Chicago

Outdoor and Drive-In Movie Theaters Near Chicago

Here's where to watch beloved classic movies and new blockbusters al fresco in the Windy City.

Navy Pier
Navy Pier
Navy Pier

At once nostalgic and COVID-safe, drive-in movie theaters have experienced a deserved resurgence over the past couple years, including throughout the Chicagoland area. For those averse to being price gouged over popcorn or crowding into indoor packed theaters (thanks, Tom Cruise), outdoor and drive-in movies provide that same cinematic wallop and communal experience, minus the exorbitant prices or risk of catching the latest Omicron variant while catching the latest Marvel romp.

In and around Chicago, al fresco films provide a family-friendly alternative. Although drive-in theaters have dwindled since their Americana heyday, a few holdouts are still going strong in the ‘burbs-and well worth the mini road trip for affordable double features and old-school concessions like cash-only candy and hot dogs. Meanwhile, if you’d rather unfurl a picnic blanket and BYO snacks, Chicago has plenty of outdoor movie experiences happening all summer long throughout the city. Whether you’re looking for an all-American blast from the past or a casual neighborhood outing in a park, here are the best outdoor and drive-in movie theaters near Chicago.

ChiTown Movies

Pilsen
As per nostalgic tradition, drive-in movie theaters are typified as adorably rickety relics tucked away in quiet suburbs, surrounded by some manner of forest and/or field, far from the hustle and bustle of modern city life. While that is certainly true for most drive-in theaters, one venture is zigging against the zag right in the heart of Chicago. ChiTown Movies is a full-blown drive-in movie theater in Pilsen, the mural-clad neighborhood on the near southwest side. The theater is surprisingly huge for a city lot, with plenty of room for 10 rows of cars, all angled at a gigantic screen projecting single features like Shrek, The Sandlot, and the most Chicago movie of all time, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Customers can order food-like pizza, tacos, and wings-to be delivered right to their window.
Drive from Chicago: None-it’s in Pilsen.

Flickr/BWChicago
Flickr/BWChicago
Flickr/BWChicago

McHenry Outdoor Theater

McHenry, Illinois
From the neon-clad jukebox and vintage arcade games to the old-school radios available to rent and listen to the movies, McHenry Outdoor Theater feels authentically preserved in time. Open since the ‘50s, not a lot has changed at this colossal drive-in complex north of the city, including its affordable double features and its comfort food provisions, from hot pretzels and hot dogs to the kind of nachos that come slathered in cheese as neon as the jukebox. Movies start at sundown, and include back-to-back blockbusters like Lightyear and Thor: Love and Thunder.
Drive from Chicago: About an hour and a half.

Route 34 Drive-In Theatre
Route 34 Drive-In Theatre
Route 34 Drive-In Theatre

Route 34 Drive-In Theater

Earlville, Illinois
Nestled on a vast grassy field in the far western suburbs, there’s something extra peaceful and pastoral about Route 34 Drive-In Theater. Unlike many drive-in theaters, which are commonly located on gravel or dirt, the grassy terrain makes it more comfortable to sit outside on a lawn chair, or let the kids run around and frolic before sunset. The cash-only property opens on weekends at 6:30 pm, with back-to-back movies starting at dusk. On any given week, features can include DC League of Super Pets, followed by a whiplash pivot to Twister-a movie that famously features a scene with a drive-in movie theater being blown to bits. The theater also has an indoor pool table, and frills-free concessions include burgers and popcorn (made with real butter, as the website emphatically assures).
Drive from Chicago: About an hour and a half.

49er Drive-in

Valparaiso, Indiana
Located just over the Indiana border, the 49er Drive-in is a seasonal summer tradition that delivers the goods with dirt-cheap double features ($10 for adults, $5 for kids 5 – 11, free for 4 and under), periodic live music events, and an emphasis on family-friendly films-think Finding Dory followed by Alice in Wonderland, or DC League of Super Pets followed by the new Elvis biopic. The concessions menu is surprisingly robust for a drive-in theater, with extensive options like chili cheese fries, mini corn dogs, fried green beans, funnel cakes, Polish sausages, and Italian beef. You can even get a cappuccino, in case you need an energy boost for the second screening. It’s all cash-only, but there’s an ATM in the concessions area.
Drive from Chicago: About an hour.

Chicago Park District
Chicago Park District
Chicago Park District

Chicago Parks

Various locations
A summer rite of passage in Chicago, right up there with street festivals and rooftop imbibing, Movies in the Parks is a fun and festive way to take advantage of the city’s glory days. Courtesy of the Chicago Park District, the seasonal series projects outdoor films on pop-up screens in parks throughout the city until the end of August. Even cheaper than a drive-in theater, all movies are free to attend, and they’re the perfect setting for picnicking with family and friends (many movies are family-friendly, but some, like King Richard and The Gay Divorcee, skew more mature). Check the calendar for an exhaustive list of movies and parks, and there’s bound to be something that fits your fancy. Movies start right after sunset, but arrive early if you’d like to scope out a prime spot.
Drive from Chicago: None-they’re all over the city.

Millennium Park Summer Film Series

Millennium Park
A popular spot for outdoor concerts, festivals, and selfies by the Bean, Millennium Park is also a particularly beautiful place to take in an al fresco flick. With the staggering skyline as a twinkling backdrop, free-to-attend outdoor movies are screened on Tuesday nights through September 6 at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion. Just like concerts at the pavilion, though, the movies are especially popular, and the sprawling lawn is known to fill up rather quickly, so keep that in mind for your picnic strategy. Movies start at 6:30 pm, and this year’s roster features dance-inspired films with the theme “2022 Year of Chicago Dance.” These include Encanto, In The Heights, Dirty Dancing, and Save the Last Dance.
Drive from Chicago: None-it’s in the middle of downtown’s biggest tourist attraction.

Navy Pier
Navy Pier
Navy Pier

Water Flicks at Navy Pier

Streeterville
It makes sense that Navy Pier, an almost infamously family-friendly tourist attraction jutting into Lake Michigan from Streeterville, would host an outdoor film series dedicated exclusively to family-inspired movies. Another free option, movies are aired in the grassy Polk Bros Park on pop-up screens overlooking the water. Held every Monday night through August 29, familial fare includes the requisite Encanto, Rent, Clifford the Big Red Dog, Minari, and Meet the Parents. Attendees are welcome to bring their own provisions, or grab something to-go from any of Navy Pier’s myriad fast-casual eateries, like I Dream of Falafel, America’s Dog & Burger, Big Bowl Chinese Express, Big City Chicken, and Frankie’s Pizza by the Slice.
Drive from Chicago: None-it’s right on the lake downtown.

Gallagher Way Chicago
Gallagher Way Chicago
Gallagher Way Chicago

Gallagher Way

Wrigleyville
Another free all-ages alternative is the ongoing outdoor film series at Gallagher Way, the meticulously landscaped park space surrounded by boutique restaurants, shops, and hotel rooms-oh, and Wrigley Field is across the street. It’s the perfect spot to fling a blanket, bring some snacks, and take in a flick. Held on Wednesday nights through September 21, eclectic movies include the inescapable Encanto, Grease, Bohemian Rhapsody, and Field of Dreams, which is the perfect thing to watch in the shadows of Wrigley Field.
Drive from Chicago: None-it’s across from Wrigley Field.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat.Matt Kirouac is a travel writer working on a memoir about the epic ups and downs from life on the road as a gay couple-and the lessons learned along the way. Follow him on IG @mattkirouacofficial.

Chicago

Robyn DaCultyre Is Doing It for the Culture

"The cool thing about Ohio is that there is literally a place for everyone."

Photo by Kayode Omoyosi
Photo by Kayode Omoyosi
Photo by Kayode Omoyosi

I was introduced to Robyn DaCultyre at an Untitled Queen show at C’mon Everybody in late January, and it was one of the most unique drag shows I’d seen in a while. Afterwards, I tracked down this self-described “drag creature” and video chatted about her drag origin story, the state of drag in her native Ohio, and the dual identities that make up her persona. Thrillist: I want to ask you about how Robyn DaCultyre came about and your point of view behind your performance.

Robyn DaCultyre: I’ve been travelling around the country from a young age in ministry and Christian studies. I moved to Chicago right after high school. Four years later, moved back to Columbus and decided I didn’t really want to do church anymore; that wasn’t where my heart was.

I had a really low point in my life and had a suicide attempt and then really found drag and started doing drag as a coping mechanism and way to let off steam. I started in July of 2019, and it was really a lot of punk and metal music. I created this drag creature of sorts and they were really out of this world and celestial and all of those fun alien type terms.

And then we went into a global pandemic and I had a lot of time to figure out who I wanted to be. Digitally I was still doing a lot of drag creature-esque numbers and all of that, but I had this moment where we’re on the front lines getting hit with pepper spray and rubber bullets and pepper spray-all of those lovely things. And I said, I have this platform and I need to start showcasing what’s happening.

Untitled [Queen] stepped in at the right time and messaged me and said, “I’m doing this show for Independence Day called Untitled in America with 52 different performers and I want you to be a part of it.” It was at that moment I was able to take the footage I had been recording on the front lines and incorporate it into digital content. I did a song called Black Like Me by Mickey Guyton that talks about white picket fences, but if you want to see how America is, then you should try being Black like me. The imagery of what’s literally happening in Columbus in that digital performance really spearheaded me into focusing on people who look like me.

Nina Simone is one of my biggest inspirations, and one of her quotes that resonates with me is that it’s the duty of the artist to resonate with the times. My art is politically charged. I like to entertain, but there will definitely be a time when you come to a show expecting to have your drink and be chill and that might not be the case.

How did the name Robyn DaCultyre come about?

I was smoking with Ursula Major, who was on season one of Dragula, and the first time I introduced myself to her I was Robyn Banks, which is my drag name originally. She said, “Well, do you just not want to be original at all?” [Laughs] And I sat with that for a couple of months, and I got really stoned one day and was listening to Janelle Monae, and she talks about doing it for the culture, and I said “I do it for the culture, too!” And the rest is history.

And you started a series called Melanated.

We started Melanated last February. I told the idea to my show director that there were no shows specifically run by Black people that only featured Black entertainers. I wanted to do this show for a night and she said, Why don’t we do it once a week for the whole month? The first show happens, and it’s a sold out crowd, and [my director] comes back and says we should do this every month. So I sucked it up and here we are a year later.

Melanated is the only fully Black show in all of the state. It’s a horrible marketing tool and not something I want to promote, but it is just a fact. It amazes me that we are the 13th largest city in America and there’s nothing here that’s fully focused on Black entertainers. The name also comes from Janelle Monae; she says she’s highly melanated and I said, that works.

Photos by Chay Creates LLC (left) and Bridget Caswell (right)
Photos by Chay Creates LLC (left) and Bridget Caswell (right)
Photos by Chay Creates LLC (left) and Bridget Caswell (right)

You refer to yourself as a drag creature, as opposed to drag queen or king…

This is actually the first time I’m making this public. I am in this place where I want to separate the alternative creature from who this melanated goddess or whatever is. DaCultyre is definitely the person who runs Melanated and then Robyn is this drag creature that is out of this world and really loves punk and alternative music. And both intertwine to make Robyn DaCultyre.

You also do pageants. Tell me about that.

In 2020 I was appointed by Nina West, who is from Columbus, as the representative from Ohio for National Entertainer of the Year in Louisville, Kentucky. I placed ninth out of 13 contestants and I really fell in love with the system and fell in love with the pageantry and loved the idea of reigning and being different. I want to show that we as alternative performers, as bearded performers, you can come into these systems and shake things up.

Is there a uniquely “Ohio” style of drag?

No, and I think that’s one of the things that makes it so amazing is that everyone has their own unique style, and it’s all pretty much accepted. I started as a performer and a drag creature and there was space that was afforded to me and I transitioned to more glamor and pageantry and that’s afforded to me as well. I’ve been a bearded entertainer for a year now. The cool thing about Ohio is that there is literally a place for everyone.

I think I have everything I need. Is there anything else I didn’t ask you about that you want to bring up, or‚Ķ

I don’t think so. Are there any generic questions you haven’t asked?

Generic questions‚ĶI think I asked all of them already [laughs]. I like to ask what you’d be doing if you weren’t doing drag?

It’s a great question. I have a day job that is very demanding so I need drag to get away. I’m also very creative and artistic. I used to do web design and all these other things to pull into my creativity. Drag is the longest thing I’ve stuck with in all parts of my life, so I don’t think it’s going anywhere anytime soon.

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John deBary¬†is a drinks expert and writer. His first cocktail book,¬†Drink What You Want, is available now, and his next book,¬†Saved by the Bellini, is expected in early 2023. He is also the co-founder and president of the¬†Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation, which is dedicated to improving the lives of hospitality industry professionals through advocacy, grant making, and impact investing.

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