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Ocala Drive-In's secret to success in a dying industry

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The Ocala Drive-In has been open since 1947, and even after all this time, some things just don’t change. Movie goers say they come to the Ocala Drive-In for the experience.

“When they come through the gates, it’s almost like a time warp,” said John Watzke, owner of the Ocala Drive-In. “You see very few of them playing with their cell phones. You see them having quality family time together. It’s a step back in time.”

A time before hi-tech movie theaters and sound systems – back when there were more than 46 hundred drive in theaters across the country.

Now, barely 300 drive-ins remain in the country – 8 of them in Florida.

Watzke says the care-free atmosphere keeps them competitive. Baby’s can cry, and dogs can bark. Your experience is your own without having to worry about the person sitting beside you in a crowded theater.

“We love being able to bring the baby,” Katie Holley, a movie goer said. “We wouldn’t be able to normally bring her to a regular movie theater. People would be so angry. It’s great because as soon as she falls asleep I can lay her down to sleep as we enjoy the rest of the movie.”

“The drive-ins, it’s a dying tradition,” Watzke said. “As long as I can keep this drive-in open, and the few owners that are left in the country that believe in what they’re doing and keep theirs going, it gives the next generation a chance to see what we used to do.”

Drive-in movie theaters originated in the summer of 1933. Several years later, Ocala got its very own.

“The original owners came down from Kentucky in late 1947, and the drive-in opened in March of 1948 as the Dyer Drive-In,” Watzke said.

A day that Roberta Dyer-Smith, daughter to the original owner, will always remember.

“Dad was always, I guess you could say and entrepreneur,” Smith said. “He liked to try different things. It was a big deal when the drive-in opened because there were no drive in theaters near Ocala at the time.”

Smith and her family lived on the property, and dad expected all of them to work as well. As a freshman in high school, Smith was in charge of the box office. Leaving her with some fun memories.

“I remember one time there was a young man and a little kid, and they wanted 3 popcorns,” Smith said. “And the attendant said ‘three?’ and the little kid said ‘Johnny’s in the trunk! Johnny’s in the trunk!’ They were trying to sneak him in.”

Regardless of new and developing technology, there is something about the old times creating a family-friendly atmosphere, that never seem to die.

“I would like to see more young families, young couples with families, take advantage of how easy it is to go to a movie and they don’t have to spend a lot of money,” Smith said.

“You see families being a family again,” Watzke said. “They spend quality time. You see the children running around the playground area. It’s just a step back.”

The Ocala Drive-In has passed through multiple hands over the years, permanently closing twice. Watzke has had it since 2011.

He says the key to his success has been preserving the drive-in’s old time feel to attract his generation.

“But my generation is going to bring your generation and the next generation to show what we used to do,” Watzke said. “Y’all are going to fall in love with it like we did, and y’all are going to continue with it when we’re gone.”

The drive-in is open seven days a week, rain or shine. If you'd like to check it out, for two movies, adult admission is six dollars and three dollars for kids.

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