It's not exactly business as usual at Central Florida's theme parks. Walt Disney (NYSE:DIS), Comcast's (NASDAQ:CMCSA) Universal Orlando, and SeaWorld Entertainment (NYSE:SEAS) have been welcoming guests to their gated attractions for months, but only one of them is close to operating at its pre-pandemic level.
SeaWorld Orlando is the only one of the three sticking to its traditional Halloween events this month. The marine life-themed park is also the only one that's still lighting up the sky with holiday fireworks. In a few weeks it will be the only major Orlando theme park operator to still be running its water park. Is this the year that SeaWorld finally starts to close the wide attendance and revenue gap with its two much larger rivals?
There are some good reasons for Disney and Comcast to be playing it safe in Central Florida. There are also some good reasons for the hungrier SeaWorld Entertainment to be going where its competition is deciding not to tread. Let's break the chess moves down.
Disney and Comcast knew that they wouldn't be relying on their big-ticket events for Halloween this season early in the planning process. Disney World canceled Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party in June, four weeks before its theme parks even started welcoming back guests. Comcast played along by calling off Halloween Horror Nights a month later. They were high-profile money makers with large crowds gathering for meet-and-greet opportunities, signature shows, and scare mazes. It was a bad look.
SeaWorld didn't flinch when it came to its Halloween Spooktacular. It was an easy decision, as it's a much less crowded affair that is held during the day with trick-or-treat stations to keep young families coming. The move to offer fireworks a few times over the summer -- and likely again as we head into the end of the year -- is also a no-brainer. Disney World fireworks attract tens of thousands of guests who congregate in the same area and then leave around the same time. It's a social distancing nightmare. SeaWorld Orlando never draws the kind of numbers that the House of Mouse attracts.
The water park situation is a bit more interesting. Disney World never reopened Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon. It wasn't until last month that it even offered up a timeline, setting March 7 of next year as the date in which it will open just one of the two watery attractions. Comcast's Universal Orlando did unlock the turnstiles at Volcano Bay with the rest of its gated attractions in early June, but it stunned the industry on Friday by announcing that it would be closing Volcano Bay next month. It will be back in operation by March 1 of next year or earlier.
The Nov. 2 shutdown of Volcano Bay is being called a "seasonal closure" but the young water park has never done that before. Water parks tend to hibernate over the winter across most of the country, but this is Florida: It's pretty much always water-park weather. The more likely explanation is that Universal Orlando will be performing maintenance at Volcano Bay, likely to make sure that the attractions are safer after a few ride-related injuries and even an electrical mishap in the past.
The reasons don't matter to SeaWorld Entertainment. It will keep guests slipping and sliding through Aquatica's water attractions and swimming with dolphins at the high-end Discovery Cove. It will gain the visitors that bathing suit-clad guests are craving and won't be able to get at Disney World or Universal until March.
SeaWorld Entertainment was already going to hold up better than Disney and Comcast because it relies more on locals anyway. The pandemic and recession have eaten away at the travel market. All three companies continue to lay off employees in the new normal, but SeaWorld hasn't had to close down on-site hotels the way that Disney and Comcast have given the light attendance levels. We'll find out in a few weeks how all three companies fared over the summer when quarterly financial results come out, but it wouldn't be a surprise to see SeaWorld fare the best on that front. It's hungry, and willing to take chances right now.