The Scoop: The number of drive-in movie theaters in the US has dwindled to only 550, and the Delsea Drive-In now stands as the only one left in New Jersey. Over the past few decades, the availability of what was once an affordable and enjoyable date destination has declined. But Jude DeLeonardis, the owner and operator of the theater, remains optimistic about the industry’s future. Drive-ins that are still in operation continue to thrive as places for creating memorable date nights.

Danny Zuko and Sandy Olsson do much more than paint a picturesque summer romance in their duet, “Summer Nights”; they encapsulate the feeling of youthfulness amid first loves, rival friend groups, and, well, tons of drama. 

But if I’m being honest, it wasn’t Rydell High that made me fall in love with “Grease.” It was the sense of nostalgia that came with the setting, like the 1950s malt shop and drive-in movie theater.

As a New Englander where half the year is cold and dark, drive-ins are one of the best ways to truly soak in the spring and summer weather before it’s whisked away each chilly October. 

I feel lucky to say I’m no stranger to date nights at the drive-in. There’s something contagious about the aroma of freshly cut grass and buttery popcorn against the backdrop of the setting sun, especially when you’re experiencing it with someone special.

The Delsea Drive-In Theatre in New Jersey is one place that takes you back to a site of nostalgia where fun and romance perfectly blend. 

Delsea Drive-In Theatre homepage
The Delsea Drive-In Theatre is the last-standing drive-in movie theatre in New Jersey.

Jude DeLeonardis, the owner/operator of Delsea, explained it best: “You could watch movies on a streaming service at home, but we still believe drive-ins have plenty to offer,” she said. “What do you do when you’re tired of doing the same thing you could do any day of the week? If you want to do something different — something special — then go to a drive-in.” 

The same can be said for a date where, sometimes, making an extra effort to create a lasting impression goes beyond the typical conventions of a traditional date. And a double feature under the stars is simply hard to beat. 

The Story Behind New Jersey’s Only Outdoor Theater

Delsea Drive-In Theatre opened in 1949 and closed just shy of 40 years later. But in 2003, the current owners — Jude and her husband, John — bought it, fixed it up, and reopened in 2004. 

The Delsea Drive-In is in Vineland, New Jersey, and is the Garden State’s only drive-in movie theater. It operates from mid-March to October, although it will sometimes stay open through November, depending on the weather. 

Unlike traditional movie theaters, where ticket prices have surged to nearly $20, at Delsea, just pay $12.50 for one feature or $20 for two.

There’s also an impressive menu full of snacks, entrees, and desserts, from buttered popcorn and grilled cheeses to milkshakes and hot chocolates. Order your food on Delsea’s designated website, and you’ll be notified when it’s ready for pickup at the concessions stand. 

Screenshot of Delsea's menu
You can also choose from a variety of entrees, including pizza, cheeseburgers, spring rolls, and even seasonal soups.

Over its two-decade span, the theater has expanded, adding a second screen in 2008 and transitioning to digital projection in 2013.

Jude says there’s been no shortage of careful decision-making as Delsea approaches its 20th anniversary. Since its early days, the goal of the theater has been to broaden audience appeal by accommodating all types of audiences.

“Because we have two screens, we can focus family features on one and a more mature crowd on the other,” Jude explained. 

Usually, when there are two movies (say one is PG and the other PG-13), the crew plays the PG film first since families with young children usually don’t stay for the entire double feature.

But the other screen is for the more mature audience. Its showings are carefully selected by the time of year or new releases — for example, October’s weekend showed movies such as “Five Nights at Freddy’s,” “Halloween 3,” and “The Exorcist.” 

At the end of its 2023 season in November, Delsea showed “Christmas with the Kranks,” “Four Christmases,” and “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.”

“We also have classic nights where we throw in an older movie or mix it up by showing a triple feature here and there,” Jude added. 

The Unique Charm of a First Date at the Drive-In

There’s something tried and true about going to the movies on a first, second, and even hundredth date. 

The theater is an easy way to enjoy a night out without forcing conversation and letting the conversation come naturally to you. You can talk about the ratings or what friends have said about the movie beforehand and whether you enjoyed it afterward. Small talk like this is key on a critical date: It may seem trivial, but it helps build a connection.

It’s also a good idea to pair a movie with an activity, such as grabbing a coffee or enjoying a meal. 

And that’s where the charming nostalgia of drive-ins can blow any traditional date idea out of the water. Not only is it a unique outing, but it’s an easy attraction for couples since it provides a more relaxed environment for conversation. 

Young couple sitting in trunk of car watching movie
Going to the movies for a date is a tale as old as time, so level it up with a drive-in theater date.

Unlike regular movie theaters, drive-ins are outdoor cinemas where you can watch from your car. This allows plenty of talk and laughter between you and your date without interrupting someone else’s night. 

“You can talk about whatever, whether it’s the movie or something different. That’s the nice part about watching from your car,” said Jude. 

Delsea Drive-In Theatre has some rave reviews. Here’s a select few: 

  • “If you’ve never been to the drive-in, I highly recommend bringing the kids or a date to Delsea.”
  • “The drive-in is easily one of my favorite places to go for date night. Affordable double features and a reasonably priced and very diverse snack bar.”
  • “The whole experience was great and a really cute date with my boyfriend.”
  • “A nod to a bygone era, this theater has modern conveniences and delicious food! It makes for a great date and offers a full night out! Enjoy dinner and a movie together for around $20 per person!”
  • “This place is my new favorite summertime date destination.”

Jude says many couples come to Delsea for the flexibility in seating. It’s not unusual to see people come in their pickups, back into a spot, and set up comforters and pillows in the beds to sit back and relax. 

“I think this type of setting tends to work well for people dating,” Jude said. “We see people in the back of their pickup trucks with little mattresses, pillows, and blankets, and we just love to see it. You can still talk and enjoy the movie together — there’s just a new spin on it.” 

Drive-Ins Are Coming Back — and Rekindling Nostalgia

Ninety years ago, more than 4,000 drive-ins operated in the US. Today, approximately 550 are left. Drive-ins began to decline decades ago due to the increasing cost of land and the rise of the fast-food industry.  

And yet, Jude said he is confident drive-ins are making a comeback for one main reason: The experience is a nostalgic and cost-friendly option for date nights out, especially compared to other forms of entertainment in the area. 

A good date is all about clicking with the other person. A unique setting and fun activities help drive that force. 

“Restaurants are always there, and you could watch something on TV, which is nice — but it’s not the same as a drive-in movie theater,” Jude noted. 

Going to the movies is like going to the ballgame: It’s always more fun to get out of the house and see it yourself. I don’t know about you, but having been locked down for more than a year, this is one of the little pleasures in life I’ve learned not to take for granted. 

Young couple talking at drive-in theater
Dating is all about creating a connection, and drive-ins are a great place to talk amongst yourselves even while the movie is playing.

Jude says the unique social and intimate drive-in atmosphere blend is perfect for first dates and long-term couples. She recommends sticking to what most other couples do: Arrive an hour early to find a good spot and order snacks and dinner before cozying up to watch movies for the rest of the night.

But Jude just has one request: Keep it PG and stick to watching the movie. 

If you’re close by and looking for something new and unique to do on a first date, the Delsea Drive-In Theatre reopens for the season in March 2024. 

Delsea is less than an hour from Philadelphia, Atlantic City, and Delaware. See what they’ll show next by checking their website or following them on Instagram.