DELLS BUCKET LIST #22 - Going behind-the-scenes of Big Sky Drive-In

Personally, nothing makes the movie experience more perfect than smelling the unmistakable, mouth-watering aroma of fresh, hot buttered popcorn. For my latest Dells Bucket List adventure, I got to relive one of my first jobs by having the opportunity to once again make the classic, movie watching snack.

Big Sky Drive-In is one of only ten drive-in movie theaters in the state of Wisconsin. Located just east of downtown Wisconsin Dells, Big Sky offers double features of first run movies nightly, May through September. Recently, I got to spend time with owner Mary Bork, who for the past thirty-three years has helped bring the outdoor, under the stars movie experience to tourists and area residents alike. 

Born in Green Bay, Wisconsin, Mary has worked in movie theaters for most of her life. Having jobs in the indoor theaters her parents owned in Arcadia and Neillsville while growing up, they later went into the outdoor movie business after buying what used to be called the Winnebago Drive-In in 1980, changing the name to Dells Drive-In. In 1984, after installing the second screen, they changed the name yet again to what is known today as Big Sky Drive-In.

Nestled in-between woods and farmland on thirty acres a mile outside of town, Mary told me that Big Sky can hold up to two-hundred and fifty vehicles. Having phased out the old standalone speakers, you can listen to the movie’s soundtrack either through your auto’s FM stereo, or rent one of their radios from the concession stand.

Big Sky recently underwent a major conversion from film to digital projection. While there is a program to help finance drive-ins with the transition, Mary told me she decided to shoulder the big cost on her own: “I’ll be paying for that for the next twenty years!” That said, she is happy with how everything has turned out so far: “The picture is a lot better, way clearer and brighter, so it’s really good.”
While getting a tour of the projection room, which her family was in the middle of insulating to help protect the new equipment, I learned I was the first outsider to see the new digital projection set-up. Mary explained that the digital system streamlined the whole process, doing away with the weekly hauling up of five or six big reels of film for each movie, to now just having to plug in an encrypted flash drive about the size of an old 8-track tape.

At dusk, Mary doesn’t have go up to the projection room to get things started anymore. Having rigged things specifically so she doesn’t have to go up the stairs, with a simple push of two buttons, one for each screen, the films now start up by themselves.

After watching Mary demonstrate the new projection process, we made our way down to the concession area. Decorated with a mix of charming handmade signs and collectible drive-in artifacts, it creates a nostalgic atmosphere of years gone by. There is even a working payphone that customers can still use.

Immediately upon entering, I was hit with the pleasant scent of popcorn popping, bringing me back to my own days of working at movie theaters. Not wanting to miss the opportunity to relive some of my old skills, I offered to try and make a batch. After adding a gallop of coconut oil, I dumped a large scoop of kernels topped with salt into the rotating kettle. A few minutes later, hot popcorn spilled out from the machine and all that was needed was some buttery topping to create the perfect moviegoing snack.

Big Sky Drive-In features two full-sized outdoor screens of double features, showing first run movies nightly. Bring the kids, bring the pets, bring the games, and they’ll provide the fun. Also be sure to try one of the famous Mamaburgers, made from a third-pound of ground chuck steak. For more information call 608-254-8025 or visit

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