Vali-Hi Drive-In Offers Throwback Fun in Lake Elmo

Jen Bertsch of Stillwater, her kids Stella and Auggie and their dog Larson enjoy a classic summertime experience.

Kids scurry between cars in their socks. Others perch on top of minivans, pillows stacked up around them. In hatchbacks—bungee-corded down slightly to keep views clear—blankets and toes stick out. Friends chat around still-hot grills, lawn chairs flanking cars and coolers.
There’s something nostalgic about the atmosphere at Vali-Hi Drive-In Theatre in Lake Elmo. The place often fills to 800-car capacity, so it’s almost a necessity to come early and linger until the first movie flickers to life on the gigantic screen. There’s no hurrying, no credit card machines and few smartphones. It’s a simple, happy mix of fresh summer air, the smell of hot dogs and slices of pizza, and first-run films.

“My father just loved movies,” says owner Robert O’Neil, who grew up with a projector at home and at one time, four local drive-ins in his family. Ask his favorite film, and he can’t even answer. “In 60 years, I haven’t bought a ticket!” he says.

When films start—around dusk every summer night, rain or shine—you’ll find him in a small projection room with a recliner, a pop and a pile of portable car battery chargers he lends out when people’s stereo usage outlasts their batteries. “Sometimes you’ll get all 10 coming and going,” says O’Neil, who’s come to view his simple role as less of a job and more of a calling of late. Because sitting on 22 acres of increasingly valuable suburban land, Vali-Hi is the last remaining drive-in in the Twin Cities metro, with others like it closing in the face of rising insurance and overhead costs. But despite the challenges of the seasonal business model, he’d have it no other way and hopes the drive-in will continue going strong for years to come.

“If I’d a had my druthers, I woulda been a cowboy. But there’s very little call for that,” says O’Neil. “Years ago, people would come find me to complain. Now it’s different. It’s almost a nightly occurrence for people to come say, ‘thank you for being here’ or ‘my parents used to bring me here, and now I’m bringing my kids. We love coming here.’ People are appreciative of this place. It gives me a tremendous amount of satisfaction, and it makes it all worth it.”

Jen Bertsch moved to Stillwater with her husband and two children four years ago. She says, “When I was a little kid, a couple—friends of my parents—would occasionally babysit the two youngest of the nine kids in our family. That would have been my brother and me. They’d sometimes pick us up in their station wagon and take us to a drive-in movie. We were dressed in our jammies. It was exciting as a kid to get to stay out late. I have great memories of those times.”

Last summer, Bertsch and her husband took their two kids, then ages 13 and 10, to Vali-Hi. “I wasn’t sure what to expect,” she says, noting some retro-type activities are experiencing a bit of a renaissance and she thought it might be crowded. “It was so cool. People were tailgating, grilling and having happy hour. You could tell some were veteran drive-in movie-goers with all the chairs, blankets and cushions,” she says.

Her children, more familiar with personal video devices, were intrigued by how it all worked. But the best part according to Bertsch was having the whole family piled into the back of their Honda Pilot with sleeping bags having a community experience. “It’s true Americana. Classic American fun,” she says. Another feature was about to begin when the Bertsch family decided to head home. “It was still packed. It was a low-cost, fun, family thing to do. We loved it.”

Here’s to another generation of great summertime memories!

How to Ace the Drive-in

Check the website for movie dates and titles. The theater is open seven days a week, May through Labor Day, plus weekends in April, September and October.

Pretend it’s 1966, and bring cash. Admission is $8.50 for adults, $1 for ages 6–12 and 5 and under are free. There’s an ATM on-site, but credit and debit cards won’t get you anywhere at the ticket booth.

The dog’s invited. Furry family members love hanging out, scoring a few stray popcorn kernels and snuggling up for the movies.

Come hungry. Carry-ins are allowed, and there’s a decked out concession stand serving up hot pizza, popcorn, nachos and candy. The line can get long—for beverages and subsequent bathroom runs—so plan accordingly.

Pack quarters. You’ll definitely want to try the old-school arcade games or get your crazy face on in the photobooth.

Tune your car radio to 90.1 for movie sound if you’re not close enough to the speakers. Movies start at dusk, and it’s always a triple-feature, so you might want to cancel your early-morning plans for the next day!