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Foxwoods drive-in recalls simpler time, with more social distance

Mashantucket — Harry Potter just turned 40.

If that doesn’t make you feel old enough, picture a family, kids clad in pajamas, piling into a station wagon and cruising to the drive-in.

It all happened here Thursday, where Foxwoods Resort Casino launched four straight nights of "Harry Potter" movies on the bespectacled wizard’s purported birthday, part of its “A Night Out at the Drive-In” series, which is scheduled to continue through the end of October.

Foxwoods launched the series July 2, transforming a little-used parking lot on Route 2 just north of the casino into a drive-in movie operation. It’s providing the kind of outdoor, family entertainment experience that’s suited to the age of coronavirus.

“Brainstorming on fun, safe ways for our guests to have some outdoor activity,” Foxwoods settled on “a concept that’s been around for many years,” said Monique Sebastian, the casino’s vice president of entertainment and entertainment marketing. “We have tremendous land opportunities.”

She recalled that the drive-in site hosted a rock festival in 2016, an event that drew some 12,000 people.

Configured for drive-in movies, the lot can handle a little more than 100 appropriately spaced vehicles. Nearly 40 of them were parked for Thursday’s 8:45 p.m. screening of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” fewer than the 50 to 70 vehicles the drive-in nights have been averaging, according to Sebastian.

Overcast skies and some light rain hours earlier might have been a factor in limiting the turnout.

As a Foxwoods crew erected a 22-by-40 inflatable screen at the north end of the lot, moviegoers began arriving around 7:15, mostly in SUVs, minivans and the like, if not station wagons. A sound system blared, perhaps loud enough to be heard at The Fox Tower, the casino building seen rising in the distance at the opposite end of the tree-ringed lot.

If the sound system wasn’t enough, the audio also was available on an FM radio frequency. No one had to hang speakers from driver’s side windows.

MaryBeth Franco of East Lyme took up a position well back from the screen and helped her 10-year-old twins, Nate and Isabella, get ready for their first drive-in movie, which they’d view while seated in lawn chairs set up in the space next to the family’s SUV.

“I remember seeing ‘ET’ at a drive-in when I was little,” Franco said, summoning a much-loved 1982 release.

She said she told her kids that if they read the first "Harry Potter" book, she’d take them to see the movie version. Promise kept.

A row behind the Francos, Jason Dawson and his son, 5-year-old Lukas, were kicking around a soccer ball. Dawson, a disc jockey at Shrine, one of Foxwoods’ still-shuttered nightclubs, said he got the idea to try the drive-in when he saw the screen while driving by.

“It’s pretty cool,” he said. “I remember going as a kid. I think I saw ‘Snow White.’”

He said he’s been to the drive-in in Mansfield but knows of few, if any, others in the region. He was reminded of the one in Misquamicut.

Elsewhere in the lot, three teenagers from Chicopee, Mass., prepared to watch the movie from the bed of a pickup truck parked facing away from the screen. One of them, Nolan Florence, said he heard about the Foxwoods drive-in and wanted to check it out. Living in western Massachusetts, he said the only other drive-in options are “the Cape or Mansfield.”

Florence was joined by Brielle Los and her brother, Logan, who said they have a grandfather who “lives down the road” from Foxwoods in Hope Valley, R.I. Too young to gamble at casinos, they’re mostly acquainted with Foxwoods’ indoor shopping mall.

Another East Lyme mom, Tina Conlin, prepared for the movie with her 9-year-old triplets, Charlie, Amelia and Allison. Amelia was the one with a Harry Potter pillow.

“This is such a treat,” Conlin said. “A friend told me about seeing ‘Dumbo’ here last week and she said it was great. Easy in, easy out. Everything’s very organized.”

As summer continues and turns into fall, Foxwoods’ screenings will include more family fare but also some blockbusters, comedies and musicals. The upcoming titles released so far include “Raiders of the Lost Ark” on Aug. 6; “The Matrix,” Aug. 14; “Yesterday," Aug. 21; “A Star is Born,” Aug. 22; “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” Aug. 29, and “Apollo 13,” Sept. 11. 

“Beginning in September, we’ll eliminate Thursdays,” Sebastian said. “We’re thinking most kids will be returning to school. We’ll start the movies sooner because of the earlier sunsets, and in the middle of September into October we’ll be doing double features.”

Admission is $25 per vehicle as well as a $15 “environmental fee” that Sebastian said helps cover the cost of the coronavirus precautions Foxwoods has taken, including providing sanitizing supplies and protective gear for employees. Anyone who shows up at the drive-in without a mask will be provided with a disposable one, she said.

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