Early February used to be a safe time to hit up Central Florida's theme parks. The holiday-fueled families are back in school, operating hours get shorter, and outside of opportunistic locals and a few lingering snowbirds there has usually been plenty of elbow room at Disney's (NYSE:DIS) Disney World, Comcast's (NASDAQ:CMCSA) Universal Orlando, and SeaWorld Entertainment's (NYSE:SEAS) SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens Tamps.
The times are changing -- in a good way for shareholders, but possibly in a bad way for visitors who were hoping to get the year-round parks all to themselves this time of year. Festivals and seasonal events are packing the parks again, particularly on weekends, when locals have time to hit up the area attractions.
The eight dry parks owned by Disney, Comcast, and SeaWorld attracted a combined 83.5 million visitors in 2017, according to industry watcher Themed Entertainment Association. The eight parks are among the 12 most visited in the U.S., and if they're off to a strong start in 2019, it's a good bet the rest of the industry will be following suit this year.
The festivals for the rest of us
The annual Mardi Gras celebration is kicking off at Universal Orlando this weekend with concerts, over-the-top parade floats, and beard-tossing float riders drawing guests to the Comcast-owned resort. A couple of I-4 exits away, SeaWorld Orlando's Seven Seas Food Festival also rolled out this weekend, with The Fray performing last night and Sugar Ray taking to the stage tonight.
If Disney's hungry neighbors to the north are bringing foodies, drinkers, and music buffs to town, it's a safe bet that Mickey Mouse is a step ahead of them. The 2019 International Festival of the Arts -- celebrating all art forms, including culinary -- has been raising the bar on the festival scene since Jan. 18. Unlike many of its peer weekend festivals, Disney's festival at Epcot is offered up daily, but it's at its busiest on weekends as Floridians flock to the food, wine, music, and art offerings.
The theme-park industry was already rolling ahead of the late winter season's festival run. Disney's domestic theme parks are getting guests to spend 7% more per capita than they were a year ago. Comcast's theme-parks division just wrapped up its fiscal year, with revenue rising 4% for both its latest quarter and all of 2018. SeaWorld Entertainment has scored an even more impressive turnaround, with theme-park attendance rising by at least 8% in each of last year's first three quarters. The stock has nearly doubled over the past year.
Momentum is strong for the industry, and the growing popularity of festivals during a period that used to be the slow season is only helping to lift full-year results higher. There is no slow season for Florida theme parks anymore, and that's not necessarily a bad thing for an industry that's now justified in bankrolling new and better guest experiences.