All but one of Florida's theme park resorts are now open, nearly three months after the industry shut down in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. SeaWorld Entertainment (NYSE:SEAS) became the latest operator when it opened all five of its gated attractions in Orlando and Tampa on Thursday morning.
Only industry bellwether Walt Disney (NYSE:DIS) is still swinging away in the on-deck circle before stepping up to the plate next month. Disney World will begin a phased reopening of its attractions on July 11 and will fully open all four of its theme parks by July 15.
The timing of the industry's reawakening is suboptimal. After weeks of subsiding, COVID-19 cases are on the rise in June. This will be a record week for new confirmed cases. The news isn't all grim. Broader testing finds the percentage of positive cases far below April's peak. Death rates also continue to run well below earlier highs. However, despite precautions to make the park-going experience as safe as possible, it's easy to wonder if Central Florida's hotbed of theme parks is opening too soon. It's a question that has to be burning in the minds of investors in the park operators -- as well as folks with positions in hotel operators, airline carriers, car rental agencies, and all the other businesses that lean on a healthy attractions industry to succeed.
As the turnstile turns
One can argue that I'm biased. I'm a theme park buff as well as a longtime Disney shareholder. I also have the perhaps dangerous distinction of being one of the few people to attend all three of the other major operators reopening events for guests.
- I was at Legoland Florida on June 1, the day it became the first major operator to reopen.
- I was at Universal Orlando on June 3, when it held its first preview event for pass holders before opening to the general public two days later.
- I was at SeaWorld Orlando on Thursday for the marine life-themed attraction's relaunch.
Temperature checks have been required at all three openings, and there was even a brief Q&A at Legoland Florida to ask if we had been in contact recently with anyone who had contracted COVID-19. At Legoland Florida masks are highly recommended but not required, but you need a face covering at Universal Orlando, SeaWorld, and (when it opens) Disney. Guests can remove their masks only while eating and drinking or at designated areas in parks that have relaxation zones set up for guests.
Capacity has been reduced at all attractions, and for the rides themselves. Guests are spaced out on larger ride vehicles, leaving many empty seats through every cycle. Some ride vehicles are also cleaned between uses. SeaWorld Orlando was sanitizing and wiping down all used coaster seats after every ride.
The experience is certainly not as enjoyable as it used to be before COVID-19, but there are plenty of silver linings within the necessary safeguards. Wearing a mask is not easy for folks who aren't used to that particular experience, and it will only get harder as the humid Florida summer gets cooking. However, even on the most intense thrill rides, the masks do stay on, and it's the last thing you're thinking about while on the ride. Crowds have also (as expected) been light, making many wait times for rides shorter than they have typically been, despite the reduction in hourly throughput. Investors in the theme park chains won't be happy with that last point, since it's doubtful that any operator is turning a profit right now, but it's a necessary step in the ramp-up process.
Many of the initial fears have also been overblown. The infrared temperature checks have been some of the most efficient and quick-moving queues one will ever experience at a theme park. No one is passing out from wearing a face covering, contrary to the oft-repeated warning on social media ahead of the industry's reopening.
This is going to be a lost summer for the industry. Between COVID-19 and a recession, it's going to be a hard draw before school years resume in some shape or form in the fall. However, right now it doesn't seem unsafe to be at a theme park taking extraordinary measures to keep the spread of coronavirus in check. I felt safer at any of the three theme park resorts than I did during a routine supermarket visit. I definitely felt more safe during any of my park visits than I would have been at a restaurant, barber shop, gym, or any of the businesses already open in Florida. It's an unfortunate time for an industry to reopen, as COVID-19 cases are spiking, but it's not likely to be a contributing factor in the problematic trend.