Today's a big day in the theme park industry hotbed of Central Florida. SeaWorld Entertainment (NYSE:SEAS) is debuting the Sesame Street-themed redo of its kid-friendly area, complete with the marine life park's first afternoon parade. SeaWorld is hoping to build on the momentum set last year when it outpaced all its rivals with a nearly 9% increase in attendance. Merlin Entertainments' (LSE:MERL) Legoland Florida is opening The Lego Movie World, the largest expansion in the attraction's eight-year history. It's also coming off of a positive 2018 with attendance, revenue, and core earnings all up in the low- to mid-single digits.
Two of the area's smaller theme park operators deciding to butt heads on the same day with new experiences for young families may seem strange, but that's just the way things go down in Florida. It's not just today that will turn heads. Disney (NYSE:DIS) and Comcast's (NASDAQ:CMCSA) Universal Orlando have been bigger things in store for visitors this year. Theme park operators haven't released firm opening dates for all the new attractions that will be available in 2019, but let's go over a few other big dates -- besides today -- worth watching.
SeaWorld Orlando isn't the only theme park that SeaWorld Entertainment runs in Central Florida. Five of its dozen gated attractions are located within roughly an hour's drive from one another in the heart of the Sunshine State, but three of those are water parks. Busch Gardens Tampa is the other SeaWorld Entertainment theme park in Central Florida, and it will soon open the year's second-most anticipated roller coaster in the state.
Tigris will open in the spring as the state's tallest launch coaster, with a skyward catapult of 150 feet and speeds of up to 60 miles per hour. The track was completed last month, and trains have already been cycling through in test runs. Tigris will probably open in April, but since Busch Gardens hasn't offered up a public opening date, let's just go with May to play it safe.
The thrill ride isn't generating the same kind of buzz as other upcoming attractions, since similar versions of the coaster are already running at two other SeaWorld Entertainment parks and a couple of other amusement parks across the country. It's also a short ride with low capacity. Tigris' sibling Electric Eel helped spark a spike in visits to SeaWorld San Diego last year, but that park is light on thrills. In the scream machine-happy Busch Gardens Tampa, Tigris will quickly slide in as the third-, fourth-, or possibly fifth-most popular coaster in the park.
Comcast has been closing the attendance gap with Disney since the 2010 opening of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando. Attendance at Universal Orlando's two parks has roughly doubled in that time, and the latest addition to its J. K. Rowling-inspired universe will open just before the peak summertime crowds arrive in Central Florida.
Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure is a unique family-friendly coaster that will have outdoor and richly themed indoor elements. One of the more distinctive features is that the ride vehicle is a motorbike, giving riders the option of sitting either on the bike half or in the adjacent sidecar. Guests will launch forward and backward during the ride, coming across Potter creatures including centaurs, Cornish pixies, and Hagrid's three-headed guard dog Fluffy.
The only debut generating more buzz than the new coaster at Comcast's Universal Orlando is Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge. The first phase of the 14-acre expansion opens just as the peak summertime visitors are heading back to school, but the crowds are still expected to be massive for Disney World's biggest theme park addition in more than two decades.
Just one of the two new rides will open in late August. The more ambitious Rise of the Resistance will open later in the year, but the one that will be introduced this summer lets visitors pilot the Millennium Falcon through a simulated adventure.
Disney is opening an identical version of the land at the original Disneyland in California two months earlier, but that won't take much of the buzz away from Disney World's debut.
Disney and Comcast have other new important attractions set to open later this year, but they've been tightlipped with updates on them. Mickey and Minnie's Railway Adventure -- the first ride featuring Disney's flagship mouse -- is set to open at some point this year.
A few miles away, Universal Studios Florida has yet to discuss the "new live action experience" based on a Universal franchise. It's also set to open in 2019. Both new experiences will replace attractions -- the Great Movie Ride at Disney's Hollywood Studios and Terminator 2: 3-D Battle Across Time at Universal Studios Florida -- that were closed in 2017.
Every day matters
Theme parks have become a big difference maker for investors. Disney's theme parks segment has been its most consistent grower, and Comcast continues to see its Universal Studios attractions worldwide become bigger contributors to the cable and content giant's revenue mix. SeaWorld and Merlin naturally rely even more on the success of their theme parks.
This is going to be a busy year for the industry, and what happens in Central Florida is going to move the needle for the publicly traded players.