A fierce windstorm is barreling toward the Florida coast, and that's forcing the state's leading theme parks to lock their turnstiles and turn away guests. Walt Disney (NYSE:DIS) is closing all of its Disney World theme parks at 5 p.m. EDT on Thursday, and the gated attractions will remain closed on Friday. Comcast's (NASDAQ:CMCSA) Universal Orlando is following suit with the same closing times. SeaWorld Entertainment (NYSE:SEAS) shuttered its SeaWorld Orlando at 2 p.m. EDT on Thursday, and it will not open on Friday.
Hurricane Matthew means business, and while the impact of the ferocious storm remains to be seen, the theme park operators know that it's better to be safe than sorry. A lot of money stands to be lost as a result of the closures, but more goes into these decisions than simply lost revenue.
There's never a good time for downtime, but the closures come at a bad time for theme park operators. October used to be a sleepy season when conventioneers and international visitors would offset some of the shortfall from locals and families who couldn't be there on school days. However, Halloween has turned October, and even September, into a lucrative time to be a theme park operator.
Disney kicked off Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party on Sept. 2, with guests paying at least $72 each to enjoy a night of trick-or-treating, themed shows, and rides with minimal lines. Comcast's Universal Studios Florida rolled out Halloween Horror Nights two weeks later, where guests pay even more for a night with nine haunted walk-through mazes and several scare zones. But with the storm looming, the Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party and Halloween Horror Nights hard-ticket events for Thursday and Friday have been canceled.
SeaWorld Orlando doesn't have the same kind of leverage to get park guests to pay extra for nightly Halloween events. It includes trick-or-treat stations on weekends in October for day guests. However, all three theme park operators are taking a hit while their signature parks are closed.
A rough start for the holiday quarter
Disney posted back-to-back quarters of attendance declines at Disney World to start the calendar year, and anecdotal evidence suggests that the parks weren't as busy this summer as they were last summer; this new quarter -- Disney's fiscal first quarter of 2017 -- could have been the period where it finally bounced back. SeaWorld Orlando also suffered a dip in attendance for the first half of 2016. Comcast's parks have held up better than its rivals, but growth has decelerated recently at Universal Orlando.
Closing the parks and calling off some premium-priced events will sting, and it's not just about the admissions being paid. Disney and Comcast have resort hotels where guests may clamor for at least partial refunds, and incoming guests may have challenges getting in as a result of airport closures.
Hurricane Matthew's devastation will be about much more than just a few theme park operators left smarting in early October. However, Disney, SeaWorld, and Comcast now have a scapegoat on which to pin any potential shortcomings, when they post financial results for the holiday quarter early next year.