This is a big week for Disney (NYSE:DIS), Universal parent Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA), and SeaWorld Entertainment (NYSE:SEAS) in Florida. The state began accepting submissions for reopening plans from theme park operators on Monday, and with the Sunshine State gradually advancing through its phased recovery efforts, it's just a matter of time before turnstiles start clicking again.

The groundwork is literally being laid out in preparation for the inevitable restart. Comcast's Universal Orlando is already placing social distancing stickers on the floor of its theme park entrances to keep families apart when it is allowed to reopen. Disney World came to terms with its unions late last week on the conditions for their return to work. SeaWorld Orlando hasn't been tipping its hand as to when it will reopen, but with the stock up 133% since bottoming out two months ago, the expectations are starting to surface.

Mickey and Minnie on a float during an afternoon parade at the Magic Kingdom.

Image source: Disney.

Time to ride

A lot of Central Florida's economy is riding on the reopening of its iconic gated attractions, but there are more questions than answers. When will they reopen? How will they reopen? How long will it take for attendance to return to pre-pandemic levels?

Theme parks might open as early as June, and with all of the labor negotiations and safeguards prep work taking place, it would be a shock if they aren't back in business come July. The rub is that it's not up to them. The decision isn't even up to the state. Florida is now more than two weeks into its phased reopening, and the cadence of the economic recovery rests on the flow of new cases. New COVID-19 cases in the state peaked in early April before declining for four consecutive weeks. Infection counts are inching higher again, but still well below last month's peak levels. If the level of new outbreaks keeps trending higher, it may be hard to give park operators the green light, especially since it will be difficult to put that genie back in the bottle. Taking three months to reopen an industry is bad, but shutting it down again a couple of weeks later would be disastrous. 

How the parks will go about the reopening process remains to be seen. The operators generally accept that it will have to consist of requiring masks and possibly temperature checks on the way in. There will likely be a cap on daily guest counts, and that's where each operator may take a different approach. Disney is using an online reservation system for Shanghai Disneyland that opened last week, but that also means that it can't start the billing clock on its annual pass holders until those attendance restrictions are eased. One rumor is that Disney World will initially open only to single-day ticket buyers, allowing annual pass holders to buy those admissions at a discount. Hard reservation caps on day guests and pass holders would free Disney to reopen its resort hotels, prioritizing access for its most lucrative visitors. No matter what Disney decides, there will be social media outrage. 

Disney, Comcast, and SeaWorld won't be as profitable with their theme park operations as they used to be anytime soon. With foreign and in some cases even domestic travel restrictions in place, it's not as if crowd levels will be an issue even with reduced capacity requirements. Mask restrictions will keep some away. Older guests and other at-risk groups may also steer clear on health concerns. There's also naturally the spike in unemployment and the inevitable recession that will keep guest flows in check. It won't be business as usual for a long time, but every question will eventually find its answer. Investors will want to keep their expectations in check for now.