Gated attractions across Central Florida's hotbed of theme parks have been getting back to business this month, and this week it will be SeaWorld Entertainment (NYSE:SEAS) unlocking its turnstiles after nearly three months of collecting rust. The operator of SeaWorld Orlando, Busch Gardens Tampa, and three adjacent water parks follows the reopening of Legoland Florida and Comcast's (NASDAQ:CMCS.A) Universal Orlando last week.

Unlike Legoland and Universal, SeaWorld is requiring guests to make reservations in an effort to control capacity -- a move that Disney (NYSE:DIS) expects to copy when it opens its Florida parks next month. SeaWorld Entertainment began accepting online reservations from pass and ticket holders on Monday. All five attractions will open on Thursday. It wasn't exactly a smooth launch to the reservation process for SeaWorld, and the stakes will naturally be much higher when Disney World gives it a shot. 

Alice in Wonderland with Mad Hatter and Rabbit in front of Disney World's Mad Tea Party ride.

Image source: Disney.

Reservations about reservations

There were more than a few hiccups when SeaWorld's reservation system launched on Monday morning. Annual pass holders who had tickets that expired during the pandemic-related shutdown -- but supposedly extended to account for the missing days -- were locked out. Pass holders trying to book some of the complimentary guest tickets that they receive each year were also out of luck with the new platform. Finally, we have annual pass holders who were temporarily upgraded to a higher tier and not able to square away upcoming visits to the new parks that are now available to them. In short, it was a bit of a mess. 

One can argue that a reservations system isn't really necessary for SeaWorld's parks. Legoland Florida and Comcast's Universal Orlando have been lightly attended through their first few days of operation. A lack of tourism activity, pandemic fears, and the challenge of kids and adults having to wear masks are keeping away even some of the locals longing for something to do. SeaWorld Entertainment knows that it will be a light turnout this summer. The parks that are typically open every day this time of year are closing for two weekdays a week. 

SeaWorld will eventually fix its launch-day glitches, but it also wouldn't be a surprise if it abandons the platform entirely. It will be a different story at Disney World given the high-profile nature of its theme parks and its limited capacity. Disney World's Magic Kingdom, after all, is the most visited theme park in the world. 

Second-mover advantage

One would think that Disney will have more than enough time to nail its park reservations tech. It has been managing its FastPass+ ride reservations system for years. However, Disney's online platform hasn't been at its best when there are popular marathon events or exclusive Disney store items hitting the market. A lot of people will want to be among the first to visit when Disney World's first two parks open on July 11, and with a month of lead time, the tourism market will be more fleshed out with out-of-towners.

Disney hasn't helped its case by canceling hotel, dining, and FastPass+ reservations through the summer. It's making it hard to count on a Disney World getaway this summer, and that could be by design as it realizes that the experience it offers will be suboptimal under the new normal. However, there will still be a lot of pressure for Disney World's new system for reserving a day at one of the resort's four theme parks. 

This could be a sobering event, as SeaWorld will eventually find out. You send out a bunch of party invitations with RSVP requests but no one shows up to the party. It could also hinder profits. Disney isn't likely to start the meter on annual pass holders while a reservations system is in place since slots are limited. We've been seeing this happen at Shanghai Disneyland since last month's restart. Disney also isn't likely to be able to sell Park Hopper tickets -- premium-priced daily admissions that include access to multiple parks -- if folks aren't guaranteed access between the four gated attractions.

There is so much that could go wrong with a new park reservation requirement and that could then throw a wrench into travel plans. Disney continues to be the class act among media stocks, but its theme parks business this summer will leave a lot to be desired.