One startling visual demonstrates how much drive-in movie theaters have changed since their '50s/'60s heyday: Most cars at Vali-Hi Drive-In are parked the wrong way.

As you pull into the Lake Elmo theater, you may feel the same panic as when you drive the wrong way down a one-way street, but don't fret. The vehicles facing away from the screen know what they're doing. Most people watch not from their car seats but lying down in the backs of SUVs and pickup trucks or from air mattresses atop their cars.

A diverse, 20-something crowd has remade the drive-in, turning it into a party that includes a triple feature, yes, but also a lot of fun before the movies begin at dusk. The preshow vibe is the main reason to come, said Gabe Timberlake of Woodbury, who attended with wife Anna, lab/husky mix Lily and many, many pillows.

Part of the vibe on a Friday last month came courtesy of Nicole and Tyler Solie of Brooklyn Center and their friend Saryna Sheppard of Prior Lake. They were fourth in line that day, arriving around 4:45 p.m., 75 minutes before the doors opened and five hours before the movies began. Tyler, who brought a sound system, was the unofficial DJ. And he took requests.

"I do play music loud, and sometimes people don't like it," admitted Tyler, who has been coming to Vali-Hi a few times a year since he was a kid (this night, it was to celebrate Nicole's and Saryna's birthdays).

"Last time, people came up to us and said, 'We have little kids. Can you please not play hip-hop?' " Nicole said. "So we screamed, 'Taylor Swift!' "

According to Sheppard, the key to preshow fun is being open to the people who park next to you. Some of those temporary neighbors had just joined her and Nicole for 10 minutes of line dancing, including the Cha-Cha Slide and the Cupid Shuffle. "If you're nice to people," Sheppard added, "sometimes they'll share with you."

The Solies and Sheppard sometimes bring a grill, but they didn't this night. They were in the minority. Grills appear to be the most popular accessory at Vali-Hi, especially in the first row, where they lined up on a grassy area near the huge screen, with beanbag games being played while burgers, kebabs and brats were grilled. (If you stand under the screen and look at the rows of people sitting in backward-parked vehicles, it resembles one of those Japanese capsule hotels).

Vali-Hi's busy concession stand serves food, including a $1 hot dog my friend Peter pronounced "sooooo good," but many people bring coolers.

Wade and Jessica Klein, of Rosemount, had one. They were super-friendly when I pulled in around 8 p.m., looking for a space to park. Jessica waved her arms to get my attention, directing me to the vacant spot in front of her, about 10 rows back from the screen. "How welcoming of her!" I thought as I pulled my Honda Civic in, only to look around and wonder, "Did she want me here because my car is so much shorter than the SUVs and pickup trucks that might have parked here and blocked her view?"

"That's exactly why we told you to park there!" said Jessica. The Kleins were there with her brother, Jayson Bauer of Hastings, whose truck bed boasted a cushy-looking mattress. They arrived around 6:45 p.m., which gave them plenty of time to set up their folding chairs, bug candles and cooler and get to Frisbee-ing. Jayson, who said they usually park (backwards) toward the rear, also was eager to try out a new toy.

"We bought Bluetooth speakers and I downloaded an AM app, so I'm curious to see how it will work," says Jayson.

Hearing the movie is an issue you may not have worried about if you haven't been to the drive-in lately (it had been four decades for me). The first few rows at Vali-Hi still have those old-timey metal speakers you clip to your car window, but most spaces do not. There are other options.

Some moviegoers turn their car keys to the accessory position to tune in the short-distance radio stations Vali-Hi uses to transmit sound (FM 90.1 is recommended), but that can run down your battery (Vali-Hi has jumper cables, and I saw a wrecker milling about when the last movie ended). You can bring a portable radio or Vali-Hi has loaners, but supplies are limited. Or you could try Bauer's method. We hurriedly downloaded three different radio apps but were unable to make them work, since Vali-Hi's "station" is not listed as an actual station. So we borrowed a radio, leaving a driver's license as collateral.

By the time the show started, moviegoers seemed to have expended enough energy to relax. Jessica Klein said lots of people stay only for the first, family-oriented film and, according to Tyler Solie, "Even if people try to stay for all three, you'll see a lot of people pulling out around 2 a.m."

Many pulled out long before that. Disconcertingly, but presumably to avoid disturbing neighbors, quite a few left without turning on their headlights (headlights are an issue — the car next to me got dinged by security because its occupants couldn't figure out how to use their radio without shining their headlights in the eyes of people behind them).

The third movie, "John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum," was by far the best of the night's offerings but few people saw it. Vali-Hi's approximately 800 spaces were not all full when the night began, but it was close, and I counted just 46 cars remaining when Keanu Reeves' titular hit man wasted his last opponent at 4:06 a.m.

By that time, I'd heard a couple of car alarms, watched a lightning storm in the distance, tracked the progress of the moon from behind my car to behind the screen, felt the temperature drop from 80 to 67 degrees, watched a couple of planes circle toward the airport, marveled as my friend guzzled three energy drinks in an attempt to stay awake (he mostly succeeded), delighted in an amazing breeze, relaxed my strict no-talking-at-the-movies rule (you're not bugging anyone if you do it in your car) and realized that the coolest aspect of going to the drive-in is all of those people doing the same thing in hundreds of different ways.

Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367