Stephens City is not a city but a town – a very small town (population less than 2,000 as best I can find) that’s part of Warren County. You’ll find it in Virginia’s beautiful Shenandoah area, a hop skip and a jump from the better known city of Winchester. Stephens City was originally named Stephensburgh and later called Newtown; many references to Newtown remain. There is quite a bit of historic value to the area as well as a proud connection to the local apple growing industry. We hit the road to spend a short weekend there and see the Family Drive-In.
On our way there to check out the Family Drive-In, we stopped just down the road at the famous Dinosaur Land roadside attraction in White Post! It’s an “educational” collection of fiberglass figures, some of which have been there as long as the mid-1960s. Admission is $5 for adults, $4 for kids – you pay in the gift shop and then pass through a creepy set of smiling trees to get to the “prehistoric forest.” Most of the figures include informative signs, although the information in some has since become quite outdated in light of more recent research.
The statues are pretty old and some are showing major signs of age. A cave near the front was obviously once a fountain – it wasn’t running when I was there, and the water below was a stagnant green – and a plesiosaur flounders helplessly on what’s left of a pool of water. With that said, this is a really cool collection that dino-enthusiast kids will love. Because Eric and I are super goofy, we had a ton of fun making silly poses with the dinosaurs and giggling at their expressions. Eric fondly noted that one of the carnivores looked an awful lot like Fonzie from Happy Days. And there’s plenty to see besides the dinos – other figures include a giant shark (with a mouth you can pose in), a huge 90-foot purple octopus, a wooly mammoth, a saber-toothed cat, and an enormous praying mantis. There’s even a giant King Kong statue (holding a tiny Cessna – his bi-plane was stolen too many times), whose hand you can pose in!
The attraction includes a kids’ party room which reportedly has Cro-Magnum man and woman statues inside. If you’re curious to see what some of the figures originally looked like, flip through the book that’s included with your admission. You’ll see the ground sloth statue once had fur and the plesiosaur statue once had teeth, and the lot had almost no trees. You’ll also see a picture of the owner’s granddaughters in super 60s clothes posing with some of the figures!
The gift shop is fun and includes tons and tons of Virginia souvenirs, everything from super cheap plastic dino goodies to hand-blown glass treasures. The entrance is a giant reptilian mouth with fangs that provides another photo op. Eric bought me a Dinosaur Land T-shirt, postcard, magnet, and goofy little “his and hers” goody bags. Unfortunately the stuffed dino selection was not up to my standards so I did not leave with any new stuffed animals to litter our apartment floor with. I’m sure Eric was just devastated by this.
We drove through Stephens City after we arrived, which honestly you can do in about five minutes. It’s lovely. The downtown area is the smallest I’ve ever seen and nice for a stroll. There aren’t many shops in that particular area that I could see, but there is a Newtown museum and, a little farther down the street, a large furniture store. We realized that we were in town in time for the Memorial Day festival. We saw a bunch of retired war medivacs parked on one lawn with a few men milling around; a sign explained there is a local enthusiasts club. We read that there would be fireworks and a parade later, but we sadly missed all of that as we were hungry and wanted to get to the drive-in early to get a good spot.
My allergies were bothering me from all the grass-mowing that had been going on next to Dinosaur Land, so we stopped in the local Food Lion to get some medicine. The parking lot was close to empty. Let me repeat: it was Memorial Day Weekend, and the parking lot was CLOSE TO EMPTY. No one was dashing to get hot dogs, hamburgers, beer, coolers and grills. I think there were maybe five cars in the whole lot! It was like that the whole weekend! Not only that, but what would’ve been a 10 to 15 minute drive at a minimum in my town took less than five here. Talk about a refreshing change of pace.
We ate dinner at Tippy’s Taco. For those of you who are unaware, Tippy’s is a small Virginia chain. There was once a Tippy’s in Fredericksburg when I was a child. It didn’t last terribly long, but my dad knew all he had to do to get me to agree to ride to town with him for errands was to promise a trip to Tippy’s. The food at this Tippy’s was okay. My burrito was HUGE (WAY too huge for any reasonable stomach to accommodate) and kind of bland. But our order of Tippy’s Nachos was crazy delicious, as was the Xenga dessert – fried tortillas filled with cheesecake and sprinkled with cinnamon. The restaurant was almost empty and everyone who came in after we did went straight to the adjacent bar! Our waitress was really sweet though.
The Family Drive-In is a must-visit if you ever stop in this area; in fact, it’s only a little over an hour’s drive from Northern Virginia, so you could possibly visit it from DC if you don’t mind driving back home after 1 AM. (We kind of did, so we crashed at the Comfort Inn.) First opened in June 1956, the theatre added a second screen in the back in the late 1980s and now shows double features on each screen. $7.50 per adult and $3.50 per child gets you two first run movies on the screen of your choice. Get there super early and you might even have a chance to park in the front row. Eric and I did and were able to sprawl on the grass on a blanket when we weren’t sitting in our camp chairs, drinking a soda and watching tons of kids playing on the playground, which is set up right in front of the first screen tower. As soon as it gets dark, the special messages and previews start playing followed by your movies. We watched Kung Fu Panda 2 and Thor. The affable owner makes announcements regularly and can be seen greeting guests and encouraging children to take pictures with the Captain Jack Sparrow impersonator. For movie time, use the speaker poles to listen (hook the speaker to your car window) or just tune to the given FM station to listen to the movie via your radio.
We ate the provided continental breakfast at the Holiday Inn before we left and finished off our visit with a super thick chocolate malt and vanilla soft-serve from local family-owned McCoy’s Dairy Bar. Then we took a walk around the downtown area to see what we could see, which was nothing, other than a preacher coming out of church with some church ladies and a group of teenagers walking around cleaning up what little trash was on the streets. Everyone we came across was very friendly.
A Special Note:
Drive-in movie theaters are really rare today for many reasons including encroaching development, increasing costs, and dwindling interest as air-conditioned indoor cinemas became more common several decades ago. Today they are enjoying a small comeback, but they really need your help to stay open! The Family Drive-in is no exception. By 2014, all theaters – including drive-ins – MUST switch to digital equipment to continue to show first-run movies (in other words – to stay in business!) And, most theatres make almost no money off of the tickets they sell but instead rely on your patronizing their snack bars. So please, when you visit a drive-in don’t bring your own food. Sample their delicious home-cooked goodies. You can find soda, candy, ice cream, crinkle fries, wings, BBQ sandwiches, hot dogs, ETC. at your drive-in for a fraction of what you’d pay at a “big name” theater. As a passionate fan of drive-ins I encourage you to check one out and support them wholeheartedly so we can keep enjoying them for years to come!
Travel Tip: The local business codes in many jurisdictions have been updated over the years to require that an outlet be installed every few feet in a commercial building. So if you’re on a road trip and need to charge a gadget but can’t do it in your car, look for a restaurant that looks like it was built in recent years. You can probably find a table right next to an outlet, sit and charge your whatever while you eat and relax.
Bonus Travel Tip: Want to get a real feel for the town you are visiting? Pick up a local newspaper. You may even be surprised by how different the headlines are from the ones that you are used to!
Getting to Stephens City: Use I-81. (The best way to get there from the north is to follow I-66 in the end and then take the 81 South exit toward Winchester.) Take exit 307 toward VA-277 and follow that till it hits Fairfax Pike, where you’ll make a left. Make a right shortly afterwards to hit Main Street! If you are a history buff, you will find a lot to love here – pay the Newtown museum on Main Street a visit, for starters. (See more about it here.)