cars waited in the same long admission line, though the advance purchase did save a bit of time at the ticket booth.

It was in 1949 – during the golden age of drive-in movie theatres – when the Rodeo Drive-In first opened with just a single screen. Even now, as a triple-screen operation, the Rodeo has a fairly non-ironic vibe. Between movie trailers for coming attractions, they do play vintage ads for the concession stand, but there isn’t a lot of other cutesy nostalgia cluttering up the car-based cinematic experience – this place feels like it’s all about the movies and the snacks.

For instance, an $8.50 large popcorn includes one free refill. When you bring the bucket back to get that refill, the clerk marks a big ‘X’ on the bottom so you can’t bring it back again. The experience of watching the concession stand clerk marking the bottom of the bucket had a comforting non-ironic vibe. Plus, the Rodeo is a family-owned small business, and they depend on the sale of snacks and drinks to make everything pencil out – so don’t be shy about loading up on popcorn, candy, and whatever else strikes your fancy.

For the audio part of the show, those old pole-mounted speakers are long gone. At most drive-in theatres, including the Rodeo, be sure and bring your own battery-powered portable radio – separate from your car radio – so that you don’t have to turn on the ignition or accessory setting. This is because the radios on many modern vehicles will shut off automatically after 10 or 15 minutes, requiring the driver to press the ‘START’ button to turn back on, which can launch a whole cascade of irritating cabin and running lights.

Make sure the portable radio you bring is a good one with decent sound; our party brought along a 1990s vintage GE Superadio III with six D-batteries for plenty of power, and big speakers strong enough to drown out the sound of multiple family members chewing popcorn. If you don’t have a radio, what is wrong with you?!?! Also, most drive-ins offer rental radios as an option.

Other Puget Sound area drive-in movie theatres include:

The Skyline Drive-In in Shelton.

Opened in 1964 and still has just one screen; 78 miles from KIRO Newsradio.

The Blue Fox Drive-In on Whidbey Island near Oak Harbor. This one-screen drive-in opened in 1959 and is a total of 93 miles from KIRO Newsradio if you take Deception Pass Bridge (and skip the Mukilteo-Clinton ferry). One very nice policy: if you let the staff know, they will let you sleep, undisturbed, in your car overnight.

Wheel-In Motor Movie near Port Townsend

This rustic drive-in dates to 1953. It’s only 50 miles from KIRO Newsradio if you take the Edmonds ferry or 108 miles if you take the Narrows Bridge, but allow about two hours for either route (NOT including the ferry line).

If these four theatres are too close and you’ve really got the road trip itch for a long drive, there’s one more option in the Evergreen State: the Auto-Vue Drive-In in Colville, which is just 326 scenic miles from Seattle.

One more pro-tip: for maximum viewing pleasure, wash your windshield and scrape dry with a heavy-duty service station squeegee on your way to the show. And, since these drive-ins are all located in at least semi-rural areas, bring along a bottle of window cleaner and some paper towels in case your summer evening drive is plagued with insect kills that mar the once-pristine glass of your personal portable theatre.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News and read more from him here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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All Over The Map: Plan a summer road trip to Washington’s historic drive-ins