Guests heading into Comcast's (NASDAQ:CMCSA) Universal Orlando theme park on Thursday may notice a couple of things have changed since their last visits. Park employees are no longer performing temperature checks on visitors, giving them one less screening to clear before getting to their fun.
Universal Orlando's theme parks have also adjusted their social distancing measures. Where before, guests were asked to stay six feet apart from one another. As of Thursday, patrons are only being asked to keep three feet apart, roughly in line with where the World Health Organization has been all along with its suggestion that folks stay just a meter apart.
Disney (NYSE:DIS) is also starting to ease back on some of the safety restrictions that it has had in place since reopening its Florida park last July. It will end temperature checks across the Disney World resort by the end of next week. Things aren't completely back to normal, though. Masks continue to be required at all Central Florida gated attractions unless eating or drinking while stationary. However, with vaccination rates improving and daily new COVID-19 case counts in the U.S. gradually declining, these changes make sense.
A whole new world
In April, the spotlight was on California for the theme park segments of Disney and Comcast, and rightfully so. Disneyland and Universal Studios Hollywood finally reopened last month after being shuttered for more than 13 months. That was a pretty big milestone, but there's still more at stake for both entertainment giants in Florida, where their theme park resorts are much larger and provide greater financial contributions to their parent companies. And given that Disneyland is currently limiting its theme park visits to California residents, it's understandable why shareholders and enthusiasts alike are shifting their attention back to Florida.
It remains to be seen if Disney World will follow its largest rival in cutting its social distancing metric in half. It's a bigger deal than you might think. Spacing guests six feet apart has been particularly challenging when it comes to queues. Some lines for Disney rides and even concessions find guests being snaked around the park and even into backstage areas.
The bigger financial implication is the potential increase in capacity that is possible if guests only need space to be three feet apart. Comcast's Universal Orlando routinely has to close its turnstiles -- for hours -- shortly after it opens for the day because it has hit its capacity. According to Disney World's last public comments, it is capping the number of park reservations (now required for entry) at 35% of each gated attraction's normal legal capacity.
With the start of peak summer travel season a month away, you can be sure that Disney, Comcast, and the smaller park operators want to welcome as many visitors as they can, as safely as possible. Disney is already in the process of reopening more of the restaurants and resort hotels that have been closed during the pandemic. Comcast is ready to open a new signature coaster attraction in Florida -- it concluded employee and annual pass holder previews for Jurassic World VelociCoaster earlier this week.
Mask requirements will be the last precautionary measure to go -- and don't look for that to happen completely anytime soon. Disney World recently relaxed its requirement that guests keep their masks on when taking photos at its parks, and at some point this summer, it's reasonable to expect it to allow guests to go maskless while outdoors. Concession sales would likely spike at that point. However, the requirement that guests remain masked while inside ride and show buildings will likely remain until the country reaches herd immunity and the COVID-19 crisis is largely contained.
The past year has been painful for the theme park industry, even if many travel and tourism stocks have already discounted the recovery. These baby steps toward normalcy are good in terms of giving park visitors a more pleasant experience, but they are even better for shareholders.