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Disney World's Top Rival Finally Gets Realistic

By Rick Munarriz – Apr 10, 2020 at 12:00PM

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Comcast's Universal Studios pushes out the opening of its movie-themed parks until June at the earliest.

Theme park operators in Florida have been conceding that they won't be opening their gated attractions anytime soon. It's been two weeks since Disney (DIS 3.53%) and SeaWorld Entertainment (SEAS 6.79%) pushed out the initially ambitious reopening dates for their Central Florida theme parks. They remain closed indefinitely.

Comcast's (CMCSA 1.43%) Universal Orlando had been publicly married to an April 20 reopening day since closing down in mid-March. It finally balked on Thursday afternoon, pushing the restart of its expanding resort until June at the earliest. Comcast's update now states that the resort will remain temporarily closed through "at least" May 31, an important addition to the language since it could be June, July, or whenever the coast is clear at the other end of this coronavirus epidemic. 

A Marilyn Monroe lookalike and dancers entertain guests at Universal Studios Florida.

At Universal Studios Orlando. Image source: Comcast.

Whoa! is me

These are unprecedented times for the theme park industry in Florida, which has never experienced more than a day or two of closures at a time for weather-related or security events. We're now talking about at least two and a half months of downtime, and that means more than just lost revenue and issuing refunds. Momentum is a tricky thing to regain once it's squandered, and it's going to be a long road back for Disney, SeaWorld, and Comcast even after guests start gliding through the turnstiles again.

Comcast had brought in Saturday Night Live lifer Kenan Thompson to helm the "Let Yourself Woah" marketing campaign in mid-February. The ads highlight the unexpected surprises at the Universal parks, but "whoa" (when spelled properly) is also a command for a horse or person to stop or slow down -- and that's exactly what's happening to its theme parks right now. 

Theme parks aren't as important to Comcast as they are for Disney and SeaWorld, accounting for a little more than 5% of its total revenue and a 7% slice of the adjusted EBITDA. Disney's theme parks segment accounts for more than two-thirds of the media giant's business, and SeaWorld is all in when it comes to its themed attractions.

Comcast's core business remains being the country's leading provider of broadband and cable television services, specialties that will only grow in this "stay at home" climate. Comcast has held up better than Disney and SeaWorld, two rivals that also just happen to have replaced their CEOs in recent weeks. 

Comcast might have the least to lose by closing its theme parks, but all of the players are going to struggle until they get rolling again. June 1 doesn't sound so bad; it would given Universal Orlando the entirety of the peak summer travel season to win thrill seekers back to its resort.

There are still two big problems with this comeback scenario. The first is that with unemployment rates spiking and the economy derailing, there isn't going to be much of a summer season for the industry. The second (and bigger) problem is that even a June reopening could prove optimistic. An analyst downgraded shares of Disney this week, forecasting that the parks won't open until at least October. Chains might also have to curb capacity after reopening until COVID-19 is truly vanquished or a vaccine hits the market.

A lot can change in the coming weeks and months, and the honest answer is that no one has any idea when the world's leading theme parks will begin entertaining guests again.

Rick Munarriz owns shares of SeaWorld Entertainment and Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Walt Disney. The Motley Fool recommends Comcast and recommends the following options: long January 2021 $60 calls on Walt Disney and short April 2020 $135 calls on Walt Disney. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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Stocks Mentioned

The Walt Disney Company Stock Quote
The Walt Disney Company
$100.56 (3.53%) $3.43
Comcast Corporation Stock Quote
Comcast Corporation
$30.80 (1.43%) $0.43
SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc. Stock Quote
SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc.
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