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Disney World, SeaWorld, and Universal Will Bounce Back

By Rick Munarriz – May 10, 2017 at 3:05AM

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Central Florida theme parks had a mixed showing during the most recent quarter, but the timing of the Easter holiday and new rides and attractions should turn things around this month.

It was a rough first three months of the 2017 calendar year for Central Florida's leading theme parks, but things should start to get better soon. SeaWorld Entertainment (SEAS 1.10%) reported sluggish attendance trends on Tuesday. Comcast (CMCSA -0.14%) had a slightly better but still problematic take on its Universal Orlando resort late last month. And Disney (DIS -1.83%) bucked the trend with positive attendance news, a welcome break after posting declines in three of the four previous quarters. The timing of the Easter holiday left its mark during the first quarter, but the year-over-year comparisons will get dramatically better during the current quarter.

SeaWorld was the worst of the lot, with attendance plunging 14.9% during the quarter. Continuing weakness in drawing Latin American tourists given the turmoil in the region and construction at SeaWorld San Diego weighed on results, resulting in the theme-park operator's biggest percentage drop in attendance as a public company.

Comcast held up relatively better, with revenue up 9% for the quarter. It didn't break out its actual figures for Universal Orlando, but with ticket prices sharply higher now than they were a year earlier, a new hotel in Florida, and -- more importantly -- a 60% spike in attendance at Universal Studios Hollywood following last April's opening of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in that park, it's fair to say that Universal Orlando's turnstile clicks were weak. 

Disney is the only one to specifically spell out that attendance increased -- up 4% for its domestic parks -- but it had a unique tailwind in its arsenal. Its fiscal second quarter began on Jan. 1 this year, enough to capture a good chunk of the holiday season traffic. A year earlier, the comparable period kicked off on Jan. 3. 

Toy Story Midway Mania at Disney's Hollywood Studios in Florida.

Image source: Disney.

Believing in the Easter bunny

The two-week Easter holiday is a pretty potent time for theme parks, and the significance of having the school break take place in mid-April this year as opposed to March last year is huge. As shocking as it may seem for SeaWorld to post a nearly 15% plunge in attendance through the first three months of the calendar year, the even more shocking admission is that attendance was flat year to date by the end of April. SeaWorld made up for an entire quarter of double-digit declines in a single month. 

It's easier to explain the phenomenon when one considers that SeaWorld's first quarter is seasonally weak. A couple of its parks aren't open year-round, and some of the water parks aren't exactly inviting when the weather starts to dip. Just 15% of SeaWorld's attendance last year was generated during the first quarter, and it will probably be closer to 13% this time around.

The timing of a big school break has more of an impact now during the seasonally sleepy part of the operating calendar than it does during the second and third quarters of the year. How else can you explain it that Comcast's Universal Studios Hollywood pushed out a 60% surge in attendance during the first quarter just on the addition of a new section to the park?

The current quarter will be a lot better, even if the timing of the Easter holiday won't be as beneficial in terms of percentage growth as it was detrimental during the March quarter. This also promises to be a big month as Comcast opens Volcano Bay -- billed as Universal Orlando's third theme park -- and Disney counters with Pandora -- The World of Avatar. SeaWorld Orlando is offering a virtual-reality experience on its oldest coaster, a tweak that's tame by comparison but all operators should benefit from a rise in tourist activity this summer.

Rick Munarriz owns shares of SeaWorld Entertainment and Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Walt Disney. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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