Reopening puts spotlight on drive-in theaters

Sarah Eames | The Daily Star The marquee at the Unadilla Drive-In advertises the theater's opening day, Friday, May 29.

As the Mohawk Valley and several other regions across New York state ease into the first phase of reopening, the owners of the Unadilla Drive-In are preparing to be the “front-runners” of the local entertainment industry, among the first in the state to open since the national outbreak of coronavirus.

Drive-in theaters were the only entertainment venue included in the first phase of New York’s reopening schedule, initiated May 15 in several regions, including the Southern Tier and Mohawk Valley. Other entertainment and recreational venues, such as indoor theaters, bowling alleys, skating rinks and arcades, will not be permitted to open until the state’s fourth and final phase.

“We’re not trying to just get people in here,” said Onilee Wilson, the youngest daughter of theater owners Eric and Marcia Wilson. “We think of it more as a landmark than a business.”

Owned by the Wilson family since 2000, the theater has changed hands several times since it opened May 29, 1956.

Sixty-four years later to the day, the drive-in will once again open its gates to the Tri-Town community and beyond, albeit with some changes and adaptations amid the pandemic.

Anticipating large crowds of movie-goers eager to get out of the house, the Wilsons instituted an online reservation system for the time being.

“It’s going to be a lot of trial and error for a while,” Wilson said. “It’s a unique situation because we’re not a restaurant, we’re not a factory.”

The lot’s 400-car capacity will be reduced to 200 for the time being, Wilson said. Guests will be asked to watch the films from inside their cars or seated directly in front, and to wear masks when visiting the snack bar or the restrooms.

A second snack bar window was installed to alleviate some of the crowds, and soon to be added are polycarbonate windows to further distance guests and employees, Wilson said. A limited menu of popcorn, candy and canned drinks will be offered to start.

Employees will be equipped with face masks and face shields, the latter of which are produced at the Wilsons’ other business, USA Custom Pad in Sidney.

“It’s a fun way to be open and not put anybody at risk,” Wilson said. 

Wilson said the family modeled some of the new policies and procedures based on those adopted by other drive-ins across the state, including the Warwick Drive-In in Orange County and the Finger Lakes Drive-In in Cayuga County.

Screening opening weekend will be "Trolls World Tour" and "Jumanji: The Next Level." Wilson said the theater will likely show second-run movies for a while, as many studios pushed back release dates or released films direct-to-stream amid the pandemic.

Butler Auto Sales and WDCO of Sidney sponsored admission for all children opening weekend.

For more information or to make a reservation, visit or follow “Unadilla Drive-In” on Facebook.

Sarah Eames, staff writer, can be reached at or 607-441-7213. Follow her @DS_SarahE on Twitter.

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