There will be more tricks than treats in Central Florida this Halloween season. Comcast's (CMCSA -0.25%) Universal Orlando announced on Friday that it's canceling this year's Halloween Horror Nights, the resort's signature premium-priced holiday event that takes place across several nights through September and October.

On the surface it's not a shocking move. Florida's COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are still climbing. Halloween Horror Nights is anchored by roughly 10 indoor scare mazes where social distancing was going to be nearly impossible. Rival Disney (DIS -0.12%) had already called off its more tame Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party five weeks earlier. However, Halloween Horror Nights means more to Universal Orlando than Disney's family-friendly fete does to House of Mouse. COVID-19 is stealing the lucrative Halloween season in Central Florida, and there's little that theme park operators can do about it.

Chance the clown with some fellow performers at a previous Halloween Horror Nights presentation.

Image source: Comcast.

Chance encounters

Disney World was quick to pull the plug on Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party. The event was starting in mid-August, so Disney didn't have the luxury of time to ride out the pandemic. Disney's event is highlighted by trick-or-treat stations, meet-and-greet opportunities with costumed characters, a nighttime parade, and an exclusive themed show. None of these things are taking place at Disney's Magic Kingdom since the resort opened two weeks ago, so it didn't make sense for Disney to dilute the experience this time around.

Comcast's resort is different. Halloween Horror Nights is a major money maker for Universal Orlando, attracting large after-hour crowds during the historically sleepy late summer and early autumn seasons.

You can tell that Comcast was holding off for as long as it could to pull the plug on the financially significant event. It was still selling select tickets for the event earlier this week, and it was prepping the merchandise store it makes available for day guests to the Universal Studios Florida theme park. This year's installment was going to be special, celebrating 30 years of the annual festivities.

Halloween is a big business for Comcast's theme parks. It's probably less of a surprise that it also cancelled Halloween Horror Nights at its original Universal Studios Hollywood attraction. The park there has yet to reopen as California has yet to give theme parks in that state the green light to resume operations. Back to Florida, Comcast has been building new hotels in an attempt to close the gap with Disney World.

Halloween Horror Nights is a differentiator. It goes where Disney can't feasibly go in triggering legitimate scares, and after 29 years it has grown into a cult favorite.  

Like Disney, Comcast won't be in financial ruin without its flagship Halloween event. Disney and Comcast are well-diversified media stocks with key businesses holding up just fine in the new operating climate. However, it's still jarring to see Halloween Horror Nights take a gap year.