Disney (NYSE:DIS) and Comcast's (NASDAQ:CMCSA) Universal Studios canceled their popular and lucrative Halloween events at their Florida theme parks earlier this summer. Smaller rival SeaWorld Entertainment (NYSE:SEAS) sees an opportunity to stand out, but this trick may not offer much of a treat.
SeaWorld Entertainment announced on Monday that it will be offering a tweaked version of Halloween events at most of its parks later this year. With Disney World nixing Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party and Comcast following suit by calling off Halloween Horror Nights a few weeks later, the void is certainly there. Disney and Comcast felt that they couldn't pull off their seasonal fan-fave events within the constraints of the new normal. SeaWorld Entertainment is taking a different approach, but investors should temper their expectations.
Behind the mask
SeaWorld Entertainment is coming off a historically horrific quarter. Revenue plummeted 96% with its theme parks shuttered for most of the three-month period. It also confirmed that it's just phoning it in this year, pushing out to 2021 all four of the major roller coasters it was expected to open this spring and summer.
It's hard to blame SeaWorld for taking a mulligan here. Social distancing is dictating that all of the area theme parks limit their capacity, and it's just as well with the travel industry all but toast these days. But zigging when Disney and Comcast are zagging on Halloween isn't going to save the season for SeaWorld. Unlike Disney and Comcast, which make guests buy a ticket for their elaborate events, SeaWorld Orlando includes its relatively modest Halloween offerings at no additional costs for weekend visitors.
SeaWorld Orlando's Halloween Spooktacular is a low-key affair. There aren't at least 10 walk-through scare mazes like Comcast's Universal Orlando dreams up every year. There are trick-or-treat stations like Disney World offers, but it's not the handfuls of brand-name chocolate and other premium candies that the House of Mouse forks over during Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party. It's not a needle mover at SeaWorld Orlando, but that's not the only park hoping to woo visitors during the previously sleepy months of September and October.
SeaWorld's Busch Gardens Tampa may offer a more tasty proxy to Halloween Horror Nights with its Howl-O-Scream event, but it remains to be seen how modified that particular hard-ticket event will be. Since crowd levels are likely to continue to be capped as Florida tries to reel back COVID-19 case counts, it's not as if there's any chance of top-line growth relative to last year's seasonal showing.
You can't fault SeaWorld Entertainment for trying. If it can salvage one thing out of this rough year by introducing its Halloween offering to locals and tourists who make the Disney and Universal events annual traditions (and impressing them in the process), it will pay off in years to come. The battle for guests is always fierce in the competitive Central Florida theme park market, and the players will get even hungrier as the recession gnaws away at both the travel market and what locals can afford to pay for an afternoon of escapism.
Halloween is all about being something else for a change, and right now that finds SeaWorld Entertainment with a chance to lead a seasonal event category in which it's always been a distant bronze medalist.