It's been a busy holiday weekend at Central Florida's theme parks. Crowds and long lines are historically the norm in this industry over Labor Day weekend, but in this very unusual year after a very unusual summer, it has to feel good for Walt Disney (DIS -2.14%), Universal Orlando parent Comcast (CMCSA -1.10%), and SeaWorld Entertainment (SEAS -2.18%) to give the impression that they're succeeding.
All of Universal Orlando's theme parks had to turn guests away a couple of hours after opening on Saturday. They had hit their daily guest capacity levels, something that hasn't happened at Comcast's Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure since they reopened to visitors three months earlier. The same scenario also played out on Sunday. Social media reports out of SeaWorld Orlando and all four of Disney World's theme parks also played up substantial crowds, and long wait time for rides on their apps bear that out. At first glance, it may seem as if the industry is back to business as usual, but shareholders and theme park fans may not want to celebrate too soon.
The ride stuff
It's important to frame this weekend's success in the proper context. Universal Orlando parks filled up over the weekend, but all of the area attractions are operating on reduced capacity levels in an effort to encourage social distancing. The wait times for rides across all parks were high, but throughput is down substantially as vehicles are getting sanitized throughout the day in some cases, and all parks are spacing out passengers so a lot of empty seats figure in the hourly capacity mix.
There's also still no sign that the industry isn't retreating. Many employees have been furloughed since reopening. Several on-site hotels at Disney World and Universal Orlando remain closed, a strong indication that it's locals -- who spend far less on a day at the park than out-of-towners -- at the parks. Comcast's Universal Orlando temporarily closed six of its least popular attractions last month.
There are also longer-lasting implications. SeaWorld Entertainment isn't going to open any of the coasters it was supposed to introduce in 2020 until next year, and that will push out future expansion projects. Disney announced in last month's earnings call that capital expenditures for this fiscal year will be $700 million lower than last year, largely the handiwork of lower investments at its domestic parks and resorts as it delays and in some cases nixes future rides and resorts.
The pandemic's toll may be even heavier at Universal Orlando. Comcast announced earlier this year that it would halt construction of the Epic Universe theme park that was supposed to open in 2023. The gated attraction isn't lost forever, but it may wait until not just the eradication of COVID-19 but a turnaround to this thorny recession before getting that development back on track. In short, even 2024 may be optimistic at this point for the potentially bar-raising Universal Orlando park to open.
For now we can raise an "I survived" glass to the industry for a holiday weekend well done. No park is operating profitably, and a potential third spike in COVID-19 cases in the state could derail Central Florida's recovery. However, the appetite for theme park escapism is still alive -- and for now that will have to be enough.