Chris and Anna Vanderkoy aren't just fans of outdoor movies being shown in parks. They're connoisseurs. They have it down to a science. ¶ "You start with two Therm-a-Rest mattresses," Chris said of the self-inflating camping air mattresses. "Then you need two big pillows, mosquito spray and a long-sleeved shirt to put the mosquito spray on. A hat is a good idea, too, because you can put mosquito spray on the bill." ¶ They stake out a spot near the front where they can lie down and see the screen. Then they settle in for the evening, as they did for a screening last week of the Antonio Banderas drama "Take the Lead," which was being shown in Castillo Park on St. Paul's West Side.

"We do it all the time," Anna said. "On a nice night like this, it's better than sitting in a movie theater."

Along with saddle shoes, poodle skirts and TV dinners, drive-in movies have gone the way of all fads. But even though only two drive-ins still exist in the metro area -- the Cottage View and Vali-Hi -- Minnesotans aren't about to abandon an activity that provides an opportunity to spend time outside in the summer.

There has been an explosion of walk-in movies. Virtually any summer evening, you can find a movie playing outdoors somewhere in the Twin Cities. Both Minneapolis and St. Paul offer them in city parks, as do some suburbs. Restaurants show them on their rooftops.

"You can have your choice" of movies, said Chris Vanderkoy. "The first thing we do is download the schedules to see which one looks the most entertaining."

Nowhere is the skyrocketing interest more evident than in the offices of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. Although this summer Walker Art Center canceled its outdoor movie series, a high-profile program that had been drawing viewers to Loring Park for 33 years, the loss was just a blip on the overall scene, thanks to the exponential growth of the Park Board's "Movies in the Park" series.

Twenty movies were shown when it was launched two years ago. Last year, they showed 60.

"This year, it's 88," said Arik Rudolph, the program's coordinator. "As the word spread, the numbers have kept going up. We regularly get 200 to 400 people at the [Lake Harriet and Minnehaha] bandshell screenings. For the sing-along version of 'Grease' [shown at Lake Harriet over the July 4th weekend], we got 2,000 people."

The growth has come despite little advertising.

Rudolph works hard to ensure that the lineup covers a wide array of eras -- from classics ("The Sting," Tuesday at Minnehaha Park) to recent releases ("Avatar," Aug. 11, Powderhorn Park) -- and genres -- from family ("Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs," July 31, Hiawatha) to drama ("The Perfect Storm," Aug. 9, Kenwood) to sci-fi ("Invasion of the Body Snatchers," Aug. 21, Lake Calhoun).

Despite all that diligence, he thinks the series' popularity ultimately comes down to two basic appeals.

"It's free and it's outside," he said. "People in Minnesota are always looking for something they can do outside in the summer, especially on a beautiful summer evening."

A family affair

Most of the outdoor movies are designed around family time, said Michaela Orr, who helps oversee the movies in Castillo Park for the Riverview Economic Development Association.

"When I was young, my parents took us to drive-in movies," she said. "I don't remember the movies; I remember the family all being together. That's what we're trying for here, the same togetherness."

The Castillo Park events, which conclude Thursday with a screening of "Selena," begin with an art activity for the kids, segue into music and end with a movie. "It embraces different types of art," she explained. "There's participatory art, performance art and then visual arts."

The atmosphere is ultra laid-back. Members of the Humboldt High School cheerleading squad sell popcorn and soft drinks from a card table while youngsters race back and forth to the playground. When the Little League games in the two fields across the street end, players and parents drift over to join the crowd.

Debby Juarez relaxed on a blanket while daughters Kelsey, 11, and Nisa, 7, danced to the pre-movie music. They hadn't bothered to find out what the movie was going to be.

"They don't care; they just like to be here," she said of her girls. "This is better than a drive-in movie because the kids can run around and I don't have to worry about cars."

A few feet away, Pat Wanna had her two grandchildren already decked out in their pajamas.

"When my kids were young, this is the way I did it with them at drive-in movies," she explained. "That way, when you get home, you can put them straight to bed."

A few minutes of noodling on the Internet turns up all sorts of possibilities for outdoor movie fans. Mears Park in St. Paul shows a movie every Thursday evening through Aug. 26, and other parks in the city host occasional screenings. The Central Library in downtown St. Paul hosts Friday screenings in its Kellogg Boulevard Courtyard through Aug. 13. Boerboom Park in Osseo has a Tuesday night series that continues through Aug. 24.

Two restaurants in downtown Minneapolis host no-cover-charge screenings on their rooftops. Solera, 900 Hennepin Av. S., is showing movies Tuesdays and Wednesdays through Sept. 8. Screenings at Brit's Pub, 1110 Nicollet Mall, take place Mondays through Sept. 6.

You can even develop your own network of fellow movie buffs.

"You get to the point where you start seeing the same people," Chris Vanderkoy said. "We all just keep showing up in the same places."

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392