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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

We all have a dream vacation, but we settle for an economic reality vacation. This week, NPR will bridge that gap by hunting down cheap thrills around the nation. We've assigned reporters to consider some classic holiday trips and then design their own frugal version. NPR's Robert Smith wanted to take his family to see "The Little Mermaid" on Broadway. When he saw the price he loaded up his Honda Civic and headed to the drive-in instead.

ROBERT SMITH: Since my assignment is to go to a drive-in-movie on the cheap, I've got bad news for the family: Somebody's got to get in the trunk. Any volunteers?

Unidentified Child #1: Nope.

Unidentified Child #2: No.

Unidentified Woman: No thanks.

SMITH: I guess it's me. Argh.

Unidentified Woman: Watch your head.

(Soundbite of banging)

(Soundbite of laughter)

SMITH: I only last two minutes. Turns out, I'm not that cheap.

(Soundbite of banging)

SMITH: Okay, okay that's it.

(Soundbite of banging)

SMITH: It's horrible, it's horrible. We've got to try plan B, honesty.

Unidentified Woman#2: How many?

SMITH: Two adults and two kids.

Unidentified Woman#2: That will be $20.

SMITH: Twenty dollars, there you go. Now I feel bad for trying to cheat the nice folks at the Cumberland Drive-In. The giant screen is tucked into the cornfields just outside of Newville, Pennsylvania and it vibes nostalgia. The playground at the base of the screen, the snack bar, even the old-timey announcements.

(Soundbite of announcement)

Unidentified Man: Good evening folks, and a hearty welcome to our drive-in theater. We've a wonderful evening's entertainment lined up for you. One that will provide several hours of pleasurable relaxation and diversion for you and your family.

SMITH: Too late. My daughters are already asleep in the back seat. But that's one of the beauties of a cheap thrill. If I had paid the $121 per seat for The Little Mermaid on Broadway, I'd be prying those cute eyes open right now. As it is, I can tilt the seat back and chill.

(Soundbite of announcement)

Unidentified Man: Did you fail to dress up for tonight's show? No tie? An old shirt and slacks? A housedress? Well, don't give it a thought. We're glad you came as you are.

SMITH: Big voice dude isn't kidding around. The drive-in is all about re-creating your home in a parking lot. People have brought recliners and tiki torches. Katy Fike is setting up her stereo system.

Ms. KATY FIKE: And the speakers even detach for surround sound, too.

SMITH: This is essential she says. Because the first film is Harry Potter. And since it's a long movie, Roxanne Dennis came prepared.

Ms. ROXANNE DENNIS: We brought fried chicken and macaroni cheese, lunch meat rolls. We've brought bananas and grapes. We brought three different kinds of cookies.

SMITH: You see, the drive-in isn't about being passively entertained.

Ms. DENNIS: And we brought cheese curls.

SMITH: You make your own fun here.

Ms. DENNIS: And pretzels and peanuts.

SMITH: Take a look around. Some boys are playing football under the big screen, teenagers are hogging the swing set, fireflies blinking in the trees - Harry Potter is almost an afterthought.

(Soundbite of a movie)

Unidentified Man #2: (unintelligible)

SMITH: To tell you the truth, I have no idea what's going on in this movie. But that's not a problem at the drive-in, because you can always wander over to the snack bar and peek into the projection booth. Jay Mowry is there. His father built this place in 1952, and he shows me the big, spinning, wheel of film -the size of a truck tire.

Mr. JAY MOWRY: It comes in big canisters, weighs a ton.

SMITH: Do any horrible, unethical people ever try to sneak in in the trunk?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SMITH: Does that ever happen really?

Mr. MOWRY: Oh, yes, it happens probably every night.

SMITH: Mowry tell me a secret. The movie companies take such a large percentage of the ticket price that it almost doesn't matter if people sneak in — as long as they spend their money at the concession stand. So as penance, I force myself to order a pulled pork sandwich, hot dog, French fries and a large soda.

Unidentified Woman#3: Ten dollars.

SMITH: I'll enjoy my delicious punishment back at the car.

Well, it's almost midnight and we are well into the second feature, my family's asleep, and we've spent about $30 for the entire evening. I did the math during the intermission, and it turns out it's about 12 cents a minute. Not bad. In fact, I've saved so much money, I can sneak out of here early.

At the Cumberland Drive Inn in Newville, Pennsylvania, I'm Robert Smith, NPR News.

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