Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ocala Drive-in’s business is better than ever before, according to owner John Watzke.
Toward the start of the pandemic, Watzke sawed a hole into the concessions side door and installed a small window from his storage shed in the back. A few days later, Watzke fenced off every other parking space. With 10 to 14 feet between each vehicle, the drive-in’s capacity lowered from 445 to 203.
Although Watzke has received backlash for staying open, he said that he has done everything in his power to ensure safety for his guests and staff. Every employee has their temperature taken when they arrive at work and three hours thereafter. When they deliver concessions to vehicles, the staff wears gloves and masks, and they hold trays out for customers to take the packages into their own hands.
In mid-April, Watzke owned the only drive-in in the U.S. showing newly released films. While large film companies have not delivered new movies, Watzke contacted independent and small film companies, like IFC Films, and arranged for newly released films to be shown at the drive-in.
Normally toward the beginning of May, the drive-in faces a decline in customers. However, this year, even at half capacity, the drive-in has about 40 percent more customers than usual. During the week, the spots almost fill up. On the weekends, Watzke has had to turn 50 to 60 cars away.
“People are getting cabin fever,” Watzke said. “As long as it's appropriate, I don't think they really care too much about what the movies are as long as they can get out of the house right now.”
In 2011, Watzke opened the drive-in after several years of vacancy. The Ocala Drive-in has braved Hurricane Irma and floods along with days of sparse audiences.
Working for a theater runs in his blood. In 1913, his grandfather began as a projectionist. Watzke’s father, brother and sons have all become projectionists.
“We've heard stories that were passed down through the history of the family and, you know, there's very little that can happen that somebody in my family hasn't gone through working in theaters,” Watzke said.
Now, other drive-ins have caught up, but Erin Meadows, 48-year-old Ocala resident, said Watzke earned all of the recognition.
“I couldn't be more proud to know him,” Meadows said. “I'm really glad to see that during this pandemic that's going on the community finds a safe haven with him and can reciprocate everything he does back.”
Meadows met Watzke the day after he opened the drive-in. Since then, she has taken her daughter, her mother, her coworkers, her grandchildren and six to seven different cars to the theater through the years. Every week, she watches the movies in the same parking place, sometimes even twice. On busy nights, she helps with concessions.
“The whole atmosphere still takes me back to my childhood,” she said. “I'll go see a cartoon just so I can hear the little kids laugh and enjoy what I remember as a child and that stuff you can't ever replace.”
With pillows, lawn chairs and mattresses, people comfortably settle to watch two movies on one of the two 90-foot screens. Tickets are $6 for adults, $3 for 6- to 12-year-olds and free for children 5 and under.
Watzke said the experience at the drive-in is about more than a movie.
“If they've seen it at a walk-in, they'll say, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ve seen that movie it was good.’ That's the end of the conversation,” Watzke said. “If they’ve seen it at a drive-in, whether they were children or adults, they will tell you who was with them, what vehicle they were driving, what drive-in they went to and it becomes a memory or a story, as opposed to just a movie.”
Contact Katie Delk at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @katie_delk.