One of the most iconic dream makers at Walt Disney (NYSE:DIS) is moving on. Joe Rohde -- a 40-year veteran of the Walt Disney Imagineering team -- announced earlier this week that he was leaving the world's leading theme park operator. Rohde spearheaded the design of Disney's Animal Kingdom in Florida, the design of the Aulani Disney Vacation Club resort in Hawaii, the Guardians of the Galaxy makeover of California's Hollywood Tower of Terror thrill ride, and countless other bar-raising attractions.
Rohde is 65 and more than entitled to hang up his Mouseketeer cap and enjoy his golden years as a young and adventurous soul, but his explanation for moving on bears noting if you're a Disney shareholder or an investor in Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA), SeaWorld Entertainment (NYSE:SEAS), or any other player with some skin in the theme park game. In an Instagram post earlier this week, Rohde argues that "this strange quiet time seems like a great opportunity to slip away without too much disruption."
It may seem as if this "strange quiet time" that Rohde is talking about is simply the pandemic, but for Disney it means more than that. This is a company that plans its new additions years ahead of time. There are several new experiences currently being constructed that are expected to open in the next year or two. However, with Disney having recently scaled back on some of its previously announced additions in light of the COVID-19 slowdown and to a lesser extent the global recession, it wouldn't be a surprise to see a development lull at Disney's theme parks. With other parks also paring back their projects, it's fair to say that the industry will be feeling the pandemic pinch for a lot longer than the gated attractions were closed.
Theme park operators seem to be playing 2021 with house money. SeaWorld Entertainment was supposed to have new roller coasters open at most of its parks in 2020, but it pushed them all out to 2021. Most SeaWorld parks were closed for just three months, but the pandemic cost visitors at least a year of expansion.
The opening dates Disney World's EPCOT originally offered for its Space 220 galactic-themed restaurant and Ratatouille ride were winter 2019 and summer 2020, respectively. They are now being promoted as 2021 additions. Disney World turns 50 next October, but some of the new experiences that Disney announced as coming during the year-long celebration have been quietly scrubbed from its expansion pitches.
Comcast's Universal Orlando could be faring even worse. It had an entire theme park it was supposed to open in 2023. Epic Universe has been put on hold indefinitely, and a recent layoff filing shows that it has dismissed 373 salaried members of its creative team. You don't do that if you're pushing out a new park opening by a few months. Epic Universe may not even open in 2024 -- or at all -- at this point.
Comcast's Central Florida attractions opened less than three months after the pandemic shutdown. Disney World was up and running within four months. The development lull will be longer than that. Theme park operators are waiting for a vaccine, but they're also waiting for the recession to play itself out. In the meantime they're not taking any chances. Layoffs continue, even as the parks increase capacity and operating hours.
In short, Rohde's leaving Disney because there's a lot that he wants to do in the coming years. His timing just coincides with a time when Disney -- and its fellow theme park operators -- have a lot that they're afraid to commit to. Enjoy the new rides and attractions that are going up at Disney, Comcast, and SeaWorld right now, because a dark age may follow.