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Will Disney World and Universal Orlando Ever Be the Same?

By Rick Munarriz – May 15, 2020 at 11:55AM

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Comcast's Universal Orlando Resort opened its CityWalk complex on Thursday, and Disney World is following suit. Things will be very different on your next visit.

Thursday afternoon wasn't business as usual for Comcast's (CMCSA 0.78%) Universal Orlando Resort. The Central Florida theme park resort has been closed for two months, but it did reopen parts of CityWalk, the shopping, dining, and entertainment complex that connects its parking garages to its still-shuttered gated attractions. The handful of establishments will continue to open from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. daily. The Walt Disney Company (DIS 0.81%) will reopen Disney Springs at Disney World -- also in phases -- starting next week.

The first day of business since mid-March wasn't ideal at CityWalk. Field reports have most visitors abiding by social distancing and face mask requirements, but the first wave of guests consisted mostly of bloggers and cabin fever-saddled locals who seemed more interested in planting the flag than spending money. There were lines to get into the few stores open, but mostly for folks recording walkthroughs, rather than hitting the register with items to buy. There were more people taking selfies than eating at the restaurants or bellying up to the bar. In short, there were more shots taken than shots purchased.

A tourist stands in front of the Universal globe logo at Universal Orlando.

Image source: Comcast.

The new normal

The flagship gated attractions don't appear ready to open anytime soon. Disney World just canceled hotel reservations through the first week of June, and no new bookings are being scheduled until July. The theme parks could be just weeks away from opening if Florida's COVID-19 cases don't spike through the first phase of the state's economic reawakening, but we could be months away -- if not longer -- if the pandemic isn't reasonably contained.

We are still seeing the necessary steps being taken for an eventual reopening. Disney World came to terms with the union representing roughly 43,000 front-line workers on Thursday. When the parks do unlock their turnstiles, the new agreement calls for temperature checks and masks for all guests and workers as well as plastic barriers and touchless transactions at the registers. Disney cast members who contract COVID-19 will receive paid time off to quarantine. 

This will be the new normal at least for the first few weeks -- and possibly months -- of operation for the industry. Disney rolled out similar safeguards along with tightly capped guest counts when Shanghai Disneyland reopened on Monday in China.

It will take time for the theme park operators to return to the kind of business they were generating. Many potential visitors will balk at the entrance requirements or simply stay away to keep their chances of contracting the coronavirus in check. With the economy tanking, obviously there will be fewer people who can afford a trip to Disney World or Universal Orlando. The international flow of tourists that is instrumental to the larger players in the industry won't return for at least a couple of years. Thursday was the first step of a long journey, but a first step nonetheless. 

Rick Munarriz owns shares of 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 July 2020 $115 calls on Walt Disney. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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