Is Disney Still the Best Theme Park for Investors?

Disney is outperforming Seaworld with ease, but what about Comcast’s Universal Studios?

Mar 8, 2014 at 9:00AM

Magic Kingdom Night

If you're thinking about investing in a theme park, then your mind should immediately travel to the world's most popular theme park destination -- Orlando, Fla. Now that you have Orlando, Fla. on your mind, what the first place you think of? If you're like most people, then it would be Walt Disney's (NYSE:DIS) Walt Disney World Resort. Therefore, that should be the first company you research for a potential investment. 

You might be thinking: What about Universal Studios and SeaWorld Entertainment (NYSE:SEAS)?

Looking up at Disney
Based on the recent popularity of "Blackfish" -- a documentary about a killer whale named Tilikum and its tendency to harm humans due to stress -- SeaWorld isn't likely to be at the top of your investment list for theme parks. Even if the popularity of "Blackfish" doesn't concern you, consider that SeaWorld is trading at 54 times earnings, whereas Disney is trading at just 22 times earnings. And while SeaWorld is more diversified than people think, it's not nearly as diversified as Disney.

Adding to SeaWorld's woes, a dolphin bit a 9-year-old girl on the hand on Feb. 22. The mother of the girl attempted to free her daughter, but to no avail. A trainer had to rush over to assist and free the girl.

Jeff Kerr, general counsel to PETA, stated: "It's stressful enough for far-ranging dolphins to be locked up in SeaWorld's tiny tanks, but forcing them to interact with visitors is downright dangerous. SeaWorld's 'Dolphin Cove' is another example of how the park's main priority is profit, not the welfare of the animals or the safety of its guests."

It's beginning to look like one incident after the other for SeaWorld, and the public is beginning to lose patience.

If you look at SeaWorld's third-quarter performance, you might be impressed. It delivered record revenue of $538.4 million and net income  of $120.2 million, but these records were primarily driven by ticket price increases, not attendance. In fact, attendance declined 3.6% in the third quarter year over year, following a 9.5% decline in the second quarter. This might seem like a sequential improvement, and it is, but keep in mind that comparing the summer to the spring for theme parks is akin to comparing apples and oranges. 

While the Orlando Theme Park results aren't in yet, according to TEA and AECOM, Disney dominated the Orlando theme park scene in 2012. And there's little reason this would have changed. Disney owned the top four spots for traffic: Magic Kingdom (17.5 million visitors), Epcot (11 million visitors), Animal Kingdom (9.9 million visitors), and Hollywood Studios (9.9 million visitors). That's a dominating performance. 

Comcast's (NASDAQ: CMCSA) Islands of Adventure (7.9 million visitors) and Universal Studios (5.9 million visitors) were next on the list. SeaWorld's namesake brand (5.3 million visitors) and its Busch Gardens Tampa park (4.3 million visitors) bottomed out the list for Orlando's major theme parks.

Rising ticket prices
Comcast's Universal Studios just increased its one-day ticket price for adults and children 10 or older to $96 from $92. Disney also recently raised its prices to $99 from $95 per day.

The $4 difference in admission between the two parks isn't likely to lead to lost ticket sales for Disney. It's still the happiest place on earth, at least as far as traveling families are concerned.

Universal Studios offers a park-to-park pass for an additional $40. This is less than Disney's $60 park-hopper pass, but the park hopper allows you to visit four parks, not two.

If that's not enough information for you, then consider public opinion.

Public chooses Orlando's theme park favorite
USA Today recently ran a survey, asking which Florida theme park offers the most bang for the buck. The results probably won't surprise you.

Walt Disney World took first place with 30% of the vote. Busch Gardens, Universal Islands of Adventure, and Universal Studios Orlando all tied for second place with 20% of the vote. SeaWorld Orlando only received 10% of the vote.

Innovative leader
Disney doesn't want to just maintain its lead; it wants to expand it. Disney's MyMagic + was tested in the summer of 2013 with success. You can now touch with your fingertip and tap with your wristband to enter the park as opposed to going through a turnstile, which led to slow-moving lines.

Travelers can really maximize their time by going to MyDisneyExperience.com and signing up for a wristband, then booking three attractions that top their priority list. These are virtual reservations in which travelers have up to one hour to arrive. This innovation is expected to lead to faster service.

The bottom line
Disney is seeing strong demand, which allows it to continuously increase prices. On top of that, its recent innovations and strong branding (think of Frozen's theme-park potential) should only lead to sustainable traffic.

In regards to prices, Comcast's Universal Studios has followed a similar pattern, but Disney World is still rated higher by the public, it's more diversified, it has stronger brands, and it's innovating quicker.

While Comcast should be a fine investment over the long haul, Disney is still best of breed for entertainment. As far as SeaWorld goes, consider using caution due to public backlash. Please do your own research prior to making any investment decisions.

Disney rules theme parks, but who will dominate this market in the future? 
You know cable's going away. But do you know how to profit? There's $2.2 trillion out there to be had. Currently, cable grabs a big piece of it. That won't last. And when cable falters, three companies are poised to benefit. Click here for their names. Hint: They're not Netflix, Google, and Apple. 

Dan Moskowitz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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