What is a Drive-In?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A drive-in is a facility which allows patrons to use its services while remaining in their vehicles. One well-known example of this type of establishment is the drive-in movie theater, but other forms, ranging from restaurants to pharmacies, also exist. The idea behind this type of establishment is that it is more convenient for the patrons, who may be willing to pay a higher price for the ease or novelty of using one.

During the 1950s, staff at drive-in food established commonly wore roller skates while delivering food to patrons.
During the 1950s, staff at drive-in food established commonly wore roller skates while delivering food to patrons.

The first drive-in theater was established in New Jersey in 1933, and it proved to be a big hit. In this type of theater, films are projected onto a giant screen which sits at one end of a field or parking lot. Patrons are directed to specific parking spaces where they settle in to watch the show. Since many people associate these theaters with the decades in the middle of the 20th century, many such theaters capitalize on the nostalgia factor by showing classic films, and some may offer roving concessions stands and other services to make patrons even more comfortable.

Some pharmacies offer drive-in services to make things easier for patients.
Some pharmacies offer drive-in services to make things easier for patients.

At a drive-in food establishment, people park in a lot and restaurant staff come to them to take orders. In the 1950s especially, food drive-ins got quite whimsical, with staff flying by on roller skates and clipping trays to car windows. In a related concept, the drive-through, patrons drive up to a pickup window to order food to go.

Drive-in banking is also common in some regions of the world, with many banks using capsule pipelines, also known as pneumatic tubes, to send messages and funds between drivers and tellers. Some pharmacies and other stores also offer similar services for patrons who do not feel like going inside.

The heyday of the drive-in was probably in the 1950s, when car ownership among ordinary people increased radically, and gas was still extremely cheap, creating a world in which people were encouraged to drive and enjoy the roads. These facilities were very common in the middle of the 20th century, although they have been on the wane since. Modern facilities may provide special perks to their customers or reference the 1950s in the hopes of inducing people who are feeling a bit nostalgic to stop to do their business.

Because a drive-in requires more staff and infrastructure than an establishment with a traditional walk-up counter, the cost of products may be slightly more expensive to compensate. Some consumers feel that the added expense is worth it, because using a drive-in saves time. Other consumers simply enjoy the novelty, finding something pleasurable in being waited on by attentive staff.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


I use the drive-in at my bank all the time. I’m not much of a people person, so I prefer to just send my check and my instructions up a tube than hand it over in person.

I still talk to a teller, but it isn’t a face-to-face conversation. During the transaction, I can hear her, and she can hear me through the speaker, but we don’t have to see each other’s expressions or fake a smile.

I guess that drive-in banks are appreciated by introverts everywhere. Some people would not understand this, but the drive-in takes a bit of social anxiety off of my shoulders.


@seag47 - I love going to movies outdoors! My local drive-in is pretty strict about behavior, though, so I don’t have rude teenagers to deal with while I’m there.

Most of the people stay inside their cars to watch the movie, but my boyfriend and I take our lawn chairs and put them in the back of his truck, which is parked backward so that we can see the movie from there. I like feeling the cool night air after a hot summer day while watching a movie.

It’s so much better than renting a movie and staying home. I could never get this experience in my living room. I get to enjoy entertainment and nature all at once.


I live in a small town, so we don’t even have an area movie theater, drive-in or otherwise. We do have a drive-in restaurant, though, and I love the convenience of using it.

I pull into a space that is covered, so even if it is raining, I don’t get wet while I’m ordering and taking my food from the waitress. The menu is on a pole, and I press a button to place my order.

This place has the best shakes and smoothies I’ve ever had. They have so much variety, and this is why many people go here.

Only a couple of waitresses wear roller skates, because they are not required to do this. They do get more money for wearing them, though, and this is good motivation for the ones who can actually skate to put them on.


Our local movie theater is a drive-in, and it is very popular with the young crowd. I have only been to it once, because it doesn’t usually show newer films, and those are the ones I’m interested in.

When I did go to it, I noticed that almost every car had teenagers in it. Some of them behaved rudely, tossing popcorn at the concession girl as she walked by and whistling at her. Others sat on their hoods and made way too much noise.

This type of behavior would never be tolerated inside a regular movie theater. I think that’s another reason I prefer them to the drive-in kind.

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