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This Could Be Disney World's Most Important Week Ever

By Rick Munarriz – Jul 6, 2020 at 10:40AM

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Major sports teams and theme park guests are arriving in central Florida just as COVID-19 cases are surging in the state. So much can go wrong. So much can go right.

History is filled with a lot of important dates for Walt Disney's (DIS 0.16%) industry-leading resort in central Florida. From Disney World's debut nearly 49 years ago to the addition of new parks, themed lands, hotels, and admissions technology, there are plenty of impressive entries in the timeline of the world's most visited theme park resort. Good luck finding one that will be as telltale to the media giant's prospects as this new week.

Pro basketball and soccer players will arrive at Disney World early this week, ahead of the resumption of their interrupted seasons in the resort's ESPN Wide World of Sports complex. Theme parks themselves will reopen for select guests later in the week, putting an end to the historic 117-day shutdown of the iconic gated attractions. There are so many things that can go wrong in this scenario. Thankfully there are also so many things that can go right. 

Disney World's Magic Kingdom castle at dusk.

Image source: Disney World.

Nothing but net

The resumption of the NBA and MLS seasons is going to either burn Disney or exalt it as a savior of professional sports. The leagues have established protocols if a few players contract COVID-19 inside the Disney "bubble," but things can spiral out of control if a widespread outbreak takes place. Disney is counting on smooth sailing for both leagues to increase brand awareness of both its sports complex and resort in general. This scenario can backfire quickly if Disney is seen as a hotbed of transmission. 

An outbreak among athletes will tarnish Disney World's reputation as a safe place for family fun. That even could quickly turn this from a genius decision to save Disney World, Disney's majority-owned ESPN, and the leagues themselves into an unmitigated disaster.

The phased reopening of Disney World's theme parks later this week will also set an important tone. Pass holder previews will take place on Thursday and Friday at the Magic Kingdom and Disney's Animal Kingdom. The two parks will then officially reopen on Saturday morning. The resort's two other theme parks will follow early next week.

Disney has had nearly four months to prepare for the reopening, a lot more time than local rivals that unlocked their turnstiles to guests roughly a month ago. There are safeguard checks and social distancing measures that will cap the possibility of near-term profitability, but with the shuttered resort also costing Disney money, a return to the new normal makes sense. 

The timing isn't ideal. Florida cases have been surging in recent weeks. Hospitalizations are spiking, even though death rates -- for now -- remain well below the pandemic's peak springtime levels. Disney waiting more than four weeks longer than the competition to reopen afforded it the opportunity to study the best practices of the competition. It also gave the very limited tourism market in what will be a lost summer time to gel. As a well-diversified media giant, Disney was able to wait nearly four months to get going again, knowing that it's still making money on other fronts. 

Disney is about to do something great or something horrific this week. There is no middle ground here. The center slopes down to both extremes, and history will praise or blame Disney for what happens next.

Rick Munarriz owns shares of Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Walt Disney 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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