It's not often we find an old school way of doing things that makes life cheaper and better. Churning butter? Hard work. Developing film? Time consuming. Hand crank car windows? Uggg. But there is one thing (extremely hard to find in Iowa) that breaks all the rules. It makes the family movie experience cheaper, richer, less stressful and more bonding-centric. Where is this magical cinema you ask? Steer your car toward Newton's old Highway Six and find the Valle Drive-In.
What makes the Valle so magical? You feel your soul being transported to a different time. To get a good parking spot you really need to show up when gates open at 6:30, but the show won't start until dark closer to 9pm. It's during those two hours that the magic happens. Piping through the original speakers are classics from the Beach Boys and Buddy Holly. As you set up your camp chairs and start preparing supper you catch your kids dancing to Chantilly Lace. A different group of kids start up a game of Frisbee in front of the screen. Families all around you start playing games like Old Maid and Phase 10. Somehow you've found yourself in the midst of the family friendly 50s. You don't feel the urge to check your smart phone. And as the watermelon juice runs down your chin there's nowhere else you'd rather be.
We try to make it to the Valle at least once a summer and this year we hit it on a Tuesday night to catch the latest Disney Pixar flick. It was busy but not swamped and we were surprised to learn we got free popcorn with each paid admission. And speaking of paid admissions it cost us $21 for our family of five to get in, and that's to a double feature. Way more cost effective than the standard cinema. The kids got to burn energy in a game of touch football while we waited for the sun to set and this made them much better movie watchers when the feature started. I didn't have to shush them once.
The drive-in experience has changed a little since 1948. You now park your car so the taillights point to the screen. This is so you can pop open your back hatch, fold down your seats, and turn your car into nest of couch cushions, pillows and blankets. It makes the public movie a very snuggle friendly family experience, and the smaller the hatchback the more the snuggles. Beyond vehicle orientation, though, the experience is genuinely old school. The teasers at the beginning beckoning you to the snack shack are original, and so is the snack shack and its popcorn maker. The neon Valle sign is original too. It's pretty cool to know the kids are listening to the movie through the same speaker their great-grandparents used. But I think grandpa's car faced forward, and a nest of blankets would have been a scandalous no-no in 1948.
Insider Tips for the Valle Drive-In:
- Arrive when the gates open at 6:30 to get a good spot (earlier if it's a weekend to get a good place in line).
- Bring blankets, camp chairs and plenty of squishy pillows.
- Check the forecast. No refunds for rain.
- Tuesday night is free popcorn night (One per paid admission).
- Cash only for admission. $8 per adult, $5 per child over 5.
- Pack a picnic supper but remember, no grilling allowed for safety reasons.
- Newton is a quick drive from Des Moines, if you're making plans in the capitol city you should definitely make the Valle a part of your itinerary. You won't be disappointed, even if the movie's a dud.
- There are four other drive-ins left in Iowa: 3 on Highway 61 in eastern Iowa and one on Highway 71 up by Spirit Lake. The Valle is the oldest and most authentic experience.