John Watzke, the owner of the Ocala Drive-In Theatre, poses for a photo at the theatre on South Pine Avenue south of Ocala, Fla. on Wednesday, August 4, 2021. The Ocala Drive-In is showing movies 7 days a week and is doing very well during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Watzke and his brother, Charlie, bought the 1948 old-school drive-in, completely remodeled it and brought it back to life in 2011. Watzke is now the sole owner of the Ocala Drive-In Theatre. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2021.
While he admits the novelty of attending a drive-in show has kept the gates open, after the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year, business has increased with capacity or near capacity showings now the norm. Lockdowns across the country due to the pandemic forced indoor theaters to close. For a time, the drive-in was the only show in town.
When the pandemic hit, what had been a forgotten pastime became once again a practicality for the nation. For a few weeks in early 2020, the Ocala Drive-In was the only theater showing movies in the country.
“There was a three- or four-week period that I was the only theater in the country reporting new releases,” Watzke said. “That was last year, end of March, beginning of April.”At one time, thousands of drive-ins dotted the country. Today the number is just more than 300, according to driveinmovie.com
But the renewed interest in the drive-in continued even after the indoor theaters reopened.
“It [the pandemic] has brought the recognition of drive-ins back,” Watzke said. “This brought the drive-ins back into the limelight when people started realizing, ‘Hey, they still have drive-ins,’ and what a great thing it is—it’s a family outing.”
The Ocala Drive-In opened in 1948 and shut down in 2002 only to reopen a year later before again closing in 2007.
In 2011, Watzke stepped in, renovated the property, updated the equipment and personally handled the day-to-day operation. The work paid off—Watzke said he now recognizes regulars from St. Augustine, Tallahassee, Jacksonville and Daytona who make the commute to enjoy the inexpensive outing. The drive-in charges $6 per adult and $3 per child for two movies. Ticket sales account for only 20% of the revenue, Watzke said. It’s the concession stand that keeps films on the screens.
“It’s a family gathering, okay?” Watzke said. “Family gets together. They come to the drive-in. They’re spending at least four to five hours or more together.”
And if you ask someone about a movie they’ve seen at a drive-in, he says, “they’re going to tell you what drive-in they’ve seen it at, what vehicle they were driving, who was with them—it becomes a memory.’Even before the pandemic, however, Watzke continued to improve the drive-in experience and expand options. They installed FM transmitters to broadcast sound through car stereos instead of through window speakers. They upgraded the projectors, and Watzke also added a second screen.
The drive-in also shows more than movies. They feature concerts—video and real-time. Blake Sheldon, Garth Brookes, Bon Jovi, and Jimmy Buffet have all appeared on the Ocala screen along with Christian artists, For King and Country and Toby Mac. The drive-in has also hosted girl scout events, school award ceremonies and CF graduations.
Whatever the event, the drive-in allows families the chance to come together as a family and that’s what Watzke is all about—the memories.
For Watzke, it’s also a family affair. His father and his grandfather were movie projectionists. His brother, Charlie, operates a theater in Waveland, Mississippi.
“I was raised in the theaters—my family has been, uh, 108 years working in theaters,” he said.