A couple of Central Florida theme parks have reopened this week after an 11-week disruption. Legoland Florida was the first major operator to open to the public on Monday. Comcast's (NASDAQ:CMCSA) Universal Orlando followed suit with its Friday-morning debut, though it had been open earlier in the week for employee and annual passholder previews.
The next major player to unlock its turnstiles will be SeaWorld Entertainment (NYSE:SEAS). The marine life-themed attractions operator will open its dry and water parks next Thursday. Disney (NYSE:DIS) will wrap up the restarts when it begins a phased reopening in mid-July. Universal Orlando is getting the jump on its larger rival, but a lot can happen between now and Disney's market reentry.
You must be this tall to ride the new normal
Face-covering requirements, temperature checks, and rain haven't kept people away from Universal Orlando this week. Even with a limited number of guests allowed in for the midweek previews, some still complained about long lines at the rides and restaurants.
Social distancing is forcing park operators to scale back on the number of guests that can typically experience an attraction. Every other row is kept empty on coaster trains and other multirow ride vehicles. Even with mobile ordering available at some food and beverage locations, the lines felt a lot longer than usual due to a combination of not having all concession stands open and folks clamoring for dining opportunities -- the one time that the mask-wearing requirement is relaxed.
Is wearing a protective covering over your nose and mouth strange on a thrill ride? Of course. I attended Wednesday's passholder preview at Universal Orlando, and donning a mask on The Incredible Hulk Coaster -- a fairly intense launched coaster with seven inversions and a peak speed of 67 miles per hour -- wasn't ideal. However, as soon as the coaster starts rolling, adrenaline starts to take over, and the last thing you're worrying about is your face covering.
Despite all of the earlier detractors of the mask requirements warning that the face coverings would fly off on rides or that folks would pass out while walking around given the restrictive air flows, it was just another day at the park. It's not exactly business as usual, but business as unusual is a stepping stone to normalcy.
Financially speaking, this won't be easy for the park operators. Limiting guest counts while at the same time increasing staff to enforce social distancing and enhanced sanitation standards is going to make it hard to turn a profit anytime soon. The parks are running on much shorter hours than usual this time of year, and SeaWorld is closing its parks on select weekdays later this month. Summer is typically peak travel season in Central Florida, but that won't be the case this year.
However, opening under less-than-ideal conditions isn't about achieving profitability overnight. For theme park operators, it's about getting employees back to work and restarting the meters on annual passes. A lot of the new rides and attractions that were supposed to be big draws at Disney World and SeaWorld parks probably won't even open this summer. Park operators are likely to take the same approach as movie studios in pushing off their planned springtime and summertime releases until later this year -- if not next summer -- when crowds are back at more acceptable levels.
This week is the first step in getting the industry's engine going again. The pandemic-related in-park hurdles, moribund state of travel, and recessionary fears will keep the profit potential in check this summer. It's business as unusual, and for now, that's better than nothing.